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Myths & Realities Of The '34 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike

Started by GREGORYABUTLER, May 27, 2007, 05:20:49 pm

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Building a strike movement
by Pete Brown
(CV #36, Sept. 2005).


. Some activists in Detroit's Million Worker March group are interested in rebuilding an activist labor movement. To this end some of them organized a study of the pamphlet How To Win Strikes: Lessons from the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers Strike written by Harry DeBoer in 1987. Their study session met in late January and lasted for a few hours. Six MWM members attended and discussed what orientation to take toward rebuilding the workers movement and how to carry out a successful strike. Much of the discussion focused on the history of the strike movement in Detroit, especially the newspaper strike of the mid-90s and the teachers strike of 1999. There were also some reflections on struggles of the 1930s such as the hunger march against Ford.

. Reading about struggles of the past can be helpful in inspiring activists and giving them some ideas for methods to use today. But differences between situations also need to be kept in mind. In the MWMers' meeting a serious reservation was raised about the applicability of DeBoer's 1934 strike tactics to the movement of today, when a strike movement hardly exists. The group thought that there was a need to make a more thorough study of recent strike struggles in Detroit, such as the newspaper strike, to try and come to some conclusions about the tactics recommended by DeBoer. One of the points noted was that conditions today are quite different than in the 30s. For example, in the 30s the mass upsurge was preceded by patient organizing work in the factories carried out by communists for 10 or 15 years previously. The communists had built up circles of militants who trusted their leadership. Thus a core of activists existed who were ready to take advantage of the economic crisis, when it began, to launch large-scale organizing campaigns.

. Many organizing drives of the 30s were hugely successful, and communist activists often played an important part in them. But then as now the union bureaucrats worked to keep mass actions of the workers within very limited bounds. While accommodating themselves to the mass upsurge and the demand for union organizing drives, the bureaucrats worked to limit and sabotage the influence of the "reds", and when they had a chance later on they purged the reds out of the unions. To prevent this, the red activists should have taken preventive measures and worked to differentiate their own trend from that of the bureaucrats. But the leaders of the '34 Teamsters strike failed to do this, and the result was eventual loss of their influence and the return of the union to total bureaucrat control. This is the history of the Minneapolis Teamsters obscured by DeBoer's pamphlet, which simply promotes the '34 strike as a great victory. It's true the strike was important, but the loss of their union to the bureaucrats was a disaster for the workers. By just exalting the tactics of the '34 strike without considering the conditions in which they operated, DeBoer promotes simple-minded nostalgia and covers over the role of the trade union bureaucracy both then and now.

A nostalgic call for militant tactics

. DeBoer himself was active in the '34 Minneapolis truckers strike. But his pamphlet wasn't written until more than 50 years later. Appalled by the decline in the workers movement, DeBoer was moved to write a pamphlet trying to sum up some experiences of the Minneapolis strike and make these lessons available to a new generation of worker activists.

. Some of the lessons DeBoer gives are basic to working class tactics. He tells activists they must take the initiative, carry out militant tactics and shut down production at the struck plant. The last-named lesson he mentions numerous times. This is crucial, he says. Production must be stopped. Supervisors and scabs must not be allowed to carry on production at the plant. DeBoer notes that nowadays striking workers often are replaced, and the union relies on public relations campaigns ("corporate campaigns") to win the strike. DeBoer correctly notes that public relations can be helpful but are not the essential thing.

. This point about stopping production is so obvious that it's a wonder it even needs mentioning. But the union bureaucrats are so enmeshed in the government bureaucracy and NLRB legalisms that they avoid it like the plague. This was an obvious problem with the Detroit newspaper strike. The newspapers never missed a day of printing their papers, though they were late in delivering them a few times because of militant pickets at the plant gates. Activists and a section of the rank and file newspaper workers tried to stop the scabs, at times beating back police attacks. But they were undermined by the bureaucrats. Replacement workers were never prevented from entering the plants and taking over production workers' jobs. Union leaders told the workers to rely instead on their corporate campaign strategy, but this led to a dead end for the strike.

. DeBoer claims to be the inventor of "cruising pickets", a tactic of cruising around in cars and blocking scab trucks. Of course the general idea of roving pickets predates DeBoer's activity -- they were used for example in coal strikes of the 1920s. But in any case DeBoer advocates this tactic, variants of which have sometimes been used effectively as a supplemental tactic to mass pickets in strikes.

. In the Minneapolis strike coal delivery trucks were sometimes deliberately allowed to leave the struck plant, to avoid a confrontation with the police right there. Instead the strikers let a truck get through the picket lines, but it was then followed by cars full of strikers. Once the truck got away from the station and the police forces there, the strikers would force the truck to stop, surround the driver with a mob of angry workers, and force him to dump his load of coal on the ground. DeBoer notes that some of the scab drivers, once they were talked to by the strikers, would gladly dump their coal and then join the union. They switched sides when they realized what the strikers were fighting for.

. The union also organized cruising pickets to roam the city looking for the odd delivery truck which had come in from outside the city. (1) And picket lines were also posted at the "city gates," the points at which highways entered the city. The union also maintained a squad of motorcycle spies, workers who roamed around the city looking for any activity involving trucking -- driving, loading, unloading, etc. These spies were under strict orders to not engage in any picketing or confrontations with the police; they simply reported back to strike headquarters (either in person or by telephone), from where picketers were dispatched to the trouble spot.

. So the truckers used a variety of imaginative tactics. But conditions for carrying out these tactics need to be kept in mind. Cruising pickets have been used in failed strikes as well as successful ones, and they have sometimes been promoted, for example in newspaper strikes, as a way to avoid having to have mass pickets and stop production. Adopting a tactic doesn't necessarily guarantee victory, as DeBoer seems to think. And a tactic, once used, may lose its effectiveness next time around. An example of this is the '34 strike, which was actually two strikes, one in May and one in July. In the first strike the capitalists were surprised by the extensive preparations of the strike leaders and shocked by the amount of mass support they received from other sections of the working class. This led to the capitalists suffering a humiliating defeat in the famous Battle of Deputies Run.

. Leading up to this battle, the trucking capitalists and local police arrogantly announced their intention to load trucks and move them through the city on a certain day. Everyone knew the focus of this effort would be at the main produce market, so the union mobilized their supporters to show up there on the appointed day. Tens of thousands of workers came to the market armed with clubs and thirsting for revenge for the capitalists' recent attacks on pickets. Radio stations had reporters placed atop local buildings, and they reported the confrontation live, like a college football game. When one of the produce merchants tried to load a truck, the workers went into action, demolishing the truck, the merchant's store, and anyone who stood in the way. The battle went on for hours, as the police and capitalist vigilante squads tried to beat up or arrest picketers. But all these attacks were driven off, and the workers eventually occupied the entire produce market. The police ran off and left the vigilantes to be beaten to a pulp. After the battle flying squads of workers fanned out through the city and drove the police off the streets of Minneapolis. The workers took over directing traffic while the police hid inside their headquarters. In the aftermath, the capitalists capitulated on the major issue of the strike, recognition of the union.

. But in the July strike the capitalists were better prepared to deal with the union's tactics like cruising pickets. Instead of relying on club-wielding thugs and local police, they had the Minnesota governor bring in the national guard, declare martial law, occupy the union's strike headquarters and arrest the strike leaders. These counter-tactics of the capitalists had their effect, and the strike came close to collapsing before a compromise settlement was reached. DeBoer doesn't mention any of this, though it's covered in C. R. Walker's history of the strike.

. Also it must be borne in mind that cruising pickets, like any tactic, can be misused and sabotaged by the bureaucrats. A typical ploy of the bureaucrats today is to slyly encourage a few activists to militant action, but then when the activists are busted by the police to publicly disavow their actions and leave the militants hanging. This sabotages the trend toward militant mass activity. Even when carrying out what appear to be union-approved tactics red activists must prepare themselves and other militants for this sabotage activity and encourage public, large-scale, militant actions.

. The '34 truckers strike is rich in positive lessons for strike organizers, many of which are not mentioned by DeBoer. Strike headquarters was an old garage/parking structure rented by the union, which used it as a commissary/cafeteria and hospital as well as barracks. Thousands of striking workers and supporters lived and ate there every day during the strike. The first aid station had a doctor and nurses constantly on duty. The reason for maintaining a hospital was to keep injured workers from going to public hospitals where they would be placed under arrest by the police. Previous strikes had suffered from having their most active militants arrested and taken out of commission when they went to get first aid. (2)

. These tactics show the imagination and initiative of the strike leaders as well as the rank-and-file workers during this strike. The same characteristics were present among the rank and file in the Detroit newspaper strike, where workers and local activists supporting them tried to maintain strike initiative by blocking trucks, fighting off police attacks, etc. But in that strike the local labor bureaucrats sabotaged the workers' initiative by capitulating to injunctions against mass picketing. The bureaucrats brought in national AFL-CIO leaders like Richard Trumka to harangue the strikers and tell them to rely on Democratic Party politicians like Bill Clinton to save the day. They launched a "corporate campaign" and tried to win the strike by convincing newspaper stockholders that the strike was bad for profits. (The capitalists agreed, but their solution then was to step up efforts to break the strike. )

. As part of their alternative to mass picketing, the union bureaucrats launched a local weekly newspaper, the Detroit Sunday Journal. Supporting this paper was promoted as the way for workers of the community to support the strikers. This was popular for awhile, but the problem was promoting it as the alternative to more active forms of support such as joining the picket lines. And the paper's content was simply terrible, concentrating on legal hearings, NLRB rulings, etc. News from the picket lines was banned. Sad to say, the scab newspapers, the News and Free Press, actually carried much more information about the strike and picket line activity than the unions' newspaper did.

. This doesn't mean a strike newspaper is a bad idea. In the '34 truckers strike the local union put out a daily four-page paper. Ten thousand copies were printed every day and sold on the street for a penny a copy. It was so popular that the union actually made a profit off it, with the money earned going to support the strike. The paper carried news of the strike, battles on the picket lines, etc. This paper announced mass actions ahead of time and called on workers of the community to attend. It was designed to promote mass struggle, rather than to substitute for it.

. DeBoer goes into various details of strike organizing, but the main thing he counsels is militance. Be active, and don't hang back from confrontation. But wouldn't that lead to injunctions against the union and to arrests of picketers? No problem, DeBoer says; bail out the picketers and bring them back to the picket lines. And paper the walls with injunctions.

. This preaching of militance sounds good. If the working class is ever going to reverse the declining living standards and fall in union membership of the last generation, there must be a revival of the militance of the 1930s labor movement. The capitalist employers have now moved beyond just cutting wages to the point of demolishing pension plans and health care benefits, and their political chief Bush has set his sights on dismantling social security. Workers can no longer take for granted the reforms and social legislation of the past, but must revive the militant tactics that won these advances in the first place. But DeBoer never bothers discussing the conditions needed for the success of these tactics or even the conditions under which they are desirable. He just preaches militancy, assuming that if workers wanted to, they could easily reproduce the movement of the 30s. And he just brushes over the role of the union bureaucrats of today as he covers over the reactionary role played by union bureaucrats in the 30s.

. But the bureaucrats who lead the unions are afraid of militant activity. They have been schooled to believe that the union officialdom has an honored place in imperialist American society. And their cozy positions depend on their keeping the workers quiet. So the strike movement continues to decline. Union leaders are stuck in their tracks regardless of the severity of the capitalist attacks.

A stagnant bureaucracy

. DeBoer says that unions became complacent in the 1950s-70s, and this allowed the capitalists to become more aggressive in driving down living standards. There's some truth to this. After the anti-red purges of the 1940s the reactionary bureaucrats were able to harden their positions in the unions. But this should not lead to thinking that the AFL and CIO unions, from top to bottom, were centers of militance in the 1930s-40s and before. Then as now the labor movement was marked by a struggle between trends, and the militant actions of the 30s were driven forward by this struggle. The union hacks of the present day have not simply "forgotten" what built the industrial unions in the 30s; their forebears were shocked by the militant actions then and tried to tone them down. But the difference is that then (in the 30s) there were also large, consciously militant trends supported by the mass of industrial workers, and the hacks had to accommodate themselves to these trends to some extent. Today the militant trends are small or nonexistent, due in large part to the bureaucrats' decades-long campaign against them.

. So how do you reverse that? It's not as if the labor bureaucrats are not already aware of the way things are going. They are constantly moaning about the decline in union membership, etc. , and the AFL-CIO leaders are in a tussle over alternative responses to the crisis. And they're not ignorant of labor history -- they know very well their organizations were originally built in struggle. But they've also been schooled to believe that that stage of history is behind us, that unions can live peacefully within the structure of American capitalism, and the officers of unions can enjoy bourgeois lifestyles just like the capitalist employers. DeBoer says they've "become complacent." But he doesn't realize how deep this problem is.

. DeBoer addresses this problem in a cursory way. To workers whose union leaders won't adopt militant tactics, he advises "vote them out." Sure, that's great when you can do it. But DeBoer's offhand remark is like shrugging off the problem of anti-labor laws by saying "Don't worry; if such laws are used, just vote the politicians out." DeBoer doesn't even mention that the top reformist bureaucrats often put militant locals under receivership, in which the workers have no right to elect their officers.

. So in fact DeBoer pays little attention to the problem of opposing reformist union leaders and their policies today, or the experience of the '34 truckers strike with the AFL leaders. He evades the problem of opposing the pro-capitalist union bureaucrats and their policies. The whole point of his advice is to not worry about the struggle of trends. His idea seems to be that the trade union bureaucrats will someday spontaneously take up the fight against the capitalists even if they are reluctant. But history shows, time and again, the bureaucrats prefer losing a strike, losing members, and even losing their union rather than taking up a serious struggle that may cross the bounds of bourgeois legality.

. DeBoer says "vote them out" if the union leaders act like bureaucrats. Sometimes militant workers do organize support for an independent slate in a union election, and such an election campaign can help lay the groundwork for militant actions. But for this to happen the election campaign must be subordinate to the basic task of building independent forms of class organization. Even if a militant activist manages to get elected to union office, he (she) can expect to be attacked by higher level bureaucrats who will rip up the union constitution to try and get him(her) barred from office. So even if elected an individual militant must be backed up by independent organization either to be effective in office or to maintain militant work after he(she) is thrown out of office by the upper level bureaucrats.

. It's not just a question of replacing a few union officers. It will take work to build up an alternative workers' trend for class struggle that can stand up to the reformist union bureaucracy. DeBoer says nothing about how this is to be done and pays no attention to the struggle against reformism.

Conciliating the bureaucrats leads to disaster

. "Vote them out" is DeBoer's frivolous reply to the problem of today's stagnant union bureaucracy. But when speaking of the 30s DeBoer doesn't even mention the problem. He acts like the '34 strike was a glorious achievement of "the union", from top to bottom. But in fact Teamsters international president Daniel Tobin tried to sabotage the Minneapolis strike by launching a red scare campaign against the strike leaders. And after the strike, when the red Teamsters in Minneapolis were working to consolidate their victory and extend its gains to other sections of workers, Tobin and his fellow AFL leaders launched a gangster campaign to drive the Minneapolis reds out of the labor movement. Far from extolling the strike's victory, the bureaucrats worked to destroy the strike's ongoing influence.

. There are important lessons in this history for militants of today, lessons every bit as important as DeBoer's advice about using militant tactics in strikes. But DeBoer hides these lessons, which is in line with the way the Minneapolis Teamsters leaders dealt with them in the 30s. The Trotskyist leadership of Local 574, the truckers' local in Minneapolis, capitulated to the bureaucrat leaders of the Teamsters international, relied on them and refused to tell the workers the truth about them. This helped lead eventually to militance being stamped out of the Teamsters union as Tobin purged the Trotskyists from the union in 1941. Having gone along with and supported the bureaucrats for years, the Trotskyists were in a weak position to oppose this purge. They had not made their differences with the bureaucrats into a mass issue, an issue of discussion among the mass of rank-and-file activists.

. Due to their basically reformist politics, the Trotskyist leaders of Local 574 didn't publicize differences with Tobin over policy for the Teamsters. This was true even though Tobin tried to sabotage Local 574. In between the two big strikes of 1934, in May and July, Tobin issued statements regretting that the leadership of the local had fallen into the hands of "Communists and radicals" and calling on the truckers in Minneapolis to "beware of these wolves in sheep's clothing."(3)

. Tobin was not able to rid the Minneapolis local of the leftists, who managed to once again win an important strike in July. In the aftermath of this strike the capitalists' open-shop stranglehold on Minneapolis was broken, and a wave of strikes took place throughout the region in the next couple years. This included strikes by iron workers, textile workers, and others. Thousands of workers followed the lead of Local 574 in fighting for union recognition. The strike leaders of Local 574 took an active part in many of these other strikes as organizers and tacticians. In this organizing activity they advocated that workers form locals affiliated to the AFL.

. But despite the reds' organizing victories for AFL unions, the AFL bureaucrats were dead set on crushing their militance. Shortly after the July '34 strike victory Tobin issued an ultimatum to Local 574 demanding that it repudiate its semi-industrial-union type of organization and instead split itself into eight craft unions. He also demanded that the leaders of the victorious truckers strikes be expelled from the Teamsters local. When the local refused to submit, he expelled Local 574 from the Teamsters in early 1935. (4) Tobin then set up a scab union, Local 500, in Minneapolis and tried to raid Local 574. Tobin's local minions visited the trucking capitalists who had signed contracts with Local 574 and tried to persuade them to break those contracts and instead sign new deals with Local 500. But very few of the capitalists agreed. Local 574 maintained the support of the rank-and-file truckers in Minneapolis, and the capitalists were reluctant to ignite another class war.

. At this point, in 1936, Tobin got help from the AFL as a whole. AFL president William Green announced a new anti-communist purge of the AFL and said the campaign would begin in Minneapolis. Green sent a personal representative to Minneapolis to try and demolish Local 574. When methods of persuasion did not work, hundreds of goon-squad thugs were brought in from Chicago to beat up Local 574 leaders and activists wherever they appeared. The reds stood up to the goon squads, and fighting raged all over Minneapolis for three weeks. But finally the local leaders agreed to a truce with Tobin and the AFL. The 574 leaders agreed to let Tobin appoint half of their local's officers, which meant putting their local into a kind of semi-receivership. In return Tobin dissolved Local 500 and reaffiliated 574 to the Teamsters and AFL. (5)

. None of this history is mentioned by DeBoer, who takes a frivolous attitude to the problem of the union bureaucrats. Just "vote them out", he says, as if workers in Local 574 could vote Tobin and Green out of office. It's not as if the bureaucrats limited themselves to running for office in Local 574. No, they took up all kinds of undermining activity against 574, even to the point of semi-military actions."Vote them out" is a silly reply to labor activists faced with these kinds of attacks. Workers need all kinds of preparations -- ideological, political, etc. -- to face these attacks. They need organization independent of the bureaucrats.

. This is where the Trotskyist leaders of Local 574 fell down. They were effective in carrying out militant tactics against the capitalists in the '34 strikes. They were helpful in extending the Minneapolis strike wave to the entire northern Midwest. They even stood up to the physical attacks against them organized by Green, and beat back Tobin's attempt to set up a rival Teamsters local. But they did not carry on thoroughgoing work against the bureaucrats. After accepting a condition of halfway receivership of their local, they maintained a truce with Tobin, generally refraining from public criticism of the Teamster leadership. They didn't carry out much agitation against the bureaucrats, and they were happy to seek posts among the bureaucrats. Their cozy relationship with Tobin lasted until at least 1939, when Tobin took the Trotskyists' most prominent organizer, Farrell Dobbs, onto his paid staff and made him the lead organizer for truckers throughout the Midwest. Dobbs later resigned to devote himself full-time to working for the Trotskyist party, and at that point Tobin felt secure enough to launch another attack on the leftists. In 1941 Tobin successfully purged the Trotskyists out of the Minneapolis Teamsters leadership. (6)

. Note that just opposing Tobin wouldn't necessarily have guaranteed victory for the reds. They might still have eventually lost their union positions and been subject to Smith Act trials. But having organized opposition to Tobin would have made it difficult for him to eliminate any independent organization that was built up. And the reds would have at least clarified to the mass of workers the main lines of struggle within the union movement. By building independent organization they could have provided an ongoing opposition to the bureaucrats and a rallying point for workers when the next tide of struggle arose.

Fight the bureaucrats!

. Thus DeBoer's pamphlet neglects the problem of how to deal with the bureaucrats. His heroes, the Trotskyist leaders of Local 574, combined left-sounding declarations about general politics with capitulation to reformism in their immediate politics. They postured on national and international politics while largely remaining silent on the nature of Tobin and the Teamster union bureaucracy. Along with other militants, DeBoer was no doubt angered by the bureaucrats' anti-leftist purges, but he doesn't mention them in his pamphlet and couldn't bring himself to tell the truth about what happened to 574. Labor activists of today are still forced to deal with this problem.

. To learn the lessons of the class battles of the 30s it's not enough to just be nostalgic about the militant battles of that period. We need to be critical of those like DeBoer who try to paper over the differences between trends in the labor movement, the militant rank-and-file trend and the reformist trend that dominates the present union leadership. Workers who are interested in reviving a militant strike movement must build it against the reformist bureaucrat trend and its conciliators. <>


(1) Facts in this paragraph come from American City, A Rank-and-File History by Charles Rumford Walker. This book, a history of Minneapolis published in 1937, is mostly an account of the 1934 strike. While scrupulously depicting both sides of the dispute, Walker is generally sympathetic to the striking workers' demands, and his book is promoted by some Trotskyist groups as authoritative. (Return to text)

(2These features of the strike are covered in Walker's book. (Text) )

(3) Tobin's Red-baiting quote was used by the Minneapolis capitalists to do propaganda against the strike leaders. See p. 157 of Walker's book. (Text)

(4) Walker, p. 246. (Text)

(5Walker, pp. 260-63. (Text) )

(6) See Trotskyism and the Dilemma of Socialism, 1988, by Christopher Z. Hobson and Ronald D. Tabor. The authors were members of RSL (Revolutionary Socialist League), a Trotskyist group that dissolved in 1993 with a lot of its activists moving into the anarchist group "Love and Rage." This book was written as RSL reoriented itself and became critical of Trotskyism. (Text) <>


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