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1934 Teamsters’ strike turned Minneapolis from ‘scab’ town to union supporter

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
National Guard troops keeping a crowd back during a raid on strike headquarters in Minneapolis, 1934.

“No trucks shall be moved! By nobody!” was the rallying cry of Minneapolis Teamsters Local 574 as they struck in the summer of 1934. Their demands were clear: a fair wage, union recognition, and the trucking firms’ recognition of inside workers as part of the union. Despite the violent reaction of the authorities, the 574 won on all these points.

In the early 1930s, an employer advocacy group called the Citizens Alliance (CA) ensured that Minneapolis remained a non-union town. President Roosevelt’s New Deal program gave workers the right to collectively bargain, and Farmer–Labor Party governor Floyd Olson sympathized with unions. Olson’s support, however, proved tepid at best, and the bosses felt the New Deal did not mandate unions. Additionally, large labor groups were more interested in maintaining the status quo than in improving working conditions.

Instead, the Local 574 conducted a grass-roots campaign that won the hearts of the rank and file. The organizers were workers themselves, and relied on strong personal connections to develop their plans. Many of those leaders, V.R. Dunne and Carl Skoglund in particular, also belonged to the Trotskyist Communist League, which taught them how to strategize a radical strike. Smart planning, strong leadership, and member loyalty would carry the day.

In February, the 574 organized and won a coal truckers’ strike for union recognition and better working conditions. Though the gains were minor, the real boost came from the confidence it built among workers. Over the next few months the 574’s ranks swelled with members joining up from all sectors of the trucking industry.

An industry-wide union that included truckers, helpers, and inside workers like packers was unprecedented and entailed a great amount of power. They mobilized for an inevitable strike, creating a radicalized workers’ organizing committee. A strike headquarters was rented and furnished with a commissary, a garage, and medical staff. The 574 also created a women’s auxiliary that included members’ wives and boosted morale.

On April 30, workers demanded a closed shop, union recognition, shorter hours, and standard pay. The 574 presented these demands to the trucking firms, which refused to negotiate with or recognize the union. The workers thus voted to strike on May 16.

Right away there were violent skirmishes between strikers and the “special deputies” who had been organized by police chief Michael Johannes and the CA. These clashes proved inconclusive until the “Battle of Deputies’ Run” on May 22, during which the workers beat and dispersed the strikebreakers, killing two.

Under pressure from the governor, the two sides agreed to a deal on May 25: all workers would be reinstated and the 574 would represent truckers and helpers. Yet the definition of “insider workers” was left open.

By June things were unraveling. The CA leaned on employers to discriminate against union members. The bosses refused to discuss wages or the inside-worker issue with the union.

Workers voted to strike starting July 16. Johannes in turn issued shotguns to the strikebreaking forces and encouraged their use. On July 20, “Bloody Friday,” police opened fire on unarmed strikers attempting to stop a delivery. Sixty-seven people were wounded—most of them shot in the back. Two were killed, including one man whose funeral became a mass demonstration; an estimated forty thousand marched.

On July 25, mediators Francis J. Haas and E.H. Dunnigan issued a proposal that listed minimum wage rates and clearly defined insider workers; it also reaffirmed union recognition. The Local 574 accepted the deal but the firms—many of them now represented by the Employers’ Adivsory Committee or EAC—rejected it.

Olson declared martial law, banning picketing and issuing permits only to trucks delivering essentials. The National Guard raided CA and strike headquarters and arrested union leaders. The permit system quickly relaxed. Firms began to deliver wares, causing 574 president Bill Brown to claim that the governor was “the best strikebreaking force our union has ever gone up against.”

On August 5, Olson allowed only those firms that signed the Haas-Dunnigan proposal to get trucking permits. Under pressure, the EAC finally voted to accept it. The strike ended on August 22, 1934.

The Citizens’ Alliance’s iron grip had been broken. Minneapolis’s notoriety as a “scab” town was replaced by a reputation for union support.

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