A presidential visit that changed the course of Minnesota’s labor history

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, left, with Drs. Charles H. Mayo, center, and William J. Mayo.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, left, with Drs. Charles H. Mayo, center, and William J. Mayo.

The president and his entourage arrived in Rochester by train on the morning of Aug. 8, 1934. Franklin D. Roosevelt had come to this Southern Minnesota town to honor the Mayo brothers and their world-famous medical clinic.

During his event-filled day in Rochester, Roosevelt would tour the clinic, broadcast a radio address from Soldiers Field, and sail down the Mississippi on Dr. William Mayo’s yacht, the North Star.

But he would also find time to conduct some important business with Minnesota’s governor, Floyd Olson. No direct record of that encounter is available, but secondhand reports indicate that the meeting could very well have changed the course of labor history in this state. While they were together in Rochester, Olson briefed Roosevelt about the violent truckers strike that had paralyzed Minneapolis during much of that summer.

In the months leading up to the Rochester visit, the White House had been bombarded with messages from Minnesotans of various political persuasions urging the president to intervene in the strike.

Trucking at a standstill
In May, Roosevelt had received a telegram from Minnesota Rep. Francis Shoemaker warning about dire conditions in Minneapolis. The Farmer Labor representative reported that all trucking transport in that city was at a standstill and that food supplies were dwindling. Shoemaker urged the president to use his “good offices” to prod the employers to agree to arbitration.

That summer, two federal labor negotiators, Francis Haas and Eugene Dunnigan, had been on the scene in Minnesota, attempting to arrange a settlement of the dispute, but they had been unable to get the employers to the negotiating table.

For their part, the employers refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the strikers’ demands. After Roosevelt left Minnesota, he received a telegram from a local businessman, L.S. Strong, maintaining that the strike was nothing more than “a communist uprising that should have been stamped out long ago.”

A strong card to play
But labor advocates knew they had a strong card to play as they lobbied the White House to intervene in the strike on their behalf. In July, George Lawson, the secretary of the Minnesota State Federation of Labor, had forwarded to Roosevelt a resolution adopted by the Minneapolis Central Labor Union calling for an investigation of “the financial group in Minneapolis” that had been receiving government subsidies and was preventing a settlement of the strike. “It appears to us that one branch of the federal government is counteracting the efforts of the federal mediators representing your department and the National Labor Board,” Lawson told the president.

The Minnesota labor leader was referring to the Roosevelt administration’s Reconstruction Finance Corp., the federal agency charged with the responsibility for maintaining the liquidity of the nation’s banks during the Great Depression. Like similar institutions all across the country, the Twin Cities banks had received a financial lifeline from the RFC.

On Aug. 8, while the president’s train was in Rochester, a group of Minneapolis labor leaders met with Louis Howe, Roosevelt’s chief aide, to press for more direct federal intervention in the strike. This group, led by Minneapolis Labor Review Editor Robley Cramer, targeted the RFC and its immense influence on the Twin Cities economy.

‘All reactionary Republicans’
In a letter summarizing their meeting, Cramer told Howe that while Haas and Dunnigan, the two federal mediators, were attempting to negotiate a strike settlement, federal appointees, who controlled bank credit, were blocking a settlement. Cramer pointed to a group of local RFC officials who he said were “all reactionary Republicans, held over from the conservative Hoover regime.”

“One word from President Roosevelt to these appointees … would end the strike,” Cramer declared bluntly.

Whether Roosevelt did, in fact, speak that word has never been documented, but soon after his visit, the strike was settled. Labor advocates knew that the RFC could exert immense leverage on Twin Cities area employers through its bailout of Northwest Banco, the region’s leading financial institution.

“Northwest Banco had been created to serve as the financial foundation of the industrial empire that encompassed most of the Minneapolis business community, including the milling giants Pillsbury and General Mills,” labor historian William Millikan would later write. “If the federal government drove Northwest Banco into bankruptcy, the shock wave would decimate many of the cities’ most important merchants and manufactures.”

Calls from the RFC to negotiators
Soon, Jesse Jones, the head of the RFC, was calling Haas and Dunnigan, and urging them to pressure local bankers to advocate for a strike settlement.

Minneapolis business leaders, who continued to resist a settlement, organized an 11th-hour lobbying blitz aimed at neutralizing the White House, but their resolve finally crumbled. On Aug. 21, they reluctantly signed on to a settlement plan that Haas and Dunnigan had drafted.

The next day, Jones wired the president to tell him that the strike had been settled and that employers had made “substantial concessions in the general interest.”

A dark chapter in Minneapolis labor history had finally closed. Going forward, local labor leaders would encounter a more level playing field as they continued to negotiate for better wages and working conditions during the turbulent 1930s.
On Thursday, Aug. 6, labor historian David Riehle will lead a walking tour of historic sites associated with the 1934 truckers strike. The tour will leave from the Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall, at 6:30 p.m.

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