The Minneapolis Teamsters strike, 1934 - Jeremy Brecher

Striking truck drivers battle police in Minneapolis, 1934

Jeremy Brecher's short history of the militant and successful strike of truck drivers in Minneapolis in 1934, in which strikers beat police off the streets.

During the great depression in Minneapolis there developed a conflict which clearly demonstrated the process of polarization of social classes occurring throughout the country. Early in 1934, Teamsters1 who worked in Minneapolis coalyards struck, caught the employers by surprise, and closed down sixty-five of the town's sixty-seven coal yards; the employers capitulated in three days and granted recognition for Teamsters Local 574. The local held a catch-all charter making it virtually industrial in character, and truckdrivers and helpers in all trades began pouring in. Unofficial leadership for the unions was given by the Dunne brothers and Karl Skogeland, who were American followers of Leon Trotsky. When the truckers2 refused to sign any agreement with the union, the Teamsters voted at a mass meeting May 12th to strike. Most businesses were hit by the strike - general and department stores, groceries, bakeries, cleaners and laundries, meat and provision houses, all building materials; all wholesale houses, all factories; gas and oil companies, stations and attendants; breweries, truck transfer and warehouses; all common carriers. As the Sheriff later put it, "They had the town tied up tight. Not a truck could move in Minneapolis." The only exceptions were the unionized milk, ice and coal companies, which were given strike exemptions.3

The key tactic of the strike was the "flying squadron," a system of mobile pickets operating out of the strike headquarters, an old garage rented for the strike. There were never less than 500 strikers at the headquarters, day or night. In the dispatchers' room four telephones took in messages from picket captains throughout the city with instructions to call in every ten minutes.

Truck attempting to move load of produce from Berman Fruit, under police convoy. Have only ten pickets, send help. Successfully turned back five trucks entering city. . . . Am returning Cars 42 and 46 to headquarters.4

On the basis of such information, the dispatchers sent cars from the garage wherever they were needed. A motorcycle squad cruised the city reporting trouble. The strikers listened to police radio instructions on a special short-wave radio, and conducted phone calls in code when their phones were tapped. Pickets guarded fifty roads into the city, turning back non-union trucks. A crew of 120 prepared food day and night; at the peak of the strike, 10,000 people ate at the headquarters in a single day. A hospital was established with two doctors and three nurses in constant attendance.

And a machine shop with fifteen auto mechanics kept the 100 trucks and cars of the flying squadrons in repair. Guards policed the headquarters and watchmen with tommy guns stood guard on the roof. Constant P A announcements and nightly mass meetings attended by thousands of strikers and supporters kept strikers in touch.5 A rank-and-file committee of 100 truckdrivers formed the official strike authority.

Support for the strike among other Minneapolis workers was passionate. Thirty-five thousand building trades workers walked out in sympathy, as did an the taxi drivers in the city. The Farm Holiday Association, a militant farmers' organization, made substantial contributions of food, and other unions contributed to the strike fund. Hundreds of non-Teamster workers showed up at strike headquarters daily saying, "Use us, this is our strike."6

The city polarized as the business forces, too, began to organize. Leading them was the Citizens' Alliance, one of the most powerful employers' associations in the country, with its own corps of undercover informers. It was dedicated to keeping unionism out of Minneapolis and for a generation it had been almost completely successful. Business leaders developed their own strike headquarters with barracks, hospital and commissary. As the conflict deepened they called for a "mass movement of citizens" to break the strike and began organizing a "citizen's army,"7 Many of whose members were deputized as special police.8 With an unusual clarity, two organized social classes stood face to face, poised for battle.

The battle was seriously joined on Monday, May 21st. A group of men and women pickets had been severely beaten when they were sent into a police trap by a stool pigeon who had infiltrated the strike headquarters. One striker described the effect thus:

Nobody had carried any weapon or club in the first days of the strike. We went unarmed but we'd learned our lesson. All over headquarters you'd see guys making saps or sawing off lead pipe. . .9

As the citizens' army began to occupy the market and move trucks, the strikers hit with military precision. A strike leader described it':

We built up our reserves in this way. At short time intervals during an entire day we sent fifteen or twenty pickets pulled in from all over the city into the Central Labor Union headquarters on Eighth Street. So that although nobody knew it, we had a detachment of six hundred men there, each armed with clubs, by Monday morning. Another nine hundred or so we held in reserve at strike headquarters. In the market itself, pickets without union buttons were placed in key positions. There remained scattered through the city, at their regular posts, only a skeleton picket line.

The men in the market were in constant communication through motorcycles and telephone with headquarters. The special deputies [citizens' army] were gradually pushed by our pickets to one side and isolated from the cops. When that was accomplished the signal was given and the six hundred men poured out of Central Labor Union headquarters. They marched in military formation, four abreast, each with their clubs, to the market. They kept on coming. When the socialites, the Alfred Lindleys and the rest who had expected a little picnic with a mad rabble, saw this bunch, they began to get some idea what the score was. Then we called on the pickets from strike headquarters who marched into the center of the market and encircled the police. They [the police] were put right in the center with no way out. At intervals we made sallies on them to separate a few. This kept up for a couple of hours, till finally they drew their guns. We had anticipated this would happen, and that then the pickets would be . unable to fight them. You can't lick a gun with a club. The correlation of forces becomes a little unbalanced. So we picked out a striker, a big man and utterly fearless, and sent him in a truck with twenty-five pickets. He was instructed to drive right into the formation of cops and stop for nothing. We knew he'd do it. Down the street he came like a bat out of hell, with his horn honking and into the market arena. The cops held up their hands for him to stop, but he kept on; they gave way and he was in the middle of them. The pickets jumped out on the cops. We figured by intermixing with the cops in hand-to-hand fighting, they would not use their guns because they would have to shoot cops as well as strikers. Cops don't like to do that.

Casualties for the day included for the strikers a broken collar bone, the cut-open skull of a picket who swung on a cop and hit a striker by mistake as the cop dodged, and a couple of broken ribs. On the other side, roughly thirty cops were taken to the hospital.10

The Monday battle was not decisive, however, and the reserves on both sides mobilized in the market again the next day. An extra 500 special police were sworn in, and according to Charles R. Walker's study of the strike, An American City, "Nearly every worker who could afford to be away from his job that day, and some who couldn't, planned to be on hand in the market."11 Twenty to thirty thousand people showed up. No battle was planned; the melee began when a merchant started to move crates of tomatoes and a picket threw them through his store window. The pickets, armed with lead pipes and clubs, fought viciously with the police, driving them out of the market within an hour, then continuing to battle them all over the city. By nightfall there were no police to be seen in Minneapolis. Strikers were directing downtown traffic.

After the "Battle of Deputies Run," a settlement of sorts was patched together by the Governor and Federal mediators, leaving the real issues unsettled, and events moved toward a second strike.

The Chief of Police requested a virtual doubling of his budget to add 400 men to the force, to maintain a training school, and to buy machine guns, rifles and bayonets, steel helmets, riot clubs and motorcycles. The employers sponsored an enormous press and radio campaign against the union, stressing an attack by the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters calling the local leadership Communistic. The workers laid in food for a forty-day seige.

On July 5th the largest mass meeting in the history of Minneapolis, preceded by a march of farmer and labor groups with two airplanes flying overhead, mobilized support for the Teamsters and displayed the forces that would support them in the event of another showdown. When the Teamsters struck again on July 16th, they re-established in still more perfected form the strike organization, published a hugely popular strike daily paper (circulation went from nothing to 10,000 in two days), and kept farmer support by allowing all members of farmers' organizations to drive their trucks into town and establish their own market.

The first few days of the strike were peaceful, then the police tried to break it by terror. On July 20th, a truck accompanied by fifty police armed with shotguns started moving in the market. A second truck with ten pickets arrived and cut across the convoy's path. The police opened fire, and within ten minutes sixty-seven persons, including thirteen bystanders, were wounded, two fatally. A commission appointed by the Governor to investigate the "riot" later concluded:

Police took direct aim at the pickets and fired to kill. Physical safety of police was at no time endangered. . . . At no time did pickets attack the police. . . .

The truck movement in question was not a serious attempt to move merchandise, but a "plant" arranged by the police.

The police department did not act as an impartial police force to enforce law and order, but rather became an agency to break the strike. Police actions have been to discredit the strike and the Truck Drivers' Union so that public sentiment would be against the strikers.12

These actions were hardly accidental. As the secretary of the Citizens Alliance, whose leaders met with the Police Chief just before the attack, stated later,

Nobody likes to see bloodshed, but I tell you after the police had used their guns on July 20 we felt that the strike was breaking. . . . There are very few men who will stand up in a strike when there is a question of they themselves getting killed.13

That night an enormous protest meeting ended in a march on City Hall to lynch the Mayor and Police Chief. The march was headed off by National Guard troops. This, together with a huge mass funeral for one of the killed pickets - attended by an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 - revealed that whatever its intentions, the massacre had strengthened rather than undermined the workers' determination and solidarity.

In this situation Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd B. Olson - who had personally contributed $500 to the strike fund and declared, “I am not a liberal. . . I am a radical" - declared martial law. The Governor's official policy was that neither pickets nor trucks (except those delivering food) would operate; but by the second day of martial law, military authorities announced that "more than half the trucks in Hennepin County were operating."14 Faced with the imminent breaking of the strike, the workers decided at a mass meeting attended by 25,000 to resume picketing in defiance of the Governor and the National Guard. The Governor replied by surrounding the strike headquarters at 4 a.m., August 1st, occupying it, arresting most of the top strike leaders, and instructing the rank and file to elect new leaders. The strikers replied with intensified picketing. As the press reported:

Marauding bands of pickets roamed the streets of Minneapolis today in automobiles and trucks, striking at commercial truck movement in widespread sections of the city. . . . National Guardsmen in squad cars made frantic efforts to clamp down. The continued picketing was regarded as a protest over the military arrest of Brown and the Dunnes, strike leaders, together with 68 others during and after Guardsmen raided strike headquarters and the Central Labor Union.15

Charles Walker wrote, "The strike's conduct had been such that a thousand lesser leaders had come out of the ranks and the pickets themselves by this time had learned their own jobs. The arrest of the leaders, instead of beheading the movement, infused it, at least temporarily, with demoniac fury."16 As one worker said, "We established 'curb headquarters' all over the city. We had twenty of them."17

In the face of this situation, the Governor was forced to back down. He released the captured leaders, turned back the strike headquarters, and raided the Citizens Alliance to save face with his labor constituents. The strike continued and with the city reeling after a month of conflict the employers succumbed to the enormous pressures for a settlement and capitulated. The strike supporters celebrated with a twelve-hour binge.

Excepted and very slightly edited from Strike! - Jeremy Brecher.

  • 1. libcom note: delivery drivers union members
  • 2. libcom note: "truckers" in this instance seems to be referring to the trucking companies as opposed to the workers themselves.
  • 3. Charles R. Walker, American City, A Rank-and-File History (N.Y.: Farrar & Rinehart, 1937), pp. 97-8.
  • 4. Ibid., pp. 99-100.
  • 5. Ibid., pp. 102-3.
  • 6. Ibid., pp. 110-1.
  • 7. Ibid., p. 109.
  • 8. Ibid., p. 110.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 111.
  • 10. Ibid., pp. 113-4.
  • 11. Ibid., p. 120.
  • 12. Cited Ibid., pp. 168-9.
  • 13. Cited Ibid., pp. 171-2.
  • 14. Ibid., p. 181.
  • 15. Ibid., pp. 208-9.
  • 16. Ibid., p. 211.
  • 17. Ibid., p. 208.

Comments

SeamusPM
Sep 4 2013 15:05

Greetings,

This is a decent summary overall, but I believe there's an error in the second paragraph:

"When the truckers refused to sign any agreement with the union, the Teamsters voted at a mass meeting May 12th to strike."

Did Jeremy really mean to say that the union voted to strike after the truckers refused to sign an agreement with the union?"

Jim McGuire
Minneapolis

SeamusPM
Sep 4 2013 15:11

It was pointed out to me that "truckers" could mean the trucking companies. A fair point, but in modern parlance it's usually meant to refer to the drivers. So, a mistake in my reading of the article not in the original wording. It could have been stated more clearly, however.

Steven.
Sep 4 2013 16:58
SeamusPM wrote:
It was pointed out to me that "truckers" could mean the trucking companies. A fair point, but in modern parlance it's usually meant to refer to the drivers. So, a mistake in my reading of the article not in the original wording. It could have been stated more clearly, however.

yeah, you're right. I'll add a footnote clarifying