Workers Vanguard No. 1053

3 October 2014


Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers' Strikes of 1934

By Bryan D. Palmer

A Review and Commentary by E. Tanner

(Part Two)

Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 1052 (19 September).

At the time of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) and its brand of agrarian populism largely dominated Minnesota politics. A proper appreciation of the capitalist loyalties of FLP governor Floyd B. Olson was essential to charting a course for workers struggle. In his 1937 book American City: A Rank-and-File History, Charles Rumford Walker noted that 56 percent of the state’s population was foreign-born, and he discussed at length the FLP’s Scandinavian-derived plebeian base. These working people were strongly influenced by the Social Democratic parties that had awakened the proletariat in their native countries.

The Scandinavian foreign-language federations had played a major role in the Minnesota Socialist Party (SP). Nationally, the reformist, social-democratic SP had been suffused from its founding with a strong dose of petty-bourgeois radicalism that derived from the Progressive and Populist movements. Among its members, the class line separating petty-bourgeois populism from unambiguously working-class political and social organizations was not widely understood.

This remained the case even after significant elements of the Scandinavian federations transferred their allegiance to the Communist movement. (The Finnish Federation, by far the largest, comprised roughly half of the national Communist membership in 1922). The confusion over the class nature of farmer-based populism was compounded by the fact that the Minnesota FLP allowed for bloc affiliation of trade unions, which gave it the appearance of a working-class organization. However, the FLP’s program clearly reflected its populist origins and its constitution carefully limited trade-union voting power to prevent labor from controlling the party.

The young American Communist movement, of which the CLA’s founding cadres were part, was almost shipwrecked on the shoals of farmer-laborism. In the 1924 presidential elections, the Communist Party (CP) came close to giving support to the Farmer-Labor candidacy of the former Republican governor of Wisconsin, Robert La Follette. Only the intervention of Leon Trotsky in Moscow pulled the party back from this opportunist course. But the Communist International, which was then at the beginning of its bureaucratic degeneration, muddied the waters by insisting that the American Communists continue to call for a two-class party and work within the Farmer-Labor movement. The story of this near-debacle is laid out in the introduction to the Prometheus Research Library’s book James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism, Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 [1992].

The CLA’s founding cadres were quite cognizant of the debt they owed Trotsky for this intervention. Their founding document declared unequivocally: “The organization of two classes in one Party—a Farmer-Labor Party—must be rejected in principle in favor of the separate organization of the workers, and the formation of a political alliance with the poor farmers under the leadership of the former (“Platform of the Communist Opposition,” Militant, 15 February 1929). Less than a year later, Vincent Dunne, who as a CP leader had also served as an FLP ward secretary, explained:

“Any political party composed of two classes, as is the case in this instance, with farmers and workers in the same organization, maintains unity only at the expense of the program put forward by the most exploited and propertyless section. The leadership of such a party can lead only as long as it is able to hold back the thrusts of the workers and satisfy the demands of those elements whose political outlook is bounded by the illusion that it is possible to achieve security under the capitalist order, by acquiring property or enhancing the value of that which they already hold, through reforms, half measures, etc....

“With this political outlook, the leadership, from the vantage point of the farmers’ wagon, from time to time sees bogholes in the road ahead and is forced to use the workers as pushers of the cart in such bad spots as political campaigns, financial difficulties, etc.

“That the workers have nothing to gain from this horseplay must be evident to those who give it a little thought.”

—“Minnesota F.L.P.—Six Years of Confusion and Disappointment in a Two-Class Party,” Militant, 18 January 1930

There is some evidence of lingering softness in the Minneapolis CLA toward farmer-laborism. Later that year, the Militant (1 November 1930) repudiated the branch’s initial agreement to bloc with others recently expelled from the CP, including Jay Lovestone’s organization and remnants of the former Finnish-language federation, to found a new regional farmer-labor newspaper. Such unprincipled political alliances between supporters of Leon Trotsky and Right Communists like Lovestone (supporters of Nikolai Bukharin) destroyed the nascent International Left Opposition in some other countries, and Cannon worked hard to make sure the CLA learned from these mistakes. Whatever the wobbles in the local, significantly the CLA’s Militant never gave electoral support to the Minnesota FLP. Considering themselves an expelled faction of the Communist Party until mid 1933, the Trotskyists generally supported CP candidates for public office.

None of this history figures in Palmer’s book, a real weakness since he criticizes the CLA strike leadership for “its early inability to mount a revolutionary critique of Farmer-Laborism, which may have fed into a tendency to rely unduly on this political tendency’s head spokesman, Governor Floyd B. Olson.”

Governor Olson and the FLP

Olson, who had been an IWW member in his youth, was a maverick even by Minnesota FLP standards. He was Minnesota’s chief executive officer responsible for capitalist law and order, but he hesitated to become an open strikebreaker, not least because he was on record as supporting the truckers’ right to unionize. The organizers of Local 574 had seen to that, having pressured him to speak at a truckers’ mass meeting on April 15. (Olson didn’t show, but sent a representative to read a support statement.)

Palmer writes that at the time, the Trotskyists “undoubtedly neglected to hammer home relentlessly how this seeming advocate of the producers was bound to turn against the very plebeian constituency that had propelled him into office.” He may be right, but there is little evidence of what CLA fraction members argued at the time to their co-workers. Palmer himself notes that the New York leadership was not fully informed of the situation. The Militant had exactly one article on the Minneapolis truckers between the end of February and its May 26 issue, and that article didn’t even mention Olson or the April 15 mass meeting.

The CLA organizers had to confront a big problem—most of Local 574’s ranks were FLP voters with massive illusions in the governor, who cultivated his image as a populist spokesman for the working people. When the Organizer began publication on the eve of the third strike, it sought to patiently and pedagogically explain that any intervention by Olson would inevitably be on the side of the bosses. Even before National Guard troops appeared on the street, the union journal demanded their removal:

“Governor Olson, in his statement, said he will not take sides in the strike. But his action in mobilizing a battalion of the National Guard on the first day of the strike—is that not taking sides? Many workers will be keenly disappointed both with the statement and the action of Governor Olson. They voted for him in the firm conviction that he would side with them against the bosses. Union men and women have a right to doubt that anyone can be really neutral in the great struggle between capital and labor. But in any case they expected something more than neutrality from the Farmer-Labor Governor. They expected support of their struggle, not the threat of military force against them.

“That is the only way the mobilization of the National Guard can be understood—as a threat against the strikers.”

—“Troops in Minneapolis—What For?”, Organizer, 18 July 1934

Olson did not declare martial law and bring out the National Guard until after the “Bloody Friday” massacre of strikers by Minneapolis police. On the heels of that violence, the bosses rejected a compromise deal worked out by federal mediators and accepted by the union. Olson’s pretense that he had mobilized the National Guard to “defend” the strikers was quickly blown apart as the Guard indiscriminately issued permits allowing scab trucks to operate. When the union ordered all its members to report for renewed picket duty on August 1, Olson ordered the Guard to raid strike headquarters and arrest those union leaders it could find. The Organizer declared: “Is there one fool who still thinks that Olson’s National Guard is here to help the strikers?” and carried a banner headline “Answer Military Tyranny by a General Protest Strike!”

Olson gambled that he could find non-communist militants in the second tier of strike leaders whom he could coax into settling on terms more favorable to the bosses. That his gambit spectacularly backfired is testimony to just how successful the Organizer and the CLA fraction had been in convincing the ranks that Olson was not their ally. Revolutionary Teamsters includes an amusing account of the governor’s failed discussions with some of the strike picket captains, who refused to negotiate while union leaders remained in jail. Under pressure from the AFL officialdom—which did not want to call a general strike—Olson quickly backtracked, released the arrested leaders of Local 574 and handed back the union its headquarters.

There was a necessary division of labor between the Organizer and the Militant. In the face of Olson’s open strikebreaking, the Organizer (1 August) published a speech by Albert Goldman that declared, “Judging by the Governor’s actions, one is justified in labeling Governor Olson as an enemy of the working class. He has given the bosses hard words and no blows; he has given the workers soft words and hard blows.” The Militant drew the programmatic conclusions:

“The ‘friend of the worker,’ the Farmer-Labor Governor of Minnesota had revealed himself to be the bitterest foe of organized labor, the shrewdest supporter of the bosses....

“Under the pretense of helping the strike, Olson has done his level best to crush it.... Taking a leaf from Hitler’s book this ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ committed the most despotic action American labor has seen in years when he crashed into strike headquarters and jailed strike leaders. His cunning words of support were only slightly more successful than the raw propaganda of the Citizens Alliance and Dan Tobin. This agent of capitalism, like all the rest, needed the mailed fist to get results for the employers....

“Victory or defeat, the curse of the entire labor movement is on Olson. He is forever discredited in the eyes of every worker and honest progressive. The career of Olson as a liberal is over. The curtains that are rung over Olson are rung over the whole gamut of liberalism and Farmer-Laborism.

“Away with it! Clear the road for a revolutionary party of the working class and the overthrow of the rotten system that Olson represents!”

—“A ‘Farmer-Labor’ Strikebreaker,” Militant, 4 August 1934

Olson worked assiduously to re-establish his credentials as a “neutral” arbiter. The Organizer foolishly helped him by demanding that the governor raid Citizens Alliance offices. The populist demagogue duly issued the orders, an act inconceivable to any bourgeois politician in the U.S. today. The enraged Citizens Alliance sued against the continued imposition of martial law, allowing the FLP leader to posture once again as an opponent of the bosses. In turn, both the Organizer and the Militant softened their portrayal of Olson. Hugo Oehler wrote in the Militant:

“The Farmer Labor Governor of Minnesota is pressed between two warring camps—between the workers and the capitalists, represented by Local 574, and by the Citizen’s Alliance. Whoever exerts the greatest pressure will force this radical petty-bourgeois to alter his course.”

—“Once Again on the Role of Governor Olson,” Militant, 18 August 1934

However, Oehler also pointed to the FLP alliance with Roosevelt’s Democratic Party and claimed that, in making demands on Olson, the leaders of Local 574 had simply made use of “division within the camp of the enemy.”

The Organizer bent even further, portraying Olson as responsible not to the capitalists whose state apparatus he helped administer but to the voters who elected him:

“There is absolutely nothing strange in the fact that the Governor has made some concessions to this working class pressure. As Governor of the state he wields a great power, but it is by no means a completely independent personal power. As a Farmer-Labor Governor he is obliged to depend on the support of the farmers and the organized workers. They put him in office and they should not be the least bit bashful in presenting demands to him. He can ignore them only by committing political suicide.”

At the same time, the union reiterated its determination to use the power of the picket line and not rely on the governor:

“Feeble efforts are being made in certain quarters—even in the upper circles of the organized labor movement—to ‘whitewash’ Governor Olson. It is being explained that his military raid on our headquarters and the arrest of our leaders and members were meant to ‘help’ the strikers....

“Nobody is going to fool us with such treacherous reasoning. Nothing will induce us to relax our vigilance and rely on the friendship of Governor Olson or anybody else to win our battle for us. We are going to rely now in this critical period, as in the past, on our own strength and on the sympathy and solidarity of our fellow workers and brother unionists. That, and that alone, is the power that will bring us victory.”

—“The Road to Victory,” Organizer, 4 August 1934

The ranks held out in the subsequent war of attrition, winning a stunning victory against the formerly invulnerable Citizens Alliance.

On the whole, the CLA proved tactically adept and principled in its handling of Olson during the strike. But the propagandistic softening toward the end reflected an attenuated understanding of the class nature of the Farmer-Labor Party. The Militant variously labeled the mercurial governor a “liberal” or a “petty-bourgeois radical.” The Organizer tended to treat him as the representative of a reformist workers party. But never did the CLA characterize him as what he was—a demagogic capitalist politician who headed a bourgeois-populist third party, a problem correctly noted by Palmer.

This failure was a political reversion from the early CLA’s recognition that there is a qualitative difference between a party that bases itself on the working class and claims to stand independently of the capitalist parties, even if it has a pro-capitalist leadership like the British Labour Party at the time, and a two-class populist party like the Minnesota FLP. More research is needed as to when and how the CLA took this political step backward.

Palmer reasonably proposes that the lack of a slogan calling for a genuine labor party handcuffed the CLA in winning workers to a principled alternative to the trans-class Farmer-Labor Party. The Spartacist League raises the call for a workers party as a propagandistic and algebraic way to pose the need for the working class to break with the capitalist parties and fight for a workers government. At its Second Congress in September 1931 the CLA, with Trotsky’s support, had dropped from its program the demand for a labor party. There was at the time little vibrancy in the AFL unions, which were firmly under the control of the pro-capitalist bureaucrats. The direction of any future working-class upsurge remained unclear. Since the Trotskyists considered themselves an expelled faction of the Communist Party, the labor party slogan would have been understood by the Stalinist ranks as a call for a renewed reformist party like the SP.

By 1934, the situation was beginning to change. However, the lack of a workers party slogan did not prevent the CLA from clearly counterposing a revolutionary party of the working class to Olson and his FLP, as the Militant editorial quoted above clearly illustrates. In 1933, Trotsky’s supporters internationally had begun to call for new workers parties and a new, Fourth International to replace the bankrupt Stalinist Communist International.

In the U.S., moves to fuse with A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party (which led the victorious 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike) had been proposed even before the July-August Minneapolis strike; the Workers Party of the United States was founded at the end of the year. Governor Olson was up for re-election that fall, and the CLA did not support the FLP or any SP or CP candidate, instead calling for support to the new Workers Party then in the process of formation. Neither did the Organizer endorse any candidates; in an October 10 editorial, it warned against unnamed demagogues who “make promises to labor which they do not intend to keep,” which could only have been understood as a reference to Olson.

Opportunist Support to FLP from 1935

If the CLA did not support Olson and his FLP in the 1934 Minnesota elections, neither did the Militant polemicize against the Minnesota third party. In contrast, the Militant derisively dismissed Upton Sinclair’s “progressive” campaign for California governor on the Democratic Party ticket. The program of the new Workers Party declared: “At present the Farmer-Labor party movement in this country is weak and inconsequential,” saying nothing about the very consequential Minnesota FLP (Militant, 27 October 1934).

A few months later, in May 1935, the Workers Party went on to cross the class line in a blatant opportunist adaptation, supporting the FLP slate in the Minneapolis municipal elections, in which the FLP mayoral candidate Thomas Latimer narrowly defeated the hated Republican incumbent A.J. Bainbridge. From this point until the FLP merged with the Democratic Party, the American Trotskyists treated the FLP like a reformist workers party.

Latimer would prove himself to be just as bloody a strikebreaker as Bainbridge. But the Trotskyists worked within the FLP for most of the rest of the decade, engaging in an unprincipled struggle against CP supporters for control of this Democratic Party stand-in. These events are outside the scope of Palmer’s book, and he mentions them only tangentially, noting they merit further research. We concur, though Farrell Dobbs’s Teamster Politics (the third of three books he wrote on the Trotskyist work in the Teamsters union) sketches the outlines of this capitulation pretty clearly, if dishonestly, since Dobbs claims that the policy of critical support to FLP candidates went back to the early CLA.

While the SWP continued to assert that the Minnesota FLP was a “genuine labor party” even after it merged with the Democratic Party in 1944, the Trotskyists under Cannon’s leadership drew back from flirtations with bourgeois third parties in 1948, when the National Committee debated and decisively rejected support to the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. Correctly declaring Wallace’s Stalinist-backed Progressive Party to be a “capitalist splinter party unworthy of critical support by the revolutionary workers,” the SWP decided to run its own candidates for U.S. president and vice president. (The Spartacist League now views running for executive office in the bourgeois state to be a violation of Marxist principle, but the Trotskyist movement at the time did not hold this position; see “Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,” Spartacist No. 61, Spring 2009.)

It’s obvious, as Palmer observes, that the Trotskyists’ support to the Minnesota FLP paved the way for their increasing nationwide tendency to politically adapt to the pro-Roosevelt AFL union officialdom, with whom they often blocked against the Stalinists. Trotsky noted this tendency in his 1940 discussions with SWP leaders, including Cannon and Dobbs:

“You are afraid to become compromised in the eyes of the Rooseveltian trade unionists. They on the other hand are not worried in the slightest about being compromised by voting for Roosevelt against you.... If you are afraid, you lose your independence and become half-Rooseveltian. In peacetimes this is not catastrophic. In wartimes it will compromise us. They can smash us. Our policy is too much for the pro-Rooseveltian trade unionists.”

—“Discussions with Trotsky” (12-15 June 1940), printed in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40)

Trotsky’s words were indeed prophetic, as is clear from Revolutionary Teamsters’ chapter on the 1940 witchhunt in which the U.S. government—aided and abetted by Teamsters president Daniel Tobin—wrested the Minneapolis Teamsters local from its Trotskyist leadership. Palmer makes use of new research on how the Roosevelt administration railroaded Ray Dunne, Skoglund and 16 others, including Cannon and Albert Goldman, into prison for opposing World War II. Determined to enter the interimperialist slaughter and fight for their own world primacy, there is no way the U.S. ruling class was going to tolerate communists committed to working-class internationalism in the leadership of a major trade union. The outcome was predetermined by the absence of broader revolutionary working-class struggle.

Nonetheless, by supporting the FLP, the Trotskyist Teamsters leaders seriously undercut their ability to build a base in the union for the kind of independent working-class political action against the capitalists and their parties that they formally stood for. Rather than pointing to this programmatic capitulation, Palmer finds fault with the failure to build caucuses based on the Transitional Program in the far-flung locals created during the Teamsters’ Northwest over-the-road organizing campaign, which the Trotskyists masterminded (with the cooperation, briefly, of Tobin).

In this, Palmer echoes the line of a series of articles based on partial and now-dated research by Chris Knox that were published in early issues of Workers Vanguard. These articles were subsequently reprinted by the embittered clot of ex-Spartacists and their hangers-on calling themselves the Bolshevik Tendency (BT). The BT has long screamed that the Spartacist League has abandoned the trade unions in favor of “community organizing.” These fakers were to be found nowhere near the successful series of labor-centered anti-fascist demonstrations that the SL initiated in the early 1980s, which kept the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis, for a time, from rallying in Northern cities. Drawing a hard separation between the black plebeian masses and the working class, the BT views the Labor Black Leagues that we initiated in the early 1980s as a diversion from “trade-union work.”

Palmer follows the BT in fetishizing the organizational form of the trade-union caucus. But the caucus is not the fundamental vehicle for communist work in the trade unions. That role is reserved for the fraction of party members. The fraction is strategic, the caucus episodic. Whether or not to form a caucus is a tactical question, usually depending on whether or not there exist broader forces with whom the fraction can bloc on key issues in order to fight for leadership in the union. In the absence of Trotskyist branches with functioning fractions, caucuses within the Northwest Teamster locals would quickly have gone astray.

The Necessity of Work in the Unions

The 1934 Teamsters strikes broke the back of the Citizens Alliance and made Minneapolis a union town. The impact was such that, some 40 years later, a high-level police official responded to a complaint about double-parked trucks with the observation: “Since 1934, we don’t question anything the Teamsters do” (quoted in Philip A. Korth, The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, 1995). No more.

Yet another 40 years have passed, during which a one-sided class war has eroded the organization, wages and benefits that working people wrested from the bourgeois rulers in the momentous class battles of the 1930s and the immediate post-WWII period. There are no union towns left. Non-union shops and “temporary” contract workers are legion, even in industries that were once union, like trucking and warehouse. Wages are poverty-level for huge portions of the American working class, and worse for the marginalized populations of the ghettos and barrios kept under the jackboot of cop terror.

A central obstacle to the necessary mobilization of working men and women to fight in their own interests now, as in 1934, is the pro-capitalist labor fakers who sit atop what remains of the unions, bowing to every anti-labor law and Supreme Court decision, channeling the discontent that roils beneath the surface of U.S. society into the dead end of bourgeois electoral politics. Palmer addresses the current abject state of American class struggle in his last chapter, attempting to draw lessons from 1934. But his effort is marred by jargon reflecting the fads and fancies of what passes for Marxist discourse in academia and dated by his preoccupation with 2011’s Occupy movement, which went the way of most petty-bourgeois protest movements in America, dissolving into electoral pressure politics. In Occupy’s case, this meant support for Barack Obama around the 2012 presidential elections. Trotskyists would do better to contemplate the words of James P. Cannon:

“The purposeful activism of the educated socialists must be directed primarily into the trade unions precisely because they are the immediate connecting link with a broader circle of workers and therefore the most fruitful field of activity. When the socialist idea is carried into the workers’ mass organizations by the militant activists, and takes root there, a profound influence is exerted upon these organizations. They become more aware of their class interest and their historic mission, and grow in militancy and solidarity and effectiveness in their struggle against the exploiters.

“At the same time, the party gains strength from the live mass contact, finds a constant corrective for tactical errors under the impact of the class struggle and steadily draws new proletarian recruits into its ranks. In the trade-union struggle the party tests and corrects itself in action. It hardens and grows up to the level of its historic task as the workers’ vanguard in the coming revolution.”

—“Deeper Into the Unions,” Labor Action, 5 December 1936 (reprinted in Notebook of an Agitator)