Revolutionary leadership and the struggle of 1934

75th anniversary of the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strike–Part one

We are posting here the first part of a four-part series on the 1934 Minneapolis general truck drivers’ strike.

1934: Police use tear gas against unemployed march on City Hall, Minneapolis Minnesota.

On the morning of February 7, 1934, workers who delivered coal to businesses and residences throughout Minneapolis, Minnesota, fanned out across the city, armed with mimeographed strike instructions and maps, to shut down the 67 companies that supplied the city’s source of heat.

Late in January, the upper-Midwestern city, noted for its fiercely cold winters, had been hit with unseasonably warm weather, and the need for coal had slackened. But on February 1, temperatures suddenly dropped below zero, and the following day the tight-knit group of workers leading the effort to secure improved working conditions, higher wages and union recognition called a meeting. The unorganized coal delivery workers, poverty-stricken and having borne the worst of the Great Depression, voted to strike.

Preparations for this moment had quietly begun three years earlier. Now, within three hours, some 600 workers, comprising truck drivers, their helpers and the workers who labored inside the coal yards, had 65 of the companies shut down. Where individual trucks, aided by police, managed to break through picket lines, strikers used a mobile technique dubbed “cruising pickets” to stop them.

Strikers’ trucks in hot pursuit would have one picket jump on the running board of the offending vehicle and reach inside the cab to pull the emergency brake. A second picket would flip the dump lever on the truck and the load of coal would be deposited in the street.

The strike caught the ruling elite of Minneapolis by surprise. One of their representatives communicated to the Regional Labor Board (RLB), “An emergency exists in this city, whereby the life and safety of the public is menaced and endangered.”

Coal stocks ebbed away, and the city’s police were unable to defeat the strikers. A mere two months earlier, the organization of the Minneapolis capitalists—the Citizens Alliance—had easily disposed of an organizing attempt by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and then smashed a strike at seven furniture manufacturing companies. [1]

The Citizens Alliance had conceded a wage increase, hoping to prevent the coal strike. With the strike on, the RLB stepped in to propose an end on the basis that all strikers be rehired and elections be held to determine representation.

The union accepted the RLB’s proposal and agreed to return to work after three days on the picket lines. It dropped all of its demands save one: that Teamsters Local 574 be the agent representing its members in negotiations with the employers. Implicit in the demand was the acknowledgment that workers who were not members of the union would be free to negotiate for themselves.

For 30 years, the Citizens Alliance had been among the most determined sections of the American ruling class to do battle against the closed or union shop. They upheld the notion of an “open” shop, and peddled the fiction that within this structure individual workers were free to negotiate for themselves with their employers.

And so, the coal dealers signed the RLB proposal and the Citizens Alliance notified its membership that under no conditions would this compel them to sign a contract directly with the union. No challenge to the reign of the open shop in Minneapolis would be brooked.

When the RLB elections were held on February 14, no workers came forward to negotiate independently with the coal dealers. Instead, Local 574 won a smashing victory, with 700 workers voting to have the union represent them.

The decision by the coal dealers and the Citizens Alliance to sign the RLB proposal was seen as a temporary expedient. Coal delivery, being a seasonal operation, would terminate by March or early April. The new pay scale would be a burden to the companies only for a short period. The Citizens Alliance would have plenty of time to determine who had been the leaders of the strike. When deliveries resumed in the fall, these miscreants would be blacklisted, wages rolled back and the open shop secured again.

But the leaders of the coal strike would not wait for the fall. Instead, they rapidly expanded the organizing drive in the trucking industry, leading to an even greater eruption of the class struggle. The titanic events to come in Minneapolis in the summer of 1934 would outstrip, in terms of the independent initiative and mobilization of the working class, any previous struggle of the American proletariat.

The objective foundation of the events of 1934 was the worldwide crisis of the capitalist system, known as the Great Depression. In Minnesota, for the year 1932, operating losses plagued 86 percent of the state’s manufacturers. Between 1929, the year of the Wall Street stock market crash, and 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a bank holiday, 25 percent of the factories in Minneapolis went out of business and the retail value of goods sold dropped 45 percent. In 1932, Minnesota unemployment hit 23.4 percent, a fraction under the national average. The wages of Minneapolis workers fell by 27 percent, and 45 percent of the workforce saw their workweek fall below 40 hours. [2]

1934: Effects of the Great Depression in Minneapolis Minnesota. Unemployed marching on City Hall to demand reinstatement of Civil Works Administration jobs.

For workers, the coping mechanism of the era was installment debt, where next year’s wages paid for this year’s necessities. Installment plans would be proffered throughout the 1920s, and when the Depression made it impossible for workers to pay on this debt, the edifice of credit came crashing down. It is estimated that in 1929, 69 percent of the gross national product of the United States was in non-corporate private debt. [3]

The slight upturn in the economy starting in 1933-1934, combined with some New Deal spending, was an impetus for workers to begin to struggle.

But the politically advanced character of the 1934 strike was not merely the outcome of economic processes. The years 1933-1934 saw a marked increase in strikes, but the overwhelming majority ended in defeat.

The high level of class struggle achieved in Minneapolis in 1934 had to do with the historical development of revolutionary Marxist leadership. And this was not purely an American question. Rather, it was bound up with international processes, which at their center involved the principled struggle waged by Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition against the betrayal of the 1917 Russian Revolution by Stalinism.

Many middle-class “left” commentators and academics are at pains to deny this, and seek to attribute the success of the 1934 Minneapolis truck drivers strike to previous syndicalist traditions in the United States. These elements view the strike leaders as simply good trade unionists, organizers and propagators of trade union militancy.

Even a biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt insists that their role in the strike had little to do with Marxism. Instead, the leadership “was radical (Trotskyite), tough, fearless, thoroughly honest, and remarkably able, being far more concerned to gain concrete benefits for the workers it represented and far less concerned with ideological purity....” [4]

Why then, on the eve of the Second World War, did the hero of his biography feel compelled to put on trial and imprison these same leaders? He does not give this any consideration.

The leaders of Local 574, left to right: Grant Dunne, Bill Brown, Miles Dunne, and Vincent Dunne upon their release from the military stockade in 1934. Far right is Communist League of America lawyer Albert Goldman.

It is absolutely true that the coal yard workers at the heart of the struggle—Carl Skoglund and the three Dunne brothers (Vincent, Miles and Grant)—had a wealth of trade union experience in the upper Midwest, including involvement in organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). But this was not sufficient for the events of 1934.

They had an advanced level of political class consciousness and, on this basis, a firm belief in the strength and revolutionary potential of the American working class, because they were members of the American Trotskyist movement, then known as the Communist League of America.

Beyond the difficulties of the organization and day-to-day tasks of the 1934 strikes, and they were enormous, the great challenges that faced these workers centered on confronting the Citizens Alliance and the capitalist state in all its forms: government officials, police, armed deputies, National Guard, labor mediators and the press. A further challenge was countering the strikebreaking of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters bureaucracy and the provocations of the Stalinist Communist Party.

Finally, there was the problem of maintaining the independence of the workers from the Minnesota Farmer Labor Party (FLP) and its governor, Floyd B. Olson. Many “lefts” have portrayed the reformist FLP as an enabling force that facilitated the victory of the truckers’ strike. The reality was quite different. The Trotskyist leaders would again and again warn the workers of Minneapolis they could not rely upon Olson, but instead had to rely upon their independent class strength.

The Citizens Alliance

Minneapolis, situated near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, derived its earliest profits starting in the nineteenth century from the state’s timber industry. Saw mills, utilizing river power generated by St. Anthony Falls on the Minneapolis banks of the Mississippi River, later gave way to giant grain elevators, creating the financial fortunes associated with names like Pillsbury. With the addition of railroad baron James J. Hill’s tracks from Minneapolis-St. Paul to the Pacific, the city rose and prospered further by funneling commerce from the northwestern United States through the city’s warehouses, factories and mills.

The city’s millers maintained a monopoly by controlling hundreds of grain elevators throughout the region. Through a local grain exchange, they fleeced farmers from Minnesota and the Dakotas by setting prices and outright cheating in settling accounts. Contracts to supply the cities of the industrial revolution in Britain and Europe made the city the flour-milling capital of the world.

But the growth of capital led to the growth of labor. Between 1901 and 1902, the number of strikes launched by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) doubled. In 1903, a month-long strike rocked the city’s flour mills. The program of the Minnesota State Federation of Labor at that time advocated an eight-hour day, nationalization of utilities, railroads and mines, and “the collective ownership by the people of all means of production and distribution....” [5]

David Parry, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, delivered a speech to a gathering of Minneapolis’s elite in 1903. He declared that the closed shop “is a theory of government to which those who understand and appreciate American liberty and American civilization will never give their willing consent.... I believe that we should endeavor to strike at the root of the matter, and that is to be found in the widespread socialistic sentiment among certain classes of people.” [6]

But Minneapolis’s capitalist class had already started to act. That same year, it formed an umbrella organization called the Citizens Alliance for the express purpose of defeating the closed shop. The Citizens Alliance was the central power. Countless subordinate organizations designated by various acronyms were fostered over the next 30 years to carry out specific aspects of its work.

The Alliance used detective agencies to infiltrate and spy on workers. A centralized employment bureau also kept extensive data on the movement of workers from job to job, and was in a position to help maintain an effective blacklist. In some cases, workers could obtain a job only by agreeing to be an informer. When struggles broke out, private thugs, police, court injunctions and the city and county jail were at their disposal. Extensive funds were made available to companies to weather strikes.

The Alliance also used its economic power to destroy any business that signed a labor agreement. Newspapers that evinced the slightest liberal bias in affairs related to the labor movement found themselves boycotted by advertisers.

Trade schools were set up with the aim not merely of providing craft skills to youths, but as a way of providing an every-ready pool of strikebreakers. Students were inculcated with anti-unionism and respect for management. One of the trade school publications propagandized young trainees, “Your employer is your superior, and more entitled to your respect than you are to his.” [7]

The strikes of 1916

By 1914, there were only four more union shops in Minneapolis than had existed in 1905. Between 1914 and 1916, World War I in Europe enriched Minneapolis businesses, while the city had to deal with a mere three strikes.

But 1916 saw a change. In the northern part of the state, the Industrial Workers of the World led strikes by some 15,000 miners, and thousands of lumberjacks rebelled. The IWW, through its Agricultural Workers Organization affiliate, organized some 20,000 Minnesota farm laborers, who were responsible for bringing in more than 50 percent of the year’s harvest.

In Minneapolis, the machinists’ union came to realize the futility of facing the power of the Citizens Alliance alone when trying to organize one of the city’s largest agricultural implement and munitions manufacturers. Instead, it expanded its strike by temporarily breaking with the craft tradition and organizing every category of worker.

On the heels of the machinists’ strike came a Teamsters organizing drive involving 1,200 transport workers at 150 firms. The Alliance responded with a lockout, while private detectives beat and threatened workers with guns. The Teamsters Joint Council countered with a mass rally and a general strike of all transport workers. The city’s mayor, under orders from the Citizens Alliance, threw the police into the battle to fight and arrest workers.

The use of the police outraged wide layers of the citizenry, and Thomas Van Lear, the Socialist Party candidate for mayor and leader of the machinists’ union, rode this wave to victory. But all of the strikes were ultimately smashed. The Alliance easily sidestepped Van Lear’s “socialist” police chief by using Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies, and the Socialist Party’s reformist program was blocked by the Alliance-dominated city council.

The year 1917

The year 1917 brought two events that profoundly affected Minnesota, as they did the whole country: The Russian Revolution and United States entry into World War I. The coming to power of the Russian workers under the leadership of V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky polarized the Socialist Party between its reformist wing and those with a revolutionary outlook, who would ultimately establish the Communist Party.

In Minneapolis, Van Lear was expelled from the Socialist Party, and in his failed 1918 reelection bid, he ran as the candidate of a new party set up by reformist leaders in the Minneapolis Trades and Labor Assembly. Called the Municipal Nonpartisan League, the new party declared itself “for a hundred percent ‘Americanism’ “ and endorsed President Woodrow Wilson’s policies.

The Citizens Alliance took advantage of the wartime political climate to escalate its assault on labor and other opponents by setting up the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS). Its orientation was indicated by a business publication, which declared, “When stress of war comes, such government mechanism must of necessity become more or less autocratic.”

A Citizens Alliance member who was an architect of the MCPS stated, “Treason will not be talked on the streets of this city, and the street corner orators, who denounce the government, advocate revolution, denounce the army and advise against enlistments, will be looking through the barred fences of an internment camp out on the prairie somewhere.” [8]

Civil liberties were suspended. The MCPS, in acts of intimidation, jailed or removed from office those who opposed the war. Rallies were banned. The headquarters and newspapers of union and farm groups were raided or shut down. Hundreds of agents carried out tens of thousands of investigations, night raids and arrests.

1917: Civilian Auxiliary, led by “men of means”.

The state established the Minnesota Home Guard—11 battalions led by “men of means” and under control of the governor—to be used against workers and demonstrations. The Citizens Alliance took the opportunity to organize the Minneapolis Civilian Auxiliary, a paramilitary militia. When a streetcar strike hit both Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1917, the Home Guard and Civilian Auxiliary were mobilized to defeat the strikers.

Postwar period and emergence of the Farmer-Labor Party

In the postwar period, the Citizens Alliance sought more energetically to project itself across the entire state of Minnesota and foster groups similar to itself in other cities. This bolstered its efforts to get legislation passed by the state legislature.

In the postwar strike wave, the Alliance was not only determined to hold the line against the closed shop, but to go onto the offensive and roll back the past gains of the AFL by destroying craft jurisdictions, including those of the building trades. Soon, two thirds of the construction projects in St. Paul were non-union. The Alliance pushed for injunctions that didn’t merely limit picketing during strikes, but entirely banned it.

Many of Minnesota’s workers and farmers, looking back on the period of wartime terror and other experiences, were well aware that the Commission of Public Safety was a bipartisan affair, staffed equally by both Democrats and Republicans.

Oppositional politics in Minnesota featured a new movement called the Nonpartisan League (NPL). The NPL originated in North Dakota, where the Socialist Party found a response to its agitation among a significant section of farmers, who believed they were being cheated by the railroads, grain exchanges, milling companies and banks.

The party set up a “non-party” or nonpartisan status for these farmers. In a state where rural constituents constituted three quarters of the population, this faction of the party grew rapidly and rivaled the “orthodox” faction.

The SP, fearing this growth, dropped the non-party dues payers. But the organization refused to die and continued on under the name Nonpartisan League, with a reformist program that aimed to set up state-owned elevators and establish a rural credit system to help farmers. Its tactic was to enter candidates into the Republican Party’s primary. The result was a 1916 landslide victory in the state House, and in 1918 the Nonpartisan League took over the Senate.

The NPL movement spread to Minnesota, where it found a ready reception among many farmers. But Minnesota was more diverse. While farmers constituted an important section of the population, the NPL could not be successful ignoring the urban working class of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, as well as Iron Range miners and workers spread out across the state in industries such as timber. This led the AFL to set up its own nonpartisan organization and collaborate with the NPL.

The Republicans, however, were not about to allow the NPL to take over its party, as the NPL had in North Dakota. Ultimately, the NPL and AFL were compelled to run their candidates in the 1920 elections under the Farmer-Labor label, where they made a good showing. In 1922 and 1923, respectively, they captured both of the state’s seats in the US Senate. But the Citizens Alliance and the Republicans continued to dominate state politics. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s share of the vote in the 1922 election shrank to 10 percent, having been displaced by the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP).

The FLP, while commanding a loyal following among the two constituencies in its name, was in essence a reformist party shot through with middle-class elements, who became its directors and office holders (Floyd B. Olson, FLP governor in 1930, was formerly a Hennepin County prosecutor, who first attempted to enter politics as a Democrat; Elmer Benson, who became the second FLP governor, following Olson, was a rural banker).

Starting around 1923, some trade union leaders such as reformist Socialist Party member William Mahoney thought that participation by members of the Communist Party could strengthen their hand in the Farmer-Labor Party. Others, such as Robley Cramer, editor of the Minneapolis AFL’s Labor Review, maintained the following attitude toward the CP: “They are not very numerous, they are good workers, and a splendid dynamic force.... They can help a great deal if they are with you, and they can make a lot of trouble if you keep them out.” [9]

But the Communist Party pursued disastrously opportunist policies in relation to the Farmer-Labor Party. It did not understand the necessity of the working class playing the dominant role, as fought for by the Bolshevik Party in the October 1917 Revolution, where the peasantry was mobilized behind the working class in the establishment of a workers’ state. It would not be until 1928 before the issue was clarified for some in the CP. The alliance between AFL and SP elements with the CP would be short-lived, as the reformists came under sharper and more severe attacks from the conservative wing in the FLP, with the final rupture leading to the expulsion of the CP.

To be continued


1. William Millikan, A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947 (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001), p. 268.

2. Millikan, pp. 249-50.

3. Everett Luoma, The Farmer Takes a Holiday: The Story of the National Farmers’ Holiday Association and the Farmers’ Strike of 1932-1933 (Exposition Press, 1967) p. 25.

4. Kenneth Davis, FDR: The New Deal Years 1933-1937 (Random House, 1986), pp. 326-27.

5. Millikan, pp. 5-6.

6. Millikan, p. 30

7. Millikan, p. 69

8. Millikan, p. 103

9. Millard Gieske, Minnesota Farmer-Laborism: The Third-Party Alternative (University of Minnesota Press, 1979), pp. 83-84.