The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The 1934 Minneapolis Strike

May 31, 1984

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes. The 1934 struggle in Minneapolis marked the beginning of a drive which transformed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters within 5 years from a moribund craft union of 75,000 members into an industrial union of nearly half a million. Together with the general strikes in Toledo and San Francisco of that year, the Minneapolis strikes spearheaded the struggle of the American working class for industrial unions.

The struggle in Minneapolis, like the movement of the whole working class during the years of the mid to the late 1930’s, demonstrated the power of the working class when it is mobilized. The determination of the workers to have their unions, the militancy of their fight, their willingness to ignore the bounds of bourgeois legality, and the depth of their mobilization allowed the American working class to break the historical resistance of the American bourgeoisie to industrial unions.

And yet, the bureaucratized unions which issued from this struggle, the ways in which eventually they were used against the workers who had formed them, also demonstrate the limits when the struggle of the working class remains at the unionist level.

A Union Forged In Struggle

By the mid 1930’s, the situation of the American working class was one of desperation. Even during the “roaring twenties,” the working class had suffered repeated bouts of unemployment. But between 1929 and 1933 industrial production fell nearly in half, and workers were battered by massive unemployment. The bosses used the threat of unemployment to cut back on the wages and working conditions of those still working. In Minneapolis itself, in early 1934, roughly one-third of the population was unemployed. The surrounding farming area was even more devastated. By 1932, the total net farm income in Minnesota was only 6 percent of what it had been averaging in the years from 1924 to 1929.

In the early years of the economic crisis, the working class had been quiescent. And the economic collapse between 1929 and 1931 seemed further to paralyze the response of the working class. But by early 1933, the workers in many areas had started to respond, and there were innumerable local strikes in basic industry. Most of these early strikes, however, were crushed. The bourgeoisie was determined to break any resistance the working class might show in this situation. To this end, it remained firm in its commitment not to accept any industrial organization of unskilled workers.

Then truck drivers and warehouse workers in Minneapolis initiated one of the struggles that would help change the relationship of forces between the bourgeoisie and the working class. Beginning with the three strikes of 1934 in Minneapolis, the struggle of the truckers and warehouse workers to organize a union spread to the whole upper Midwest area, continuing for better than five years.

At the end of 1933, the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) was strictly a craft union, whose president, Daniel Tobin, had often indicated disdain for the unskilled truckers and laborers who made up most of the work force in the trucking industry. In order for those unskilled workers to enter the IBT, they had to circumvent the IBT bureaucracy and the exclusions it had set on membership.

Before the end of 1934, the unskilled workers in the whole cartage industry of Minneapolis would enter an old IBT local, #574, and transform the skeleton into their own union. And not only would they force the IBT bureaucracy to recognize them, they would force the trucking company bosses to give in to them.

But it took them three hard-fought strikes to achieve that much. In order to win, the workers had to withstand attacks from all those who defend the bourgeois order. Floyd Olson, the Farmer-Labor Party governor, who pretended to favor the workers, declared martial law, allowing scab trucks to move. Troops were sent into the city, the strike headquarters was seized and the leaders of the strike were all arrested. Two workers were killed and 65 others injured when the Minneapolis cops attacked a mass picket line with guns. Hundred more were injured in the daily violence loosed against the picketing. The trucking bosses organized goon squads against the strikers; gangsters were brought in from Chicago and sworn in as special deputies. The Citizens’ Alliance, the organization of the Minneapolis bosses, used its financial resources to back up the trucking companies and to pay for the violence which was mobilized against the workers, and the bourgeois newspapers of the area waged a scare campaign against the strikers, justifying the violence used against them. Tobin red-baited the leaders of the strike in the pages of the national Teamster press, and he repeatedly tried to go over the heads of the workers to make a deal with the employers to bring the strikes to a halt. There was a real war going on in Minneapolis.

In order for the workers to win, despite all these forces thrown against them, they had to mobilize the full weight of their own forces. The degree to which they did mobilize was characteristic of the 1934 strikes and the movement which proceeded from them.

The first strike, in February, against the coal yard operators, was, in fact, simply a skirmish wherein the workers tested their forces. In contrast to the many spontaneous strikes then sweeping the industrial areas, (strikes which tended to engage only a part of the work force), the coal yard strike in Minneapolis had been carefully prepared for by a voluntary organizing committee. By the time the workers decided for the strike, almost all the workers were committed to carrying it out. The determination and the participation by nearly all the workers in the picketing won them a small wage increase and recognition, in effect, of their union.

In a certain sense it was a very small victory, but it was the first victory that workers in Minneapolis had gained in years. Even this small victory was enough to give encouragement to the rest of the working class. It showed that the bosses could be forced to reckon with the workers, whom they could no longer attack with impunity. And the work to prepare that first strike had tempered a core of militants who provided a leadership to the movement that followed.

Many of the leaders of the 1934 strike movement in Minneapolis were revolutionary militants, members of the Communist League (the Trotskyist organization which was eventually to become the Socialist Workers Party). In many ways they were representative of the working class militants who led strikes during the 1930’s, devoted to the working class and combative. But because they were revolutionary militants, they were more aware than most other union militants that the strength of the working class lies in its organization and in the widest possible participation by the workers in any struggle. They knew that it is absolutely necessary for workers who fight to spread their struggle to other layers of the working class.

By the spring of 1934, workers throughout Minneapolis were ready to make their own fight. Two general strikes against the entire trucking industry followed: a 10-day strike in May, and a 36-day strike in July and August, precipitated when the trucking bosses tried to scrap the first agreement.

The first of these strikes was prepared for and lead by a voluntary organizing committee which included most of the active militants of the coal yard strike, to which were added those militants who put themselves forward from trucking companies all over the city. The second strike was led by a strike committee of about 100 delegates, elected by all the workers on strike. The committee was large enough to reach into every corner of the city. And it was composed of militants who had the confidence of their fellow workers. The delegates elected were for the most part the ones who had already proven themselves to their comrades, which gave the strike committee its authority among the workers of Minneapolis. It truly was the representative of the workers on strike, a different kind of representative than workers might have known in the bureaucratized AFL. The strike committee which took the responsibility for the daily decisions of the strike gave an account of what they had proposed in the general mass meetings of the workers.

The nerve center of these strikes was a strike headquarters where the strike committee met. It included a commissary, where all the workers and their families could eat, a garage to repair the vehicles used by the roving picket squads, and a medical center where injured strikers were treated. From this headquarters the response to the bosses’ attacks was organized and a local daily strike newspaper was distributed. It was there the workers came for information. And it was there that other workers from all over the Minneapolis area came to help out.

As the role played by the cops and the authorities in attacking the strike became more obvious, the teamsters were able to mobilize mass support from other workers for their strike: in the form of sympathy strikes, demonstrations, meetings, financial support, help at the strike headquarters, and reinforcement of the picket lines. The strikers employed both massive picketing in the market areas where it could be effective and roving picket squads which could quickly reinforce the picket lines in isolated areas of town when there was trouble. Workers could organize their defense in this fashion only because the ordinary teamsters themselves, not just the union militants, participated massively in the strike day after day and because they drew in many other sections of the working class willing to aid in the combat.

The teamsters even found the way to draw the unemployed onto their picket lines, to show them that the unemployed had a stake in the fight made by the teamsters. Therefore, it was much more difficult for the bosses to organize scabbing which could break the strike. One of the results of this alliance was the formation of a Federal Workers Section of Local 574 as an organization of the unemployed. The teamsters also found allies in the farmers from the surrounding area. Some provided food for the commissary. And many of them refused to use the trucks of the struck companies to ship their produce to market. In a number of cases, they set up their own co-operative markets.

The teamsters’ determination to continue fighting and their militancy won them the active support of the rest of the working class of Minneapolis, and it won them allies from among other layers of the population. By the end of the strike, in effect, the whole working class of Minneapolis had organized itself. This reorganization of the whole working class, its unity, its willingness to fight in a disciplined fashion, provided the strength the teamsters needed to win their strike. This organized strength of the whole working class of Minneapolis forced the bosses to do what they had always refused: to recognize a union which the workers had built.

The Defense of Local 574: The Extension of the Workers’ Organizations

The victory of the teamsters gave a real encouragement to other workers in Minneapolis, and particularly to those who had actively participated in the teamsters strike. A real wave of strikes followed. In the two years from 1934 to `36, many workers organized their own shops and forced their own bosses to recognize Local 574 as their union. The expanding union became a kind of center for workers, mechanics, hosiery workers, food workers, and cabinetmakers. Local 574 headquarters often became their strike headquarters. The members of 574, veterans of hard-fought battles, gave reinforcement, support and often leadership to workers organizing their first picket lines. The 574 newspaper became the voice of the working class in Minneapolis. At the same time, the Federal Workers Section began to be a center of the efforts of the unemployed to fight for higher relief allotments, and to prevent evictions. And it became the focal point of the efforts of the unemployed who were working on the federal government’s WPA-type programs to organize their own union.

These new unions were not given willingly by the bosses to the workers. The bosses, confronting a massive mobilization in July and August of 1934, may have acceded to the workers. But this did not mean that they had decided to accept unions when other workers tried to form them. In the first years after 1934, every newly formed union was accepted only as the result of a struggle. And if 574 was a real center for the workers in Minneapolis, it was not the militants, or even the ordinary workers of 574 alone, who did the fighting. Minneapolis became a “union town” because the mass of the workers in Minneapolis fought to make it that.

Even in the face of the victories won by the workers, the bosses continued to use violence to try to bring the movement to a halt. Gangsters were brought in to attack the leaders of Local 574, after Tobin tried to expel Local 574 and create a new one in its place. The bosses quickly retreated from the idea of negotiating with Tobin’s paper local when the workers threatened to strike. Nonetheless, the violence continued. In 1937 the teamster who headed the North Central District Drivers Council, then at the center of the campaign to organize over-the-road trucking, was assassinated. In 1938 the bosses sponsored and armed a fascist organization, the Silver Shirts, which they brought into town to organize an attack on the headquarters of Local 574 (which had become Local 544 by then, as a result of Tobin’s efforts to expel it).

Such violent intimidation was driven back by the workers’ own organized defense of themselves and of their organizations. The members of Local 544 organized a defense guard, in response to the arrival of the Silver Shirts, but its formations were drawn from the whole working class of Minneapolis. The massive mobilization of this workers’ defense guard forced the Silver Shirts to cancel appearances and pack up and leave town. The organization of the defense guard also gave a protection to the leaders of the workers in Minneapolis. The very fact of its existence probably prevented more assassinations.

The organizing of the Teamsters continued to spread outward from Minneapolis. As the sitdowns began to sweep factories throughout the industrial heartland, the truckers and warehouse workers were building up their organization, leapfrogging from one area to another, from one terminal to another, imposing their union on a larger and larger section of the trucking bosses, both local and over-the-road. Throughout the Middle West, and especially in the small towns where it was much harder for the workers to oppose the bosses, the truckers were able to establish a beach head, since they were often the link between the small towns and the larger, more solidly organized working class cities. And it was the militants who came out of the 1934 to `36 strikes in Minneapolis who provided much of the leadership for this effort. By 1939, over-the-road trucking was almost solidly organized in a 14-state area, running from Ohio and Michigan to North Dakota, from Oklahoma to Arkansas.

The culmination of that effort was a hard-fought strike in Omaha which lasted five and one-half months into early 1939. It was marked by all the tactics the bosses had used elsewhere to break the fight of the workers: mass arrests, frame-ups, violence, economic pressure, propaganda, etc. And the resources the workers had to depend on were the same: their own massive mobilization, and the engagement of other workers in their fight. Aided by victories elsewhere, reinforced and supported by workers from all over the Middle West, especially other truckers, the truckers and warehouse workers of Nebraska were able to present a determined and united face to the bosses in Omaha. Even in Nebraska, which had been one of the last anti-union strongholds, the bosses were forced to give in to the workers.

By the end of 1940, the American working class had built up industrial unions for itself. Those unions were not given to the workers, neither by the bosses, nor by the bourgeois politicians like Roosevelt. Congress may have passed the Norris-LaGuardia Act in 1932; the National Industrial Recovery Act, with its famous Section 7A, in 1933; and the Wagner Act in 1935. All of these laws may have recognized that workers had the right to form unions. Nevertheless, as the five year struggle of the Teamsters shows, these acts did not make it unnecessary for the workers to fight for their unions. Wagner Act or no Wagner Act, the bourgeoisie did not accept the new industrial unions until the struggles of 1934 in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco blossomed into a broad social movement of the whole working class, a social movement in which workers refused to be stopped by bourgeois legality.

The Impasse of Unionism

Much of the struggle of the workers in Minneapolis, as elsewhere, had been to gain a union. They wanted simply for the bosses to accept the union as bargaining agent to represent the workers with the bosses. Gaining a union was the goal given by John L. Lewis when his organizers went through the coalfields with the slogan, “The President wants you to join the union.” With essentially the same goal, the militants in Minneapolis pushed the slogan, “Make Minneapolis a union town.”

In a certain sense, when the bourgeoisie finally accepted the new unions, the struggle of the American working class had reached a kind of impasse. Essentially the working class had stayed at the unionist level; that is, it had accepted the framework of bourgeois society and sought to find guarantees for itself within the framework of that society. It hoped to build on the compromise it had forced the bourgeoisie to make, and to solidify its victories. It hoped that its newly accepted unions would have sufficient influence within bourgeois society to play the role of advocate for the working class. So long as the working class stayed at this level, its consciousness of its own situation was limited, and so was its ability to defend itself.

During the period of the massive mobilization of the working class, the attacks of the bourgeoisie were blunted. However, the underlying mechanism of bourgeois society had not been changed; the bosses’ drive for profits at the expense of the workers had not been transformed into something else. The economic crisis which underlay the growing preparations for the coming world war had not been overcome, nor had the bourgeoisie found a solution other than war for the problems of an economy desperately in need of more markets. It simply meant that the bosses had moderated for a time their attacks on the workers when confronted by the mobilized strength and determination of the working class.

But the bourgeoisie gives nothing to the workers completely or forever. The only guarantee the workers have of keeping what they win lies in what gained the victory in the first place: the workers’ mobilized strength. There is no other guarantee for the working class: no law, no union contract, no bargaining agent which can make the bourgeoisie respect what it gave up to the working class. It is simply a question of the relationship of forces between the bourgeoisie and the working class. And as soon as the bourgeoisie thinks the working class is weaker, the bourgeoisie will try to take back what it gave. As soon as the situation changes at all, the bourgeoisie will try to take advantage of that change, as it did with the advent of World War II, to go back on the agreement it had reached with the working class. The bourgeoisie had been forced to make a compromise, but in no way did that mean the class struggle had stopped. The bourgeoisie never stops its attacks: the proof is the way the Minneapolis bosses continued to attack IBT Local 574 even after supposedly recognizing it. The class struggle continues, no matter what face the bourgeoisie puts on at any particular moment. The only real guarantee the working class can have is, in the short run, to remain mobilized, to maintain its organized strength; and, in the long run, to destroy the bourgeois order.

But unionism leads the working class in exactly the opposite direction. When the working class is mobilized, and therefore strong enough to challenge the bourgeois system, the unionists limit the struggle of the working class; they give the workers no other goal than to obtain a few concessions, an improvement in their immediate situation. And so when the working class becomes demobilized, the bourgeoisie can once more take the offensive.

In 1939, the same year as the teamsters’ victory in Omaha, Roosevelt began in earnest the preparations for U.S. entry into World War II. He had already started escalating military spending two years before. But in 1939, Roosevelt began to reduce social programs, such as WPA, which supposedly were the mark of the New Deal’s concern for labor, so that the military budget could be increased much more rapidly. Jobless workers began to be pushed off the relief rolls into the army. A certain number of states began to pass laws which put all sorts of restrictions on strikes. Laws making the sitdown illegal were upheld by the Supreme Court.

As early as 1939, bureaucrats like Tobin were reinforcing the Roosevelt administration’s propaganda about the necessity of the coming war. And not just about the necessity of the war, but also about sacrificing for that war, of deferring the demands of the workers in the interests of the “national good,” of refraining from any activity such as strikes which might harm the war effort.

Those who, like the Trotskyists in Minneapolis, were outspoken critics of the drive to war, found themselves the targets of a real campaign of repression. The same kind of attacks used before against the workers when they were organizing were now thrown against those militants: vigilante and gangster attacks, arrests, frame-ups. But there was a difference: the federal government dropped its pose of supposed neutrality, which it had tried to preserve during the strike wave, and now led the attack, using the courts, the FBI, the NLRB, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Most of the important militants of the strike movement in the Minneapolis area who were members of the SWP were put on trial under the newly passed Smith Act, found guilty of advocating the overthrow of the government, and sentenced to jail. In addition, several of the main national leaders of the Socialist Workers Party were sentenced in the same trial. At the same time that the government was attacking in such an open way, the bureaucrats at the head of the IBT began to expel not only the Trotskyists, but also many militants from the locals where the Trotskyists had had an influence. Jimmy Hoffa, who had been formed during the period of 1938 to `39 when he worked with the militants from Minneapolis, was sent back in with a goon squad to take over the local.

The expulsion of militants was part of the process by which the working class was disciplined, in preparation for the coming war. At the same time it was part of the process by which the bureaucracies solidified their hold on the new unions built by the workers. Those who had been in the front of all of the struggles in Minneapolis and that whole Midwestern area radiating out from Minneapolis were pushed out of the unions, and a whole layer of goons were sent out by the IBT to run the local. For almost two years, the workers in Minneapolis tried to defend their leaders who were under attack, and prevent bureaucrats from taking over the local. But eventually the workers’ resistance was broken down. That part of the working class which had been the spearhead of the movement for industrial unionism, a working class able to resist all the worst kinds of repression thrown against it in 1934, was not able to do the same thing in 1941.

It’s true that the bourgeoisie had finally accepted the unions, but not the unions as they were created by the workers in struggle. Faced with organizations the workers had built, the bourgeoisie, at the same time that it accepted them, began to try to use them against the workers. To that end, it tried to reinforce a bureaucracy in those unions, whether it was composed of officials like Tobin who had opposed the struggle, or those like Hoffa who came up in the struggle of the working class.

It is exactly what happened with the IBT. That union was formed out of a struggle wherein the working class was very organized and determined, where the great mass of workers were involved in building up that organization. That union was composed of true working class militants. And yet the bourgeoisie was able to take a militant like Hoffa who came out of the movement and turn him into the worst kind of bureaucrat.

When the leaders of the working class are not revolutionary, they have no other prospect than to accept the framework of this society. And that means that sooner or later the bourgeoisie can push them to turn against the working class in order to make the working class respect that framework.

The bureaucracy that grew up in the unions reinforced the belief already held by many workers that it was possible for the workers to defend their interests within the framework of the existing order. That bureaucracy served not only as a goon squad, when needed, but also as a kind of moral police within the organizations of the working class. It began to rewrite the workers’ own history, to insist that it was not so much the workers’ own struggles that had brought about changes, as it was the “friends of labor” such as Roosevelt who had taken over the government; that such “friends” could impose a different set of relations on the bosses; that the state could be used by the workers to defend themselves against the bosses.

The massive struggle of the American working class during the 1930s had only two possibilities open in front of it: either it would develop into a revolutionary movement, or it would see the CIO become a bureaucratized instrument used against the workers.

In the 1930’s, for the working class movement to have taken the road of revolution, it would have been necessary for there to be a revolutionary workers party, that is, a party able to hold out a different goal for the workers’ struggle than the unionist one.

The necessity of such a party was felt by many workers. In union convention after union convention, there was a strong push for the workers to form their own party. Certainly, it was not clear to the workers exactly what this party should be, but the workers felt deeply the lack of their own political organization, able to put forth the goals of the working class, able to give a direction to a fight of the whole working class. The union bureaucracies, those who defended the existing order, understood the depth of the sentiment in the working class for a party. So they found many ways to promise to build one without ever doing it.

The working class did not build up its own party. In Minneapolis, there were real revolutionary militants who might have been able to do that. They showed what even a small group can do to organize the working class when it is ready to fight. They showed that it is possible to lead a militant fight, to push the working class to organize its own fight, to mobilize itself. They showed the difference in how the working class is able to carry out its struggles, if there are revolutionaries who have gained the confidence of the workers.

But they did not find the way to build up a revolutionary workers party through these struggles. Certainly, the SWP was only a small group at the time. And this objective obstacle undoubtedly explains a great deal of why they were not able to build up a party. But it’s also possible that these militants, who had been so successful within the framework of the unions, were not able to go beyond that framework; it’s possible they did not understand on the concrete level the necessity of building a revolutionary party; that is, they did not understand the relationship between, but also the differences between, the work they were doing as unionists and the work of building a party.

In any case, this formidable movement of the American working class in the 1930’s clearly illustrates the problem: no matter how militant the workers are, no matter how deeply the working class is mobilized, no matter how many immediate victories the workers win if the working class doesn’t go beyond the unionist level, it remains inside a framework in which the bourgeoisie can continue to exploit and oppress it, and defeat it once again.

Reprinted from Class Struggle #17

May 1984