Sep 1, 2014
On July 17th, 1934, the truck drivers of Minneapolis began their third strike that year. It would go on to last six months and would mark the beginning of an important working class fight against the bosses.
From the moment the financial crisis of 1929 struck, the U.S. bourgeoisie tried to stop its profits from falling by shifting the entire weight of the crisis onto the backs of the working class. In 1933, at the crisis’s deepest point, one fourth of the working population was unemployed. Wages had declined by half in four years.
In Minneapolis, General Drivers Local 574 of the AFL International Brotherhood of Teamsters included a number of Trotskyist militants who had formed an organization in 1928 that later became the Socialist Workers Party.
Although the Local’s first strike, in February 1934, was limited to a single coal yard, it resulted in a victory. This accelerated the growth of the Local, increasing its membership from 75 to 3,000!
In the spring of 1934, Local 574 began an organizing drive that addressed all workers in the Minneapolis transportation industry regardless of craft distinction (truck drivers, delivery drivers, warehouse workers, taxi drivers, etc.) They also made an effort to organize women, with the most militant grouped in a union auxiliary. Then, they called a strike on May 16, 1934, against the wishes of the national Teamsters leadership.
These six days on strike saw hard fought battles against the cops and sheriff’s deputies, driven off the battlefield by the tactics of the striking workers. Minneapolis bosses were forced to back down, agreeing to double the wages of most drivers and recognizing Teamsters Local 574.
In reality, the struggle was only put on hold, since the bosses did not respect the accord they had signed. A huge demonstration was held on July 6th, followed by a meeting of 12,000 workers to the cry of, “Make Minneapolis a Union Town.” Workers elected a strike committee of 100 members, which included the leaders of the strike in May and other workers thrown up by the rank-and-file.
The new strike started July 17. From the beginning, the governor of Minnesota mobilized the National Guard for “the preservation of law and order,” and the bosses threatened to fire workers if they did not resume work within three days. On July 20, the police fired on the strikers, injuring 47 of them as well as a dozen onlookers. Two of the striking workers would die of their injuries in the following days.
This repression didn’t work. The strike spread to the city’s public transportation as part of the protest against police violence. Forty thousand people participated in a funeral march for Henry Ness, a truck driver killed by the police. A petition calling for the firing of the chief of police got 140,000 signatures. Every day, dozens of people came to offer their services to the strike committee, not just unionized workers. The strike newspaper, The Organizer, ran daily as a way to counter the pro-boss positions in the regular newspapers. Its print rose to 10,000 copies.
On July 26th, fearing an insurrection, the governor declared martial law. He deployed 4,000 soldiers around the city’s entrance points and declared strike pickets illegal. In the middle of the night, soldiers armed with machine guns encircled the strike headquarters and arrested the main leaders, as well as the injured workers recovering there and their doctor. They also searched the leaders’ homes.
From that point on, the pickets were no longer organized from one central headquarters, which was too easy a target for the National Guard. Instead they operated from a decentralized command. In light of the experience that rank-and-file workers had already acquired, this proved just as effective.
The government made numerous arrests for illegal strike activity and a military tribunal sentenced certain strikers to 90 days of forced labor. In spite of this, 40,000 workers attended a mass meeting on August 6th. During the course of the strike, 4,000 workers outside the transportation industry became unionized. The threat of a citywide general strike persuaded Roosevelt to push the local bosses to come to terms with Local 574.
The bosses ended up agreeing to extend the wage increases that the drivers had won in May to all workers in the transportation industry and to recognize Teamsters Local 574. This broke open the craft barriers kept in place by the bosses and the union bureaucrats. At the same time, the laundry workers of Minneapolis went on strike and managed to win a similar agreement. The bosses did not want to go through the experience of a head-on confrontation again.
Alongside these massive and victorious strikes in Minneapolis, 1934 would also see a major auto strike in Toledo, a dockworkers’ strike on the West Coast that ended in a general strike in San Francisco, and the first national strike of textile workers. The working class across the United States was fighting with renewed energy.
Not only would a part of the U.S. working class defend its standard of living from attacks, but it would impose wage increases on the U.S. bourgeoisie even while the capitalist economy was wracked with crisis.
But the impressive fighting spirit of U.S. workers in the 1930s did not result in a revolutionary political consciousness taking root. As a result, the union bureaucracies finally succeeded in controlling this vast movement.