Minneapolis 1934 Strike Revisited

— Barry Eidlin

Revolutionary Teamsters:
The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934
by Bryan D. Palmer
Brill hardcover 2013, 308 pages,
Haymarket Books paper, 2014, $28.

FEW EVENTS LOOM larger in the history of the U.S. Trotskyist-influenced Left than the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strikes of 1934. While often cited within mainstream labor historiography in conjunction with the San Francisco general strike and Toledo Auto-Lite strike as the opening salvos of the working-class upsurge of the 1930s, the Minneapolis strikes take on an outsized role in the Trotskyist imagination.

Here was a case where a movement often forced to struggle at the margins was able to take center stage. While leftists of various stripes have led many working-class struggles, the Minneapolis truckers’ strikes are among the only cases in U.S. labor history where Trotskyists led a major battle.

Thus, the Minneapolis truckers’ strikes serve as a touchstone for what appears possible when Trotskyists are in charge: With the right leadership, the right strategy, the right combination of revolutionaries and organic working-class militants, the case of the Minneapolis truckers shows that real working-class power is more than a pipe dream. In scientific terms, it provides a proof of concept. In psychological terms, it provides a reason to keep fighting.

Understanding why the Minneapolis truckers’ strikes succeeded therefore remains more than an academic exercise. It offers valuable lessons for building a powerful working-class movement. This is particularly the case for those who identify with the Trotskyist tradition, but it also holds more generally for those who seek to build a stronger and broader labor Left.

In studying the strikes, we see the key role not only of an organized Left leadership, but one embedded within the rank-and-file membership. We see the transformative effect of struggle on ordinary people’s sense of what is possible. We see the necessity of dense organizational networks to transmit information between the leadership and membership, develop assessments of quickly changing events, and formulate effective tactical responses.

Importantly, we also see how key it is to retain democratic practices even in the midst of relentless attacks and changing events, precisely at those moments where many argue that discipline and expediency must take precedence over democracy.

The classic account of the Minneapolis truckers’ strikes has been Teamster Rebellion by strike leader Farrell Dobbs, through which generations of budding young socialists and labor activists, myself included, were first introduced to these historic events.

A coal yard worker in Minneapolis who voted for Hoover in 1928, the truckers’ strikes radicalized Dobbs. He was recruited to Trotskyism and, after a few years leading an organizing campaign that unionized over-the-road trucking across the Midwest, he devoted himself full-time to building the Socialist Workers Party.

Dobbs wrote Teamster Rebellion and three accompanying volumes in the 1970s, to document in detail the Minneapolis truck drivers’ efforts to transform the conservative Teamsters Union Local 574, and build a powerful working-class movement throughout the Twin Cities in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Despite Dobbs’ personal implication in the events and his clear political commitments, his account holds up well to scrutiny as a work of historical scholarship. It is well researched and, while Dobbs certainly advances a pro-worker, pro-Trotskyist, anti-employer interpretation, he largely steers clear of gratuitous sniping against his opponents.

Aside from Dobbs’ book, the Minneapolis truckers’ strikes have also received several other journalistic and academic treatments.(1) The question arises: What can be gained from yet another account of these events, no matter how seminal they might be?

The answer, according to radical historian Bryan D. Palmer, lies in the lessons of the Minneapolis strikes for struggles today: “Minneapolis in 1934 matters because, in 2013, it has things to tell us, ways of showing that the tides of history, even in times that seem to flow against change, can be put on a different course.” (7)

Forging An Alliance

In Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truck Drivers’ Strikes of 1934, Palmer seeks to draw out those lessons. Chief among them is the importance of an alliance of working-class militants and revolutionary intellectuals for mounting an effective challenge to capital.

To that end, Palmer integrates a detailed account of the strikes that shook Minneapolis with a more comprehensive analysis than has been previously available of the role of the Trotskyist-affiliated Communist League of America (CLA), and in particular its leader, James P. Cannon.

As Palmer explains, this was not a book he set out to write. Rather, it grew out of his larger project, a multi-volume biography of Cannon. [The first volume of this biography was reviewed by Alan Wald in ATC 129, online at http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/584 — ed.] What was supposed to be a chapter in the second, forthcoming volume soon morphed into a several hundred-page manuscript of its own.

The result is the most vivid, in-depth, meticulously documented account we have of this critical moment in the development of the U.S. left and labor movement. As a historian of the highest caliber, Palmer leaves no stone unturned in tracking down nearly all possible primary and secondary sources to craft his narrative.

Piecing together evidence from union and CLA internal documents, government and police reports, contemporary mainstream and left newspaper accounts, reporters’ notes, oral histories with key participants, and more, Palmer puts the reader in the thick of events.

The book begins with an introduction that motivates the project, followed by two chapters that set the stage for the Minneapolis strikes. Chapter 2 places the events in Minneapolis within the historical context of the Great Depression and the working-class upheavals in San Francisco and Toledo with which it is often paired.

These, along with many other lesser-known surges of class struggle in that year, “revealed the capacity of American labour…to mobilise in combative ways, but…also reflected the importance of Left leaderships embedded in the unions.” (24)

Chapter 3 then focuses on the political and economic context of Minneapolis and the upper Midwest of the early 20th century. The city’s early role as a commodity entrepôt for wood, minerals, and wheat was waning. While a strong, community-based labor movement had developed in the city’s early decades, it was virtually wiped out in the aftermath of World War I.

Even more than notorious open-shop bastions of the period like Detroit and Los Angeles, Minneapolis developed a reputation in the 1920s as a notoriously anti-union city. Employers organized as the Citizens Alliance maintained a union blacklist, monitored suspected radicals, and were quick to quash any incipient worker organizing.

While this context created in many ways a bleak terrain for union organizing, Palmer points out that it also contained within it the seeds of the future rebellion. Its proximity to extractive industries meant that Minneapolis served as a way station for generations of timber, rail, mining and agricultural workers, some of whom carried with them radical political traditions.

The weakness of the city’s conservative, AFL-dominated official labor movement allowed Communists to develop an influential presence within the unions. Among those Communists were the Dunne brothers, Vincent Raymond (“Ray”), Miles, and Grant, as well as Carl Skoglund.

When the Comintern expelled supporters of Leon Trotsky, these four and 23 other Minneapolis party members found themselves expelled. They played a key role in the founding of a new party organization, the Communist League of America (Opposition), making Minneapolis an important base for American Trotskyism.

They would also figure prominently in the uprising a few years later. While the Communist Party retained a presence in the city after the expulsions, it was nowhere near as dominant as in other cities.

Having set the political and historical stage, Palmer then tells in the ensuing chapters the remarkable story of how these Trotskyists came to lead one of the most important episodes of class struggle in U.S. history, in the process defeating one of the country’s best-organized capitalist classes and, to paraphrase the slogan of the time, making “Minneapolis a union town.”

The blow-by-blow account, moving from the early organizing in the coal yards leading to the initial February strike, through the May strike featuring the “Battle of Deputies Run,” to “Bloody Friday” in July, to the final showdown and settlement in August, takes the reader into the heart of the action. While carefully documenting his interpretation of historical events, Palmer writes with a novelist’s attention to narrative tension and plot development.

More than in Dobbs’ Teamster Rebellion, we see how U.S. Trotskyist leaders like Cannon and Max Shachtman initially took stock of the unfolding situation from their base in New York, and then, as the conflict escalated, traveled to Minneapolis to take more hands-on roles behind the scenes.

Both were key in helping Teamsters Local 574 put out its daily strike bulletin, The Organizer, which served as an essential source of information and agitation throughout the series of strikes. Cannon also caucused with strike leaders at key turning points in the strike settlement negotiations. With meager resources and a small membership nationwide, the CLA devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to supporting the Minneapolis truck drivers.

At the same time, it remains clear in Palmer’s narrative that the workers themselves were in charge of the strike, despite employer attempts to tar Cannon and Shachtman as “outside agitators.”

Women in the Struggle

Palmer also goes to great lengths to highlight and assess the central role that women played in the strikes. The workers themselves were uniformly male, but wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters and other supporters formed a Local 574 Women’s Auxiliary. It was originally the idea of the Dunne brothers, Dobbs, Skoglund and their wives, and faced opposition within the local when initially proposed.

Palmer recognizes that women’s contributions were limited, in that Auxiliary members were confined to gendered support roles such as cooking, cleaning, record-keeping and the like. But he also contends that for many of the strikers, “such organizing was not merely an appendage to a masculine cause, but was an essential component of the widening solidarity emblematic of insurgent labour in 1934.” (80)

Altogether, Palmer provides a nuanced, detailed, and engaging narrative of the strike from the workers’ perspective. While some might criticize him for giving short shrift to the perspectives of employers and state actors, that is clearly not the brief that Palmer sets out for himself.

Fortunately, a fine-grained history of the Minneapolis Citizen’s Alliance already exists, which delves into employers’ actions around the strikes in some detail.(2) What remains considerably less well documented is state actors’ complex role in assessing the strikes and negotiating the settlement. This is particularly interesting because the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (MFLP) was in charge of state government at the time.

While certainly not revolutionary, the MFLP was nonetheless one of the most promising examples of an independent party to the left of the Democrats in the early 20th century. Given the focus of the book, Palmer understandably focuses on the MFLP’s vacillating response to the strikes, and the Trotskyists’ suspicion of their motives. Nonetheless, an interesting path for future research would be to develop an account of the internal debates within the Minnesota government and MFLP surrounding the strikes, and how they shaped the state’s response.

The Aftermath

Having told the story of the Minneapolis Teamsters and their 1934 strikes in detail, Palmer moves to a chapter summarizing the history from their victory to their 1941 defeat at the hands of Teamster goon squads in collusion with state agents.

His concluding chapter reflects on the lessons that the truck drivers strikes hold for today. The message, unsurprising to readers of this magazine yet still worth repeating, is that more than anything, it is the self-activity of the working class, based in the workplace, that is necessary for bringing about a better world.

Closing with an invocation of the Internationale, Palmer proclaims that “those who would arise in belief that ‘A better world’s in birth’, and that ‘Justice thunders condemnation’, can see in Minneapolis in 1934 the small seeds of a potentially large transformation, in which ‘the Earth shall stand on new foundations’, and we who have been naught shall finally be All!” (268)

As a coda Palmer offers an “appendix,” really an additional chapter, on “Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-33.” Drawing on material from his Cannon biography, he provides readers with a useful capsule summary of the birth pangs of American Trotskyism, and the internal struggles within the movement leading up to the 1934 strikes.

While somewhat orthogonal to the narrative of the strikes, the appendix sheds light on those fragile early years, when what was then known as the Left Opposition remained isolated from the often Communist-led class struggles that were bubbling up in that period. It was the Minneapolis strikes that, for a moment, pushed the Trotskyists to the fore.

While Palmer’s narrative of the strikes is thoughtful and carefully documented, albeit resolutely partisan, in the concluding chapters he allows his sectarian tendencies to show through.

For example, in the strike narrative he notes the wisdom of the Trotskyist Teamsters’ decision to accept a resolution to the May strike that was only a partial victory, against more militant calls to escalate the struggle by calling a general strike. (110) By contrast, in the penultimate chapter, as he recounts the story of how the Minneapolis Teamsters spread their influence across the Midwest by spearheading an organizing drive among over-the-road truck drivers,(3) Palmer faults them for “forging relationships with established IBT [Teamster] union leaderships,” instead of “build[ing] militant class-struggle caucuses in the distant locales where interstate organising campaigns were being launched.” (234)

More broadly, Palmer argues that by focusing on “consolidating ‘united fronts’ from above with various trade union leaders, and concentrating their activity on trade-union questions alone, Minneapolis Trotskyists lost an important part of the revolutionary momentum that could have cultivated radicalising rank-and-file caucuses through which revolutionary politics would have been extended among insurgent workers.” (235)

Where his assessment of the May 1934 strike settlement, and the strikes overall, shows a sensitivity to the strategic constraints and the balance of forces that the Trotskyist Teamsters faced, his criticisms of their later actions seems more informed by ideological imperatives and wishful thinking than by a concrete analysis of the historical dynamics at play.

Although the Minneapolis Teamsters’ accomplishments in their hometown were impressive, Palmer offers no evidence to suggest that they were in any position to lead not only a massive regional organizing drive on a scale never seen before, but also a simultaneous rank-and-file insurgency against the very Teamster bureaucracy that was funding the organizing campaign. Much as an expanding network of rank-and-file caucuses would have been desirable, it is difficult to see how this was a plausible historical alternative at the time.

These minor criticisms aside, Palmer’s book remains an important achievement, both for U.S. labor history and the history of the American Left. For those who remain committed to building working class power through workplace organizing, Palmer shows that the case of the Minneapolis Teamsters remains a case well worth revisiting.

Notes

  1. Most notably, reporter Charles Rumford Walker wrote a contemporaneous book-length account of the strikes, American City: A Rank and File History, in 1937, and historian Philip Korth published a monograph, The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, in 1995. There have also been several academic theses and articles published on the strikes.
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  2. Millikan, William. A union against unions: the Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and its fight against organized labor, 1903-1947. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.
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  3. The best account of that campaign remains the second volume in Dobbs’ quadrilogy, Teamster Power.
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July/August 2014, ATC 171

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