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During the 1939 WPA strike in Minneapolis, things got violent

Minnesota was the only state in which strikers faced criminal charges for preventing people from working.

historical photo of strikers
Work Progress Administration sewing project strike, Minneapolis, 1939
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In the summer of 1939, workers went on strike across the nation to protest budget cuts to the Works Progress Administration imposed by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. While they did not bring about the act’s repeal, they kept their jobs and were allowed to return to work after the strike. Minnesota was the only state in which strikers faced criminal charges for preventing people from working.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) created jobs for millions of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. In early 1939, Minneapolis WPA officials dismissed over 900 women workers, defending the decision by saying that the women could obtain income from Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). For most, however, getting ADC was impossible; even if they qualified, waiting for processing would deprive them of income.

As the job cuts continued, the women organized, and in May, 1500 workers voted to take a one-day strike. On June 2, more than 5,000 workers marched to the WPA’s Minneapolis office to demand re-instatement for laid-off workers and an increase in the budget for relief work. The one-day strike and march, however, did not succeed.

On Saturday, July 1, 1939, a new law went into effect: the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (Woodrum Act). Under this law, WPA positions were slashed from 3.35 million to 2 million, and the WPA budget was cut by 773 million dollars. Skilled Twin Cities workers’ hourly wages dropped from $1.25 to 71 cents. The result was the largest nationwide strike (up to that date) in US history, with close to half a million workers on strike across the country.

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On Tuesday, workers walked off their jobs at the Minnesota state fairgrounds. By the end of Wednesday, July 5, 13,350 workers were on strike in the Twin Cities alone. Workers in all sorts of projects walked off the job―plumbers, electricians, steam-fitters, sewing workers, and library workers. Even drummers in the Federal Symphonic band refused to play. Others, however, did not participate.

The next day, WPA administrator Linus C. Glotzbach declared that anyone who failed to report to work by Monday morning, July 10, would be fired and replaced with eligible workers on the relief rolls (the federal government’s lists of people looking for jobs).The strike continued, and on July 10, WPA officials announced that 90 percent of the projects were still closed in Minneapolis; 50 percent remained closed in St. Paul.

Thanks to previous organizing efforts, like the 1934 truckers’ strike, workers in the Twin Cities did not hesitate to engage in militant direct action. Pickets went to the various projects and prevented workers from breaking the strike by going back to work.

Violent clashes ensued. On Monday, July 10, fights along the picket line occurred at the sewing project headquartered at 123 2nd St North, and it was closed for the next five days. On July 14, there was a second battle at the sewing project, this time between pickets and police. A crowd of 3,000 had amassed in the area. Seemingly unprovoked, police fired into the crowd, killing one relief client and injuring twenty-four.

Neither the mayor of Minneapolis, George Leach, nor the governor of Minnesota, Harold Stassen, wanted to deal with the strike. They argued that since the WPA was a federal project, the city and state were not responsible for maintaining law and order. Previously, when there had been a labor dispute at a project, it had been shut down. Keeping projects open meant that workers would continue protesting.

Over the next week, a joint strike committee met with Glotzbach and Stassen to come to an agreement. The bosses got the workers to accept their existing wages and working conditions, and the strike was settled on July 21. Most of the laid off or fired workers were then re-instated or re-assigned to their jobs.

The fight was far from over, however. Twenty-five FBI agents had infiltrated the strike and uncovered a hard picket—a picket where workers physically prevent scabs from going to work by blocking entrances. The hard picket violated section 28 of the Woodrum Act, which stipulated that any person who denied another’s relief benefits by means of fraud, force, threat, or intimidation was guilty of a felony. As a result, hundreds of strikers were tried in court and given unusually high bail, and were convicted of felonies.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.