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How owners broke the 1903 Minneapolis flour mill strike

The breaking of the strike cemented the power of the Minneapolis Citizens Alliance, a group of business owners who banded together to limit workers’ rights.

historic photo of workers walking in parade
Flour mill employees march in a Labor Day parade in Minneapolis, September 5, 1904.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In September 1903, workers in the Minneapolis flour milling industry coordinated a strike that halted production in fourteen different mills. The striking workers fought for higher wages and an eight-hour day. Though their effort failed, it marked a turning point in the city’s labor history by spurring mill owners and other business leaders to limit unions through the Citizens Alliance, an anti-worker organization.

In summer 1903, flour loaders in Minneapolis negotiated for an eight-hour workday, with no success. On September 23, an estimated 1,300 flour mill employees gathered for a meeting to discuss going on strike. Striking—refusing to work—was their last option.

The workers were organized under the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which emphasized arbitration in labor disputes. John M. Finley, president of the International Union of Flour and Cereal Employees, helped organize the flour loaders, who wanted an eight-hour workday at their existing pay rate. Packers and nailers also wanted women flour packers to receive the same wages and hours as their male counterparts to avoid undercutting wages. The workers gave mill owners until 3 o’clock pm on September 23 to agree to arbitration and avert a strike.

The mill owners refused to negotiate with workers. They argued that their employees were well compensated and that pay increases would make Minneapolis mills less competitive nationally. One owner said he would shut down his plant indefinitely rather than discuss the pay scale with his workers. The union leadership responded that flour loading was strenuous and difficult to sustain for ten hours, and that injustice done to workers in other parts of the country was “not sufficient grounds for inequalities” in Minneapolis.

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The strike began on September 24. Mills belonging to Pillsbury-Washburn, Washburn-Crosby, and Northwestern Consolidated Companies were forced to close. Workers threatened small mills with a strike if they took orders from closed mills. The striking employees included an estimated 500 packers and nailers, 375 loaders, and 630 mill-operatives out of 1,934 men employed in the industry. Not all the striking workers belonged to the union; public opinion pressured many non-union men to go on strike. Only the millwrights, machinists, and a few others remained at work.

Rather than arbitrate with the workers, the mill owners worked to replace them. They advertised nationally for employees and sent recruiters to New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, and Duluth. Mills promised a free train ticket to Minneapolis, room and board during the strike, and permanent employment. The Pillsbury B Mill hired seventy-five students from the University of Minnesota to work six-hour shifts. To further entice new workers, mill owners organized a commissary department. It included cots and a dining room so that strikebreakers would not need to leave the neighborhood and cross the picket line. Owners barricaded the Mill District and required anyone coming in to have a mill-issued pass. Food vendors brought in provisions under police protection.

The striking workers continued to picket and pressure the mills, despite the pushback from mill owners. They received financial assistance from other unions, and there was talk of a sympathetic strike among railway switchmen. By October 6, however, twelve mills were running, and the union did not have enough financial resources to continue supporting the strikers. Union President Finley recommended that workers end the strike and return to work on October 9. Amid rumors that he had sold out to the owners, the striking mill workers rejected his advice and demanded that new officers take charge.

The strike was essentially over by mid-October. Some workers were able to regain their jobs. Others, who were identified by owners as key organizers, were not rehired. Still, the 1903 strike united workers across the milling industry and inspired them to push for workplace reform.

The 1903 strike cemented the power of the Minneapolis Citizens Alliance, a group of business owners who banded together to limit workers’ rights. At its core was a network of financial power provided by bankers, grain millers, and other business owners. In the wake of the 1903 strike, they sought to prevent workers from forming unions or going on strike. The Citizens Alliance played a significant role in limiting workers’ rights, reaching a critical point during the Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strike of 1934.

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