Workers Vanguard No. 1052
19 September 2014
Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers' Strikes of 1934
by Bryan D. Palmer
A Review and Commentary by E. Tanner
“The most important of all prerequisites for the development of a militant labor movement is the leaven of principled communists.” So wrote James P. Cannon, a leader of the Communist League of America (CLA), toward the end of the second of three truckers strikes that convulsed the city of Minneapolis in 1934. Bryan Palmer’s Revolutionary Teamsters, an in-depth study of those strikes—which were led by CLA members—brings this lesson home.
That spring and summer, the Minneapolis Teamster strikes overlapped with a similarly hard-fought 83-day strike by West Coast longshoremen and maritime unions, a battle that culminated in a four-day general strike in San Francisco. Both strikes were part of a wave of labor struggle that swept the country as the working class, shaking off the paralysis that had accompanied the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, began to fight. What distinguished these two strikes, along with one by auto parts workers in Toledo, from other 1934 labor battles is that they won big, establishing union representation for masses of previously unorganized workers and opening the road to the upsurge later in the decade that forged the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Key to the victory of all three strikes was the leadership provided by “reds”—labor militants who considered themselves socialist or communist.
As we explained in Part One of our two-part article “Then and Now” (WV Nos. 1050 and 1051, 8 August and 5 September):
“Unlike other strikes at the time, the militancy of the workers was not restrained by leaders who promoted the lie of a ‘partnership’ between labor and capital. Instead, the mass strength and solidarity of the workers was organized and politically directed by leaders who rejected any notion that the bosses are ‘reasonable’ or their state ‘neutral.’ Understanding the forces of the class enemy that would be arrayed against any union struggle, the leaders of these strikes were prepared for class war.”
When academics take up a subject of keen interest to revolutionary Marxists, the results are often disappointing. That was certainly the case with Philip A. Korth’s The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934 (Michigan State University Press, 1995). Although basing his narrative on some interesting oral history interviews, Korth painted the titanic battles waged by the insurgent truckers as an unfortunate class polarization that illustrated the need for the capitalist rulers to establish a “community” agency like the National Labor Relations Board to regulate industrial relations.
There is no danger of such a fundamental misunderstanding from Bryan Palmer, a professor at Canada’s Trent University with an impressive body of work on North American left and labor history. Writing with sympathy for the proletarian revolutionary cause, Palmer places the CLA leadership—Trotskyists whom the Spartacist League counts among its forebears—at the center of his narrative, detailing the ways in which they “proved undeniably more resolute and far-seeing” and “more decisively in control of the events” than the other left-wing 1934 strike leaderships. In Minneapolis, the CLA militants sought not only to build and strengthen the basic economic organizations of the working class, but also to educate the union ranks in the principles of class struggle. Palmer quotes Cannon:
“Every strike settlement is a compromise in the sense that it leaves the bosses in control of industry and free to exploit the workers. The best settlement only limits and checks this exploitation to a certain extent. Realistic leaders do not expect justice from the capitalists, they only strive to extract as much as possible for the union in the given situation and strengthen their forces for another fight.”
—“Minneapolis Strike—An Answer to Its Defamers,” Militant, 16 June 1934
Revolutionary Teamsters grew out of research for the second volume of Palmer’s projected three-volume biography of Cannon. (For a review of his first volume, see “A Biography of James P. Cannon,” Spartacist No. 60, Autumn 2007). The Prometheus Research Library (PRL), library and archive of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League/U.S., was one of many institutions that assisted Palmer in preparing that previous book. PRL staff members also were among those who read and critiqued early manuscripts of Revolutionary Teamsters, as Palmer writes in his “Acknowledgements.”
Available for the last year only as an outrageously expensive hardback intended for the academic market, Revolutionary Teamsters has now been published in paperback by Haymarket Books. Happily, this edition preserves 28 pages of graphics (although without the color plates and photo-grade paper used in the hardback). The photographs will greatly assist readers, many of whom have witnessed little labor struggle in their lifetimes, to visualize the class war that rocked Minneapolis, including the pitched battles in which strikers routed police and their deputized auxiliaries. During the decisive five-week strike in July-August, cops armed with special riot guns shot 67 union picketers (two of whom died), martial law was declared and National Guard troops occupied the city. Readers might also want to view “Labor’s Turning Point,” a 1981 TV documentary now available on YouTube that features stunning 1934 newsreels as well as interviews with participants.
The Trotskyists inspired and mobilized the truckers in ways hardly imaginable today. Palmer’s text frequently makes the Minneapolis events come alive, marshaling an impressive array of published and archival sources. He vividly describes the extensive preparations for the second and third strikes, in particular the transformation of old warehouse spaces into strike headquarters, which included a hospital, kitchens and truck refueling and repair facilities. His chapter on Minneapolis Teamster Local 574’s Women’s Auxiliary—whose members were integral to the strike apparatus, among other things running the commissary that fed thousands of strikers and their supporters daily—is particularly notable. So is his account of the Minneapolis Central Council of Workers (MCCW), a united front initiated and led by CLA cadre that organized the unemployed working on public relief projects, bringing them to union pickets and evening meetings at strike headquarters.
Minnesota: A Unique Political Landscape
Revolutionary Teamsters adds significant detail to previously published accounts. Best known is Teamster Rebellion (1972), written by Farrell Dobbs, a young trucker who was catapulted into the strike leadership team and joined the CLA. As the memoir of a leading participant, that book remains central to any attempt to revisit the 1934 events, although Dobbs eventually abandoned the revolutionary politics that animated him at the time. (As National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, the CLA’s eventual successor, he presided over the organization’s descent into reformism in the 1960s). Not as well known is American City: A Rank and File History (1937), a comprehensive study written by the liberal journalist Charles Rumford Walker in the aftermath of the strikes. Currently available in a 2005 reprint, Walker’s excellent account situates the Teamster battle in the specific social, economic and political context of both Minneapolis and Minnesota.
Though not without criticisms, Palmer acknowledges his debt to both works. He follows Walker in his description of the marked decline by 1934 of the railroads and extractive industries (mining and lumber) that had previously driven the region’s economic growth. Agriculture was left as the central engine of the economy, but American farming had been in free fall since the early 1920s. Minneapolis was a center for milling wheat, with many city dwellers retaining family links to rural areas. One of the first points that Walker made was that “the farmer is one-half of economics and two-third of politics in Minnesota.” Unfortunately, Palmer gives short shrift to this crucial observation.
Minnesota was one of only a few states where agrarian Populism—which had dominated rural areas for decades from the time of the 1870s Grange movement—remained an important political force. It had propelled the state’s Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) into the position of the Republican Party’s main bourgeois electoral rival, surpassing the Democrats, with whom the FLP was in a sometimes-uneasy alliance. (The two parties finally merged in 1944.) But Palmer never explores the ways in which the FLP made the Minnesota political landscape unique, creating both potential openings and pitfalls for an astute communist organization spearheading a union organizing drive, as Part Two of this article will detail.
Instead, Palmer insists on seeing Minneapolis as a locale of “uneven and combined development,” making belabored and erroneous use of the concept, which Trotsky expounded in reference to tsarist Russia and the imperialist-dominated countries where capitalism arrived late. In such societies, modern industry is superimposed on backward, traditional economies. Palmer argues that the weakness of the AFL unions and the strength of the Citizens Alliance—a group of some 800 employers who maintained an iron grip on the city, keeping wages low and unions out through a network of anti-union provocateurs and informers—made class relations in Minneapolis particularly brittle. The opening thereby created for a small group of Trotskyists to assume leadership of a major class struggle was, in Palmer’s words, “the privilege of historical backwardness.”
But he fails to make a convincing case that the relation of class forces in Minneapolis was different in any substantial way from other anti-union bastions of the time, e.g., Detroit or Los Angeles. The inappropriate use of Trotsky’s concept fails to take adequate account of the strike wave that was sweeping the country as a whole. In the end, it conceals far more than it elucidates.
The Importance of the Party Fraction
Revolutionary Teamsters includes a useful appendix that details the origins and early history of the CLA, giving particular emphasis to the poisonous personal polarization within its leadership between Cannon and his supporters (including the Minneapolis local leadership) on one side and Max Shachtman and his supporters on the other. This destructive internal struggle, which almost split the organization, was documented by the PRL in its book Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933 (2000).
The upsurge of workers struggle that began in 1933 enabled the CLA to finally turn outward toward the mass movement, contributing to the end of this internal battle, which had no principled programmatic basis. In early 1934, League members found themselves in the leadership of a strike by New York hotel workers. The strike’s leader, B.J. Field, was expelled by the CLA in the middle of the battle for violating discipline. Field had elevated himself above the CLA fraction, the body on which he nominally sat that was charged with overseeing the party’s intervention into the strike. He let himself be taken in by mediators from the Federal Labor Board, ignoring the counsel of the CLA leadership who knew that the “help” proffered by these slick operators would be a “noose for the strike” (as Cannon put it). The hotel strike went down to defeat.
The success in Minneapolis came hot on the heels of the disaster in New York. The contrast was later noted by Cannon:
“In our movement we never played with the absurd idea that only those directly connected with a union are capable of giving assistance. Modern strikes need political direction more than anything else. If our party, our League as we called it then, deserved to exist it would have come to the aid of the local comrades. As is always the case with trade union leaders, especially in strike times, they were under the weight and stress of a thousand pressing details. A political party, on the other hand, rises above the details and generalizes from the main issues. A trade union leader who rejects the idea of political advice in the struggle against the bosses and their government, with its cunning devices, traps and methods of exerting pressure, is deaf, dumb and blind. Our Minneapolis comrades were not of this type. They turned to us for help.”
—History of American Trotskyism (1944)
Minneapolis was the only place in the country where a sizable proportion of the CP’s core leadership had come over to the Trotskyist movement—cadre with deep social roots in the city and years of experience working together in the labor movement. The branch had a social weight unique to the tiny CLA, enabling the cadre there to transform the insubstantial Local 574 (which Cannon later aptly described as “holding on to the ragged edge of nothing”) into an industrial union of some 7,000 truckers as well as loaders and warehouse workers by May 1934.
Palmer is at his best in the chapter describing the political histories, personalities and interconnections of the CLA members who conceived of and carried through this campaign. Pulling together information from previously disparate sources, he paints compelling portraits of Carl Skoglund (“Skogie”) and Vincent (Ray) Dunne along with his brothers, Miles and Grant. All found themselves working in the coal-hauling yards in the early 1930s. Understanding that truckers were strategic to the economy of an agricultural hub like Minneapolis, they made various attempts to prod Local 574 into an organizing campaign. But it only took off after the gregarious Miles succeeded in selling the idea to the local’s president, Bill Brown, who was disaffected with the craft-union prejudices and bureaucratic inertia of the national Teamster leadership.
Bill Brown was an FLP activist, not a Trotskyist, but he had a “sound class instinct” (Cannon’s words). His support to the volunteer organizing committee set up by the Dunne brothers and Skoglund was crucial. It gave the committee the cover to organize truckers and their helpers on an industrial basis into an established AFL union, enabling them to do an end run around the craft-union bureaucrats who dominated Local 574’s executive board.
The strength of Palmer’s book is that he understands how much the CLA as a whole contributed to the battle in Minneapolis. Palmer describes the supporting role of local CLA members and chronicles the growth of the local branch in parallel with the union. The first strike in the coal yards, carefully timed for a cold-snap in February, was won in three days as the innovative “flying picket” squads initiated by the strikers shut the coal yards tight. There was consultation with the New York CLA leadership but little need to involve national resources.
In the aftermath of the February victory, things moved with lightning speed as truckers from all the city’s industries began flocking into Local 574. Due to what Palmer views as misplaced concerns about the strains on New York, the Minneapolis Trotskyists didn’t keep the national leadership abreast of developments, which Ray Dunne later wrote was a “grievous mistake.” Cannon and other CLA leaders in New York were caught off guard when the national newspapers carried accounts of the pitched battles in the Minneapolis market area on May 21-22 that kept the companies from resuming operations with scab drivers. In what became known as the “Battle of Deputies Run,” the truckers and their supporters routed the cops and their specially deputized anti-union volunteers, killing two.
The money to fly Cannon into Minneapolis was quickly scraped together. He arrived just after FLP governor Floyd B. Olson had stepped in to negotiate a truce. The May settlement that followed was not a total union victory but a compromise. It gave the union the essentials of recognition; however, it was ambiguous with regard to the inclusion of the inside warehouse workers. The strike leadership, with Cannon’s full support, recommended the agreement to the membership because it allowed the union to regroup its forces while advancing the fight on the ground to represent all its members. The implacability of the bosses soon made it clear that a third strike would be necessary, for which the CLA mobilized nationally.
The CLA brought in some key pieces to reinforce Local 574’s impressive strike apparatus, including Cannon and Shachtman. Along with the experienced journalist Herbert Solow, Shachtman would be essential to producing the Organizer, the daily strike newspaper that Local 574 produced during the third strike to mobilize, motivate and inform their members. This innovation of the Trotskyists proved crucial in combating the red scare that both Teamsters president Daniel Tobin and the bourgeois media bellowed forth as the strike began.
Hugo Oehler—an experienced mass organizer who had been a leader of the bitterly fought 1929 Gastonia, North Carolina, textile strike—was brought in to mobilize the unemployed behind the Teamsters. From the Chicago CLA came the lawyer Albert Goldman. Providing essential legal counsel, Goldman also proved himself an able revolutionary propagandist, and his speeches to union gatherings were often reprinted in the Organizer. Palmer details the activities of all these men, as well as local CLA members like Oscar Coover and Chester Johnson, unionists who marched a contingent of electricians to Local 574’s headquarters to support the May strike, and railway engineer C.R. Hedlund, who also mobilized support in the broader labor movement. Clara Dunne and Marvell Scholl, the wife of Farrell Dobbs who was recruited to the CLA along with her husband, ran the Women’s Auxiliary. Palmer also notes that strikers like Harry DeBoer and Jack Maloney joined the League in the course of the struggle.
Notably absent from Palmer’s book, however, is any substantial discussion of the party body responsible for the work in Local 574—the Teamster fraction of the Minneapolis CLA branch. This hole in Revolutionary Teamsters is not surprising given that Palmer is an academic, but it is glaring. Trotsky had stressed the absolute necessity of trade-union fractions in a document written to address the internal dispute in the CLA in 1933 (“Trade-Union Problems in America,” 23 September 1933). As the PRL explained:
“Essential to consistent work in any milieu is the organization of party cadre in working bodies that regularly meet, discuss how to implement party perspectives, and continually evaluate ongoing work, as laid out in the resolution on organization adopted by the Third Congress of the Communist International. This is the only way the party can act as a ‘fist’ in social struggle. In the absence of fractions responsible to geographically organized local committees, cadres, especially in the trade unions, are inordinately susceptible to political pressures that can pull them off course.”
—Introduction, Dog Days
The CLA’s attempts to work within the Progressive Miners of America in Southern Illinois were stymied precisely due to the lack of party branches and fractions, ensuring that its isolated supporters in the area remained weak reeds. Ignoring fraction discipline was the charge against B.J. Field, expelled from the CLA in the middle of the NYC hotel strike.
The necessity of a fraction was fully understood by the Minneapolis branch. According to Farrell Dobbs, “Within the union the party fraction functioned as a cohesive unit, harmoniously united in carrying out party policy. Intimate contact was maintained between the fraction and the local party branch.” Ray Dunne was the fraction head, even though he had been fired from the industry for his political activities in 1933 and had no standing to be a member of the union. Dobbs describes how the fraction implemented crucial decisions made by the CLA at each step of the struggle. In this regard, his narrative is far stronger than that of Revolutionary Teamsters.
Cannon and Federal Mediators
As is to be expected in a work that grew out of research for a biography of Cannon, Palmer focuses heavily on the role of Cannon himself. He reasonably posits Cannon as the author of the “dere emily” letters that were a regular feature of the Organizer. Chronicling with cornball humor and purposeful misspelling the awakening class consciousness of Mike, a fictional striker straight off the farm writing to his sweetheart back home, these “Lake Wobegon” missives may have been effective and humorous at the time, but.... Let’s just say Cannon would be grateful no one has yet sought to include them in a book of his writings, unlike, e.g., “Spilling the Dirt—A Bughouse Fable,” a satire of the anti-communist hysteria dominating strike coverage in the bourgeois press, written for the Organizer and later reprinted in Notebook of an Agitator (1958).
Cannon was immediately incorporated into the CLA strike leadership team upon his arrival in Minneapolis. Palmer draws special attention to his contributions as regards the federal mediators and the handling of Governor Olson. Especially after the experience of the NYC hotel strike, there can be no doubt that Cannon had plenty to do with tactics to counter the “wily artifices and tricks” of government mediators in July-August. As he later wrote, “Unlike stupid sectarians, we didn’t ignore them. Sometimes we would initiate discussions. But we didn’t let them use us, and we didn’t trust them for one moment. Our general strategy in the strike was to fight it out.”
Palmer implies that if Cannon had been on site earlier to provide “input,” the union could have struck a harder bargain in the May settlement and avoided the ambiguous formulation Olson proposed on the inside warehouse workers. His corollary is that the Minneapolis CLAers were much more susceptible to government deception, and Palmer insists: “There is definitely evidence that Dobbs and others seemed to rely, at times, rather naïvely on Olson’s assurances.” But Palmer only cites post-strike testimony by Dobbs before the Regional Labor Board, where he would naturally have sought to use Olson’s authority to bolster the union’s position. Such evidence is not convincing. Dobbs wasn’t acting on his own—he was the new boy in a party fraction that included plenty of Marxist capacity.
By late May, the strike had reached a pivotal point. The union had beaten back the local police, prodding the bosses to bray for the governor to call out the National Guard. Olson had called up the state troops but not deployed them, preferring first to try to force a deal. Even before the settlement was announced, the Militant warned:
“The swift developments of the strike are putting the Governor on the spot. Whether or not to call out the Militia—he can’t decide. No reliance can be put upon the Governor or the Labor Board to settle anything favorably for the workers. This is tirelessly explained by the militant leadership of the strike.”
—“Minneapolis Shows the Way,” Militant, 26 May 1934
There was careful calculation involved in the decision to accept the compromise rather than face all-out confrontation with the National Guard. In the pages of the Militant, Cannon scoffed at the CP and its spokesman Bill Dunne (the senior brother and the only one who had remained within the Stalinist ranks) for attacking the limited victory as a “sellout” because it stopped short of attempting to bring down Olson. This charge was an expression of the ultraleft adventurism typical of the CP during its 1928-34 “Third Period.”
But Cannon also frankly acknowledged the limits of the deal, describing the union’s agreement to set wage rates and settle seniority disputes through a joint union-employer arbitration board as “a serious concession which the union officials felt it necessary to make under the circumstances in order to secure the recognition of the union and consolidate it in the coming period.” Nonetheless, Palmer writes:
“Dunne and the Communist Party did highlight some shortcomings of the Trotskyist leadership.... Stronger stands could have been taken against Olson, his harnessed use of the National Guard and his duplicitous role in the obvious ambiguities inherent in the settlement, including on the nature of arbitration.”
This concession to Stalinist Third Period sour grapes hardly seems merited.
[TO BE CONTINUED]