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Saturday, September 27, 2014
From The Labor History Archives -In The 80th Anniversary Year Of The Great San Francisco, Minneapolis And Toledo General Strikes- Lessons In The History Of Class Struggle-
1934 Strikes-Class-Struggle Leadership Made the Difference-Then and Now
Frank Jackman comment:
This month I have been highlighting the three great general strikes from 80 years ago, the great 1934 actions in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo for a number of reason not the least of which is that was probably the last serious “in your face” massive class struggle in this country (on both sides when both sides played for keeps) unlike these days when we have put up with a relentless one-sided class struggle and working people in their mass have bent sown on their knees. However if they ever do, and I believe that will happen, get off their knees they will need to know so of the lessons from previous struggles, the good and the bad. While we all know that like in military affairs the generals tend to fight from what they knew from the last war despite changes in time, place and technology that today’s massive class battles will look different from those in 1934 those events still are a beacon for today’s labor militants to follow. Read on.
Workers Vanguard No. 1050
8 August 2014
1934 Strikes-Class-Struggle Leadership Made the Difference-Then and Now
In 1934, four years into the Great Depression, the victory of three citywide strikes—centered on the Teamsters in Minneapolis, auto parts workers in Toledo and longshoremen in San Francisco—would open the door to a mass upsurge of working-class struggle and the organization of powerful industrial unions. Today, six years after the onset of the biggest economic crisis since the Depression, what remains of organized labor in this country continues to be pummeled in a one-sided class war. While the bosses and their state relentlessly savage the working class and poor, strike action in the U.S. remains at a historic low.
What accounts for the difference between then and now? A crucial factor is that “reds” led the 1934 strikes. In Minneapolis, the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America (CLA) stood at the head of three strikes by workers in the city’s trucking industry that would help turn this Midwest bastion of the “open shop” into a union town. In the process, a tiny, craft-based Teamsters local was transformed into an industrial union of thousands of workers. In Toledo, the left-wing socialists of A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party (AWP) played a key role in a strike against the Electric Auto-Lite Company. This victory set the stage for the later organization of the United Auto Workers union. In San Francisco, supporters of the Stalinist Communist Party (CP) were leaders of an 83-day strike by longshoremen, together with seamen and other maritime and port workers, culminating in a four-day general strike. Out of this struggle, a coastwide, industrial union of longshore workers was forged.
Today, the trade-union bureaucrats who head the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations argue that such working-class battles are no longer possible—the economic conditions are too dire, the corporations too powerful, the arsenal of strikebreaking laws too vast: the unions will simply be busted and jobs shipped “offshore.” Yet the 1934 strikes took place amid the most devastating capitalist economic crisis in history. Following the October 1929 stock market crash, workers were paralyzed by fear of losing whatever meager livelihood they had and of being cast into the sea of millions who were unemployed, starving and homeless. By 1933, the membership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had plummeted to half of what it had been in 1920.
The AFL unions were craft-based, reinforcing workplace divisions that made it easier for the forces of capital to prey on them, and in general represented better-paid, more-skilled workers, while leaving black people and most immigrants out in the cold. The vast majority of workers who labored in the giant auto, steel, rubber and other industries were unorganized and despised by the labor aristocracy that headed the AFL. So loyal were these labor statesmen to the preservation and profitability of American capitalism that in the early days of the Depression they agreed to a “no strike” pledge at the request of the hated Republican Herbert Hoover administration and joined it in opposing any government relief for the unemployed.
But the very conditions that had so devastated and demoralized the workers, setting them one against the other in a fight to survive, would begin to propel them into struggle. In 1933, there was a slight upturn in the economy. The working class had also been given hope, however false, by the 1932 election of Democratic Party president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his promise to provide “a new deal for the American people.” The following year, a strike wave broke out and the workers began to turn en masse to the very AFL unions that had disdained them, demanding organization.
As CLA leader James P. Cannon wrote in an article at the time:
“The workers are on the move. That is what is new, that is what is important in the situation. The trade union is the first and most elementary form of working class organization, for which no substitute has ever been invented. The workers have taken the first steps on the path of class development through that door.… No matter how conservative the unions may be, no matter how reactionary their present leadership, and regardless of what the real purposes of the Roosevelt administration were in giving a certain encouragement and impetus to this trade union revival—in spite of all of this, the movement itself represents an elemental force, a power which, properly influenced at the right time by the class conscious vanguard, can break through all the absolute forms and frustrate all the reactionary schemes.”
— “The AFL, the Strike Wave, and Trade Union Perspectives,” Militant, 14 October 1933
In the 1934 citywide strikes, the rising militancy of the working class would be fused with a leadership equal to the battle. All of these strikes were virtual civil wars pitting the workers against strikebreaking armies of company thugs, cops and National Guard troops. In each case, supposedly “labor friendly” agencies of the capitalist state appealed to the workers to end their strikes with the promise that government mediators would negotiate a “fair agreement.” From within the “house of labor,” the strike leaders had to take on the AFL bureaucrats who did the government’s bidding and had enforced all of the craft, ethnic and racial hostilities that divided the workers and undermined their struggles. What made the difference was that the workers were politically and organizationally armed by leaders who understood that the only possible road to victory lay in mobilizing their power as a class against the capitalist class enemy.
FDR Was No “Friend of Labor”
The AFL-CIO bureaucracy has long peddled the myth that it was Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) enacted by FDR’s Democratic Party administration in 1933 that led to the organization of industrial unions—inclusive unions that sought to represent all workers in a given industry. This is a convenient lie, used as an alibi for decades by the union misleaders who have sacrificed strikes and the unions themselves on the altar of class collaboration, from legislative lobbying to getting out the vote for the Democrats. In fact, as its name makes clear, the whole purpose of the NRA was the “recovery” of the profitability of American capitalism. Suspending antitrust laws, it established industrial associations for which the employers set production quotas, working conditions, minimum wages and maximum hours. The result was the consolidation of ever more powerful capitalist monopolies grinding out greater profits through the increasingly brutal exploitation of labor.
Section 7(a), which allowed that “all employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively,” was added mainly due to the prodding of John L. Lewis, the dictatorial and sometimes maverick head of the United Mine Workers (UMW) union. While AFL president William Green threw his support behind Section 7(a), he continued to fear any organizing drive that would rupture the “sanctity” of lily-white craft unionism. (Remarking on Green’s intelligence, Lewis once quipped: “Green doesn’t have a head. His neck just grew up and haired over.”)
Thrown in mainly as a sop to labor, Section 7(a) also reflected a growing concern, at least among the more farsighted of America’s capitalist rulers, that the workers were becoming increasingly restive. FDR was certainly the most farsighted among them. Moreover, as a patrician of the landowning elite in the U.S., Roosevelt had fewer reservations about curbing some of the excesses of the industrial and financial magnates of American capitalism—in order to save the system and head off social struggle.
Strike action had already begun to break out earlier in 1933. The millions of unorganized workers who toiled on the assembly lines and in the open hearths were starting to stir with a sense of their numbers and their strategic position as the vital element of U.S. industry. Concerned that the craft-based AFL would not be able to contain the growing antagonism between labor and capital, Section 7(a) was adopted in a bid to keep these workers under the thumb of the government’s loyal labor lieutenants in the AFL bureaucracy.
This seeming concession to labor was designed to lull the workers into the belief that the government would “protect” their interests. To this end, regional labor boards were set up to facilitate government arbitration of any potential conflict. The purpose was to prevent strikes by entangling workers in protracted hearings. The workers who began to pour into the existing AFL unions following the passage of the NRA soon discovered that joining a union was not the same as winning employer recognition or even raising the miserably low wages imposed in every industry by the terms of the NRA.
Throughout the 1933 strike wave, the biggest since the early 1920s, the workers fought with great heroism. But their strikes were betrayed by the AFL tops, who bowed to the dictates of FDR’s labor mediators, or broken by armed strikebreakers deployed by the bosses and the government. An ACLU report at the beginning of 1934 summarized the results of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” for labor: “At no time has there been such widespread violation of workers’ rights by injunctions, troops, private police, deputy sheriffs, labor spies and vigilantes” (New York Times, 11 February 1934; cited in Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step, 1964).
The resentment of the workers toward the union misleaders grew, while their illusions in FDR began to wane. The brutality of the police and military attacks, and the courage with which the strikers had resisted these offensives, also left its mark on workers’ consciousness. These factors were all important preconditions for the further awakening of labor struggle. The avowed socialists who led workers in the Minneapolis trucking industry, longshoremen in San Francisco and auto parts workers in Toledo to victory in 1934 would light the spark.
The Trotskyists, Stalinists and Musteites
Among the leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes were Carl Skoglund and Vincent Ray Dunne, both longtime labor militants. As a young lumberjack, harvest hand and itinerant laborer in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, Dunne had fought side by side with the early pioneers of industrial unionism in the Industrial Workers of the World. In his early years, Skoglund had led a strike for union recognition among pulp mill workers in his native Sweden, where he joined the Social Democratic Party. Blacklisted as a radical for his union and other political activities, Skoglund moved to the U.S. and became a leader of the left-wing of the Scandinavian section of the American Socialist Party. Inspired like many leftist radicals in the U.S. by the 1917 Russian Revolution—the first proletarian insurrection to successfully break the chains of capitalist exploitation—Skoglund became a founding member of the Communist Party in 1919 and Dunne joined the next year.
By the late 1920s, an ascendant bureaucracy headed by J.V. Stalin had usurped political power from the working class in the Soviet Union and repudiated the revolutionary internationalist program of Bolshevism. The effect on the American CP and other parties of the Communist International (or Comintern), set up under V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky as an organizing center for world revolution, was highly corrosive. In this context, Skoglund, Dunne and two of his brothers, Miles and Grant, were won to the CLA, the fledgling organization of American Trotskyism. Against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the American CP, the Trotskyists maintained their commitment to the program and principles of Marxism.
Expelled from the CP, small in number and isolated—and with the mass of workers still paralyzed by fear of the ravages of the Great Depression—the Trotskyists understood that the central task at the time was to regroup, rearm politically, win over the most class-conscious workers and others and prepare for the future class battles they knew would come. As Cannon outlined in a 1932 article:
“The Communist workers are not the working class. They are only its conscious section, and at present in America they are a small and numerically insignificant section. The Communist workers alone cannot fight real class battles. Their function is to fight with the workers and in their front ranks. The task of the Communists at the moment is to prepare the workers for the coming struggles. The center of this task is the ‘patient work of explanation’; of agitation and propaganda to win the workers over to a course of struggle.”
— “The Threat of Illegality,” Militant, 19 March 1932
Working as coal drivers for a Minneapolis coal company during the early years of the Depression, Skoglund and the Dunne brothers engaged in the work of “patient explanation” with their coworkers. Over the course of three years, they won a core of workers to the idea of fighting for industrial union organization. Miles Dunne also convinced the president of the tiny Teamsters General Drivers Local 574, Bill Brown, to come on board as part of the voluntary organizing committee the Trotskyists were building. Not your typical AFL official, Brown had good class instincts and was fed up with the no-strike craft unionism enforced by the national leadership of the Teamsters union. Thus was assembled the central cadre of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes headed by supporters of the Communist League of America.
The Communist Party in the 1930s was a whole different kettle of fish. Founded under the impact of the Russian Revolution by the best of a generation of socialist and other labor radicals in the U.S., the party had lost its Marxist compass in the late 1920s. It was succumbing to the combined pressures of the then-booming prosperity of U.S. capitalism, which sapped the CP’s earlier revolutionary confidence, and the corrupting influence of the Kremlin Stalinists. This bureaucratic regime was itself the product of the combined weight on Soviet society of failed revolutionary opportunities in the more advanced countries of the capitalist West, particularly Germany, and years of war and privation.
The Kremlin Stalinists did not eradicate the gains of the October Revolution. Just as the trade unions remain working-class organizations despite their bureaucratic leadership, the Soviet Union remained a workers state. At the same time, just as the union misleaders’ collaboration with the bosses has undermined the very existence of organized labor, the rule of the Soviet bureaucracy endangered—and would in the end pave the way for the destruction of—the world’s first workers state.
Renouncing the struggle for working-class revolution in other countries, the Soviet bureaucracy pushed the anti-Marxist notion of building “socialism in one country.” The Communist parties internationally were transformed into little more than outposts for the policies of the Kremlin in its quest to “coexist” with world imperialism. Along the way, there were many gyrations in the political line of Stalin and his followers, both to the right and the left.
In the late 1920s, Stalin adopted a course of ultraleft adventurism in the face of the implacable hostility of the capitalist world and to cut the ground from under Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which fought against the bureaucracy’s betrayals. To justify this turn in policy, the Comintern declared that capitalism was entering a so-called “Third Period” of its existence in which the victory of proletarian revolution was supposedly imminent across the globe, a prognosis at odds with social and political reality. The reformist social-democratic workers parties, as well as trade unions internationally, were denounced as “social fascist.” In the U.S., the CP abandoned the AFL unions to form largely marginal “revolutionary unions.” As a result, the Communists all overwhelmingly found themselves on the sidelines of the labor battles of 1933-34.
On the West Coast, however, the CP’s district organizer, Sam Darcy, began to reject the ultraleft idiocies of the Third Period. When longshoremen flooded into the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), an AFL affiliate, following the NRA’s passage in 1933, CP supporters and other longshore militants whom Darcy had begun to cohere also joined the union. Known as the Albion Hall group after their meeting place, this circle of maritime workers would become the core leadership of the 1934 longshore strike. Among their number was the strike’s most well-known leader, Harry Bridges.
Although Darcy’s rejection of the Third Period would presage the CP’s coming embrace of the Roosevelt administration, at the time the Stalinists still spoke the language of working-class struggle. A mimeographed newsletter named the Waterfront Worker (WFW) that had been produced since 1932 hammered away at illusions in FDR and his NRA labor mediators. It also took on the craft unionism and class-collaboration of the AFL union tops, whose mutual scabbing deals with the employers had set waterfront and maritime workers against each other, contributing to the repeated defeat of strikes. Through the WFW and their leadership of job actions, the CP supporters politically armed and organized longshoremen for battle with the shipping bosses, the government and their agents in the labor movement.
A.J. Muste’s organization was a different political animal from either the Trotskyists or the Stalinists. A preacher and a pacifist, Muste first became a partisan of working-class struggle in 1919, when he served as a leader of a strike by overwhelmingly immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. A director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York, Muste in 1929 was a key founder of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), whose aim was to pressure the AFL into undertaking “progressive” labor action. Under the impact of the Great Depression, the CPLA moved to the left, reflecting the growing militancy of the workers, and became the core of the American Workers Party, which was founded in 1933.
In the early 1930s, the main work of the CPLA was organizing the unemployed. In Toledo’s Lucas County, its Unemployed League led militant mass actions that won cash relief for jobless workers. The CPLA’s fight to unite the unemployed behind workers’ struggles—as opposed to abandoning the jobless to the bosses, to be recruited as strikebreakers—would be key in turning the tide against the scabs, cops and National Guard troops who were mobilized to smash the Toledo Auto-Lite strike in 1934.
Of the leaderships of the three 1934 citywide strikes, the Trotskyists were the only genuine Marxists. They carried forward the vital task of forging a revolutionary party of the most advanced and class-conscious workers, understanding that only such a party is capable of arming the proletariat with the political consciousness and organization necessary to bury the rule of capitalist exploitation and oppression. As such, the leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes were the most conscious and farsighted.
Nonetheless, however episodic or transitional, at the time both the Stalinists who led the longshore strike and the Musteites in Toledo were committed to a program of class struggle. Unlike other strikes at the time, the militancy of the workers was not restrained by leaders who promoted the lie of a “partnership” between labor and capital. Instead, the mass strength and solidarity of the workers was organized and politically directed by leaders who rejected any notion that the bosses are “reasonable” or their state “neutral.” Understanding the forces of the class enemy that would be arrayed against any union struggle, the leaders of these strikes were prepared for class war. And it was no easy fight.
The “Battle of Toledo”
Toledo was a small, low-wage city ravaged by unemployment and dominated by parts manufacturers for Detroit’s giant automobile industry. After the passage of the NRA, the AFL tops had begrudgingly chartered temporary cross-trade “federal” unions of assembly line workers. In February, Federal Local 18384 in Toledo struck several parts companies, including Auto-Lite, for a wage increase. Agreeing to submit the dispute to mediation by the local NRA labor board, the AFL bureaucrats called the strike off after six days. Fed up with waiting for the company to negotiate, roughly 500 Auto-Lite workers went on strike again in April.
Slammed with a court injunction that limited pickets even as some 1,800 scabs poured into the plant, the strikers appealed for help to the CPLA’s Lucas County Unemployed League. Two young League leaders sent a letter to the judge announcing that they would continue to bolster the Auto-Lite picket lines in defiance of the injunction. Arrested, tried and forbidden to resume picketing, the League members and strikers who had packed the courtroom walked straight out and got back on the picket lines. By the end of May, the pickets had swelled to more than 10,000 people.
On May 23, an army of company goons and cops who had been mobilized to escort scabs in and out of the plant let loose with a fusillade of tear gas. The picketers, armed with only bricks and stones, built barricades. Holding their ground, the strikers laid siege to the scabs inside the plant. The police retreated, and 900 National Guardsmen were sent in to provide passage out for the scabs. Firing point blank into the picket lines, the troops killed two workers and wounded 25 more. The six-day “Battle of Toledo” had begun, as the workers fought from rooftops and through alleyways against these troops. By May 31, the company had agreed to release the scabs and shut down production at the plant until strike terms were settled. The demoralized National Guard troops, who had taken many casualties of their own, were also withdrawn.
By that time, all but one of the local AFL unions had voted for a general strike despite the efforts of their leaders to sell union members on turning to Roosevelt for redress. On June 1, 40,000 workers and other strike supporters massed in front of the county courthouse. Three days later, the Auto-Lite bosses capitulated, signing a six-month agreement that included wage increases above the NRA minimum. Most importantly, the union was recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent in the plant, contrary to an earlier ruling by FDR’s Automobile Labor Board mandating proportional representation for company unions in union elections. By the end of the year, 19 more auto plants had been organized in Lucas County.
One of the participants in the Toledo battles was Art Preis, a member of the Unemployed League who went on to become a lifelong member of the Socialist Workers Party, a successor of the CLA. As he described in his book Labor’s Giant Step (1964):
“It was at this stage, when strike after strike was being crushed, that the Toledo Electric Auto-Lite Company struggle blazed forth to illuminate the whole horizon of the American class struggle. The American workers were to be given an unforgettable lesson in how to confront all the agencies of the capitalist government—courts, labor boards and armed troops—and win.”
Among the most enduring lessons from this strike was the role that can be played in workers’ struggles by the unemployed when organized and led by class-struggle militants.
The Minneapolis Teamsters Strikes
Many books have been written documenting the events and leadership of the three 1934 strikes that established an industrial union in the Minneapolis trucking industry. These include Teamster Rebellion (1972) by Farrell Dobbs, a young leader of all three strikes who was won to Trotskyism through his experience in the very first of these battles; American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis (1937) by Charles Walker; and most recently, Revolutionary Teamsters (2014) by Bryan Palmer.
In his speech on “The Great Minneapolis Strikes” given some years later, American Trotskyist leader Cannon summed up the central lessons:
“There was no essential difference, in fact I don’t think there was any serious difference at all between the strikers in Minneapolis and the workers involved in a hundred other strikes throughout the land in that period. Nearly all the strikes were fought with the greatest militancy by the workers. The difference was in the leadership and the policy. In practically all the other strikes the militancy of the rank-and-file workers was restrained from the top. The leaders were overawed by the government, the newspapers, the clergy, and one thing or another. They tried to shift the conflict from the streets and the picket lines to the conference chambers. In Minneapolis the militancy of the rank and file was not restrained but organized and directed from the top.…
“The modern labor movement must be politically directed because it is confronted by the government at every turn. Our people were prepared for that since they were political people, inspired by political conceptions. The policy of the class struggle guided our comrades; they couldn’t be deceived and outmaneuvered, as so many strike leaders of that period were, by this mechanism of sabotage and destruction known as the National Labor Board and all its auxiliary setups. They put no reliance whatever in Roosevelt’s Labor Board; they weren’t fooled by any idea that Roosevelt, the liberal ‘friend of labor’ president, was going to help the truck drivers in Minneapolis win a few cents more an hour. They weren’t deluded even by the fact that there was at that time in Minnesota a Farmer-Labor Governor, presumed to be on the side of the workers.
“Our people didn’t believe in anybody or anything but the policy of the class struggle and the ability of the workers to prevail by their mass strength and solidarity.”
— The History of American Trotskyism, 1944
All three of the strikes by workers in the city’s trucking industry were carefully organized, as the leadership understood that winning even so modest a demand as union recognition would hinge on the balance of forces brought to bear by the contending sides. The first test of strength came with a three-day strike of coal haulers in February. It was strategically planned to hit the companies during sub-zero winter weather when their deliveries, and profits, were highest. Well-orchestrated pickets shut down coal deliveries in the first three hours of the strike. Imbued with a sense of their power as a class, young workers newly won to the union came up with their own innovation, the cruising picket, whereby strikers in a car or truck cruised the streets to stop scab trucks. Such “flying pickets” would become a critical weapon of working-class struggle in the forging of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Caught off guard, the bosses quickly capitulated, with an agreement to recognize Local 574 as the bargaining agent of the strikers. Workers throughout the city were electrified by this victory, providing a springboard for organizing throughout the trucking industry, including not just drivers but also loading dock, warehouse and other inside workers. The Trotskyists were viewed by the ranks as the real leadership of the local and the voluntary organizing committee was voted official union status. Knowing that the February strike was but an opening skirmish, the CLA supporters began to prepare the workers and their allies for the upcoming battles.
For two decades, a cabal of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful capitalists, known as the Citizen’s Alliance, had been the central force in smashing strikes and keeping unions out. It hired spies and strikebreakers and had the local police force at its command. On the union side, the Trotskyists organized for what they knew would be an all-out war. A city garage was converted into strike headquarters. Arrangements were made for a machine shop to service and repair the trucks and cars deployed as cruising pickets. These vehicles would be dispatched with military precision as strike leaders stayed in contact with picket captains and constantly monitored police radios. Food was served daily at a commissary in the strike headquarters. There was an auditorium for mass meetings. The headquarters also included a field hospital staffed around the clock by doctors and nurses so that injured workers would not have to risk arrest at city hospitals.
Recognizing, as Cannon put it, “that the women have a vital interest in the struggle, no less than the men,” the strikers’ wives were organized in a women’s auxiliary, which became an important part of the strike machinery. The women not only ran many of the operations in strike headquarters but also conducted effective pickets against City Hall and the bourgeois press. Following the example of Toledo, the strike leaders and CLA members appealed to unemployed workers to join the picket lines, while simultaneously organizing for labor to mobilize in defense of the jobless.
All of these measures were taken in a local that was part of one of the most conservative craft unions in the AFL. Teamsters president Daniel Tobin was a bitter and implacable opponent of industrial unionism. But rather than spewing radical rhetoric from outside the AFL, as the Stalinists overwhelmingly did at the time, the Trotskyists had correctly projected that when the workers began to organize they would likely turn to the already established AFL unions. Thus, they were in a position to break the shackles of craft unionism from the inside. As part of the AFL, Local 574 had ready access to other federation affiliates to mobilize solidarity. Inspired by the militancy and determination of the Local 574 strike committee, thousands of workers throughout the city would join the striking workers in action.
The most significant joint action occurred in the early days of the second strike in May. After beating unarmed picketers, including women, to a bloody pulp, the cops and “special deputies” organized by the Citizen’s Alliance made a move to open up the city’s central marketplace to scab trucks. They were met by an army of workers and other strike supporters equipped with baseball bats, clubs and rubber hoses. A two-day battle ensued. At its height, some 20-30,000 stood on Local 574’s side. Scenes of the deputies and then the cops fleeing in terror, in what became known as the “Battle of Deputies Run,” made headline news and were played in newsreels at movie theaters across the country. Audiences of workers cheered; finally, labor was winning one for a change.
In the end, the May strike settlement that was agreed to by the strike leadership and voted up by the membership accorded the union official recognition, not only for the truckers but also for other workers in the industry. Like any other contract agreement, it was a compromise, a truce in the ongoing war between labor and capital. The difference was that the Trotskyists on the Local 574 strike committee knew it. Prepared to continue the fight until victory, they seized on each lull in the struggle to bolster the strength of the pro-union side.
Local 574 was up against not only the forces of the capitalist class enemy but also their agents inside the labor movement in the AFL bureaucracy. Tobin was enraged by the Minneapolis strikes. He first tried to stop the February strike, but his letter forbidding it only arrived after the strike was successfully concluded. Then, he declared that the May strike was a violation of all of the union’s “laws” and issued a red-baiting tirade against the radical “serpents” in the strike leadership. Such rants were grist for the bosses’ strikebreaking propaganda mills, which went into high gear as the union prepared for its third strike.
Reneging on the May strike settlement, the trucking companies, backed by the Citizen’s Alliance, geared up to crush the union. While the press screamed that the “Communist-led” Teamsters Local 574 was preparing a revolutionary take over of the city, 400 more cops were hired and armed with machine guns and rifles fitted with bayonets. Now over 7,000-strong, Local 574 voted to strike again on July 16.
For the first time in the history of the American labor movement, the workers were guided by their own daily strike newspaper, the Organizer. Countering the confusion and demoralization sown by the red-baiting, union-busting barrage that issued from the bosses’ hired media pens, the Organizer gave workers the real story and prepared them for struggle. This development was, as James P. Cannon put it, a “crowning contribution” of Trotskyism to the Minneapolis strikes. And Cannon, Max Shachtman and other CLA leaders were on site to help put it out, as well as to give their comrades in the strike leadership vital political backup and guidance.
In the opening days of the July strike, the cops opened fire on a truck loaded with union pickets. Over 67 were injured, and two later died—striker Henry Ness and unemployed league member John Belor. The city’s workers erupted in outrage, with some 40,000 people turning out for the funeral for Ness. The cops wisely agreed to stay off the streets that day, as the workers themselves provided security for the silent procession to the cemetery.
Federal mediators had been parachuted in from Washington to negotiate an end to the strike. How these and other mediators who were sent in during the May strike were handled by the strike leadership was decisive. Unlike other strike leaders, the Trotskyists were not taken in by the ruse that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt government and its agents were “friends of labor.” As Marxists, they understood that the capitalist state and all its institutions were not neutral but represented and would enforce the interests of the bosses. While the strike leaders met with the mediators, they didn’t give an inch, refusing the concessionary horse-trading deals made behind the backs of the ranks that doomed so many strikes, then and now.
Local 574 leaders also confronted a slick operator in the person of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor governor, Floyd B. Olson, who commanded the allegiance of the state’s AFL officials. Especially since the governor was adept at posturing as a radical firebrand who supported the workers’ cause, illusions in Olson were widespread among working people. On the eve of the May strike, he sent a written message to a mass meeting of Local 574 and its supporters urging the workers to “band together for your own protection and welfare.” The Trotskyists wanted to get Olson on record in support of the union’s campaign and used his professed solidarity to win broader support for Local 574’s fight. At the same time, they knew that the Farmer-Labor governor was the executive commander of the capitalist armed forces in Minnesota.
The union leadership had backed Olson off from deploying the National Guard against the May strike, playing on his fear of losing the political support of the labor movement in upcoming elections. But his job as governor of the state was to defend the interests of the bosses. As the July strike unfolded, Olson played his strikebreaking hand.
When the trucking companies rejected a settlement worked out by federal mediators, Olson declared martial law and ordered National Guard troops onto the streets. While the local AFL Labor Council misleaders worried about the potential damage to the governor’s political career, Local 574 rallied thousands of workers behind the call to defy the troops and resume mass pickets. Cannon and Shachtman, who had been arrested by the cops, were among the first turned over to the National Guard. Soon after, the troops invaded strike headquarters, arresting many top strike leaders. Some escaped the dragnet, while other Local 574 members who had been steeled in previous battles took the place of those arrested.
Olson’s aim had been to behead the Trotskyist leadership of the union and force the ranks to elect new leaders who would end the strike. Instead, as Charles Walker wrote in American City: “The strike’s conduct had been such that a thousand lesser leaders had come out of the ranks and the pickets themselves by this time had learned their own jobs. The arrest of the leaders, instead of beheading the movement, infused it, at least temporarily, with a demoniac fury.” As mass picketing again resumed, Olson released the imprisoned union leaders and returned the captured strike headquarters to the union. But he did not pull back the National Guard troops.
After five weeks of hard struggle, the employers’ association finally broke and agreed to a settlement. Local 574 became the bargaining agent for 60 percent of the workforce in the city’s trucking industry. In subsequent years, the Trotskyist union militants would organize the remaining truckers in Minneapolis and then embark on a successful organizing drive throughout the Midwest that laid the basis for forging the Teamsters as one of the most powerful industrial unions in the U.S.
Workers Vanguard No. 1051
5 September 2014
Class-Struggle Leadership Made the Difference
Then and Now
Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 1050 (8 August).
The 83-day West Coast maritime strike was launched on May 9. It was the eve of the second Minneapolis Teamsters strike, and the second Toledo strike was on. The largest and longest of the 1934 citywide strikes (Minneapolis and Toledo were discussed in Part One of this article), the West Coast labor action involved ports from Los Angeles to Seattle. But the decisive events, first and foremost a four-day general strike, unfolded in San Francisco. A battle that would transform SF into a union town for decades to come, the strike has been the subject of countless labor histories, academic studies and other works. Mike Quin’s The Big Strike (1949) provides probably the most thorough account. It is also addressed at some length in such books as Art Preis’s Labor’s Giant Step (1964), Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! (1972) and Bruce Nelson’s Workers on the Waterfront (1990), which is also a superb study of the history of “seamen, longshoremen, and unionism” up to and including the 1930s.
Regarding the 1934 West Coast maritime strike, Nelson argues:
“Among the many threads that were part of the Big Strike’s dynamism, four stand out as crucial: first, the strikers’ militancy, steadfastness, and discipline in the face of an adversary who wielded an arsenal of weapons ranging from private security forces and vigilantes to the bayonets and machine guns of the National Guard; second, a solidarity that swept aside old craft antagonisms and culminated in a general strike; third, a rank-and-file independence and initiative that came to mean frequent defiance of AFL norms and officials; and finally, in the face of an increasingly hysterical and violent wave of anti-Communist propaganda, a willingness to assess the Red presence in the strike independently, from the workers’ own standpoint, and a growing tendency to view Red-baiting as an instrument of the employers.”
There is no gainsaying the determination, combativity and courage of the ranks of the union. But it was critical that the workers had a leadership that was animated at the time by a program of class struggle. The workers were aware of the importance of this leadership, which is why they didn’t buy into the bosses’ anti-Communist hysteria.
Prior to the strike, San Francisco was known as one of the most open shop cities in the U.S., the product of the crushing defeat of a 1919 longshore strike. Dock workers labored as little more than slaves under the whip of the “Blue Book” company union. This “union” enforced the rule of corrupt gang bosses who called the shots in handing out work to men made to assemble for the daily “shape up.” Up until 1933, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in SF had been little more than a paper union. Nationally, the union was ruled with an iron fist by ILA president Joseph Ryan. In the pocket of shipping bosses and capitalist politicians who handsomely rewarded him for his services, Ryan was notorious for hiring thugs and murderers to literally dispose of union militants and keep the New York port strike-free.
After joining the ILA, together with thousands of other West Coast longshoremen, in the summer of 1933, the Communist Party (CP) supporters in the Albion Hall group emerged as a caucus that would successfully challenge Ryan and his stooges on the West Coast for leadership. The group’s Waterfront Worker (WFW) newsletter had run articles preparing the membership to take on the employers and the government. Voicing the growing anger and fighting spirit of the longshoremen, it put forward a strategy for victory. It stressed not only the need to smash the hated “Blue Book” company union, but also to break through the AFL bureaucracy’s lily-white craft unionism, which had led to the repeated defeat of strikes by longshoremen and seamen as well as other maritime and port workers.
The WFW frontally took on the historic racism of the West Coast longshore union, especially its refusal to allow black workers to join. This racist exclusion made black workers ready fodder for the employers’ strikebreaking wars. In 1934, black longshoremen in San Francisco were few. Isolated in segregated gangs on two docks, they were widely distrusted, if not openly hated, for their role as scabs in previous longshore strikes. Addressing the deadly danger of this racial animosity to the union’s fight, the WFW called for integrated gangs on the docks and demanded a fight to bring black workers into the union.
Gaining authority through its leadership of several job actions on the SF docks, the Albion Hall group put forward a series of demands. The chief one was the call for a union hiring hall to break the employer’s total control over hiring in the slave-market “shape up.” In addition, the group sought to end the pitting of port against port, and worker against worker, by securing a coastwide agreement and cementing the fighting unity of all organized and unorganized maritime and port workers. At a February-March 1934 convention of rank-and-file delegates representing 14,000 longshoremen on the West Coast, the Albion Hall group’s demands were adopted. Following the convention, the union ranks overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike. Members of the Albion Hall group were elected to the strike committee in San Francisco, with Harry Bridges as its leader.
After repeated efforts by the Federal government of Franklin Roosevelt and the ILA misleaders to head off a strike through an arbitrated settlement, on May 9 longshoremen up and down the West Coast walked off the job. Seamen’s unions, which had their own contract demands, quickly joined them. By the end of May, at least 25,000 maritime workers were out. In the first few days of the strike, the employers had recruited nearly 1,000 scabs in San Francisco, including a sizable contingent from the UC Berkeley football team. Critical to stopping the movement of scab cargo off the docks were the Teamsters. Defying the longtime head of the SF Teamsters local, Mike Casey—a trusted ally of the employers and the city’s rulers who had ordered his members to scab on previous longshore strikes—the Teamsters membership decided to honor the strike.
On the first day of the strike, Albion Hall member and strike leader Henry Schmidt, together with one of the few black members of the SF ILA local, went to the pier where most of the black longshoremen were still working and called on them to join the strike and the union. Some 75 black longshoremen were signed up, many returning to their neighborhoods to convince others not to get taken in by employer appeals for scab labor. Breaking through the racist color bar—which was and is a central weapon of America’s capitalist rulers in their bid to divide and conquer workers in struggle—the strike leaders wrote an important page in U.S. labor history, one that would prove vital to the upcoming Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union organizing battles. The growing ranks of black longshoremen in the Bay Area longshore local became a militant backbone of the union as a whole.
The San Francisco General Strike
Given the importance of shipping to the U.S. economy, the West Coast maritime strike had to counter even greater government intervention than the strikes in Minneapolis and Toledo. Roosevelt personally intervened to postpone the first strike deadline, to which the ILA bureaucrats agreed. After the strike erupted, the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Edward McGrady, was sent in to try to end it. Ryan and other AFL leaders worked in cahoots with the shipping bosses and the government, both nationally and locally, providing a graphic example of the treachery of the union officialdom. Early American socialist Daniel De Leon popularized the apt description of the AFL tops as “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.”
Ryan flew to the West Coast in order to foist deals on the membership that he had cooked up in backroom negotiations. He was roundly repudiated by the ranks amid catcalls and cries of “fink” and “faker.” Teamsters leader Mike Casey, who was also part of those negotiations, had vowed to get members of his union back on the job moving scab cargo. After witnessing the reception given to Ryan by longshoremen, Casey quickly backed off his promise.
As the economy reeled under the impact of the strike, San Francisco’s Industrial Association—a conglomerate of the city’s most powerful financial and other capitalist interests—moved in to take charge of the strikebreaking and open the port. A torrent of red-baiting attacks on the strike leadership was unleashed in an effort to prepare “public opinion” for a bloody onslaught against the workers. The Hearst press blasted the strike as “COMMUNISM VS. AMERICAN LABOR,” while California’s Republican governor, Frank Merriam, raved against the “horde of irresponsible, professional agitators” leading “sabotage strikes.” Such rants were echoed by the leadership of the SF Central Labor Council (CLC) which passed a motion on June 22 “strongly advis[ing] the International Longshoremen’s Association, its members and representatives, to disavow all connections with the communistic element on the waterfront.”
The main battle took place on July 5. With the city’s rulers promising to open the port that day, more than 2,000 strikers massed at the docks to stop the movement of scab cargo. An army of cops and deputies unleashed tear and “vomit” gas on the crowd. Driven back, the picketers retreated up Rincon Hill. Armed with only sticks and stones, they built barricades, fought off the police and retreated to higher ground. After hours of fighting, the strikers made their way to the ILA union hall. Here they were ambushed by hundreds of cops who opened fire on those outside the hall and hurled tear gas canisters inside, to drive other workers out into the line of gun fire. Over 70 workers were shot, most in the back. ILA member Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise, a CP supporter and member of the Cooks Union, lay dead on the blood-drenched street.
At the end of the day, Governor Merriam ordered in the National Guard to occupy the waterfront. Some 2,000 troops were supplied with bayoneted rifles and machine guns and issued orders to “shoot to kill.” The balance of forces had dramatically shifted to the disadvantage of the strikers. As Harry Bridges said, “We cannot stand up against police, machine guns, and National Guard bayonets.”
But that equation would soon change. With support already building for a general strike of union members around the Bay Area, a signal event set it off. On July 9, tens of thousands of workers marched silently and solemnly up Market Street in San Francisco in a funeral procession for the two slain picketers. Even the official record of the Industrial Association spoke to the impact of this powerful display of proletarian discipline: “As the last marcher broke ranks, the certainty of a general strike, which up to this time had appeared to many to be a visionary dream of a small group of the most radical workers, became for the first time a practical and realizable objective” (quoted in The Big Strike).
The Teamsters, once again defying Casey, went on strike on July 12. By then over 60 unions had voted in favor of a general strike. Amid an avalanche of working-class anger and a determination to strike, the local AFL officials on the CLC moved to contain it by designating themselves the leaders of the “strike strategy” committee. The general strike began on July 16 and ended four days later. Strikers manned picket lines on highways leading into the city. Nothing was supposed to move without permission of the strike committee, and the workers maintained proletarian order and discipline. San Francisco was crippled, with at least 100,000 workers out. But the employers and the government had an ace in the hole, the treacherous AFL bureaucrats.
Throughout the general strike, CLC head Edward Vandeleur maintained direct contact with SF city officials and with the head of Roosevelt’s NRA agency, General Hugh Johnson. Just two days into the general strike, the CLC strike committee put forward a resolution calling for government arbitration of all issues in the waterfront strike. Despite the bitter opposition of longshoremen and seamen, the measure narrowly passed in a disputed vote.
The same day, the police, National Guard troops and strikebreaking vigilantes launched an anti-Communist reign of terror. A series of raids began on the CP’s Marine Workers’ Industrial Union, the offices of the party’s newspaper, the Western Worker, and many other radical organizations and meeting places. Offices, furniture and equipment were smashed and those inside beaten bloody, leaving a trail of victims who were then rounded up and arrested.
Raising the prospect that martial law would be declared and union delegates arrested, on July 19 the CLC bureaucrats put forward a motion to end the general strike. Narrowly passing by a vote of 191 to 174, with most delegates abstaining, the strike was ended after four days. California governor Merriam gave thanks that “the sane, intelligent, right-thinking leadership in the labor organizations has prevailed over the rash counsel of communistic and radical agitators.” Mayor Angelo Rossi joined in celebrating “the real leaders of organized labor” and was, in turn, congratulated by ILA president Joseph Ryan.
With their backs against the wall, longshoremen voted to accept arbitration on July 21. Honoring their commitment to stay out until all the maritime unions had voted, the longshoremen delayed going back to work for ten days. Returning to work on July 31, maritime and dock workers marched together across the Embarcadero, a disciplined and unbroken proletarian corps.
Although forced to submit to the very arbitration process they had repeatedly rejected, the longshoremen and seamen went back armed with confidence in the power of their class. Through repeated job actions over the months to come, they drove all the scabs off the waterfront and established work rules and conditions in defiance of the conditions of the settlement.
The arbitrated settlement had granted hiring halls run jointly by the employers and the unions. Under this arrangement, the ILA was put in control of job dispatch but employers were still allowed to choose among the available workforce. With the union in charge of dispatch and the longshoremen ready to take on any employer who refused to hire candidates from the hall, the union would solidify its control of hiring. However, the very strike leaders who had politically armed the workers to take on the bosses and their government would soon come to embrace Roosevelt’s Democratic Party administration and subordinate the workers’ struggles to it.
The 1934 Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco strikes opened the road to the class battles later in the decade that finally organized workers in the mass production industries into the CIO. Originally set up as a committee inside the AFL by John L. Lewis and other union officials, unions associated with the drive to organize industrial workers were expelled from the AFL in 1936, reflecting the commitment of the craft-union bureaucrats to only allowing skilled workers into the “house of labor.” The AFL and CIO would remain separate federations for close to two decades.
In his book John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography (1949), Saul Alinsky described what led Lewis to spearhead the CIO organizing:
“Lewis watched the unrest and flare-ups of violence through the summer of 1934. He saw the Dunne Brothers in Minneapolis lead a general strike of truck drivers into a virtual civil war. Blood ran in Minneapolis.
“In San Francisco a general strike spearheaded by Harry Bridges’ Longshoremen’s Union paralyzed the great Western city for four days.
“Before that year was out, seven hundred thousand workers had struck. Lewis could read the revolutionary handwriting on the walls of American industry. He knew the workers were seething and aching to be organized.”
The fact that the three 1934 citywide strikes had been led by leftists alarmed Lewis, who was determined to cut off Communists and Socialists from gaining leadership of the radicalized workers. Despite his political conservatism and contempt for union democracy, Lewis was at the same time a more farsighted bureaucrat who perceived the need to organize industrial unions in the mass production industries.
Lewis—who had driven reds out of the UMW and exterminated every vestige of opposition to his dictatorial rule of the union—now saw the usefulness of the talented and experienced CP unionists in the fight to build the CIO. The political precondition for Lewis bringing CP members and supporters on board as organizers was the party’s 1935 turn to supporting Roosevelt as the representative of a so-called “progressive wing” of the American bourgeoisie. The impetus for this turn was the coming to power of Hitler’s Nazis in Germany in 1933, a monstrous defeat for which the policies of Stalin’s “Third Period” bore no small responsibility.
The Stalinists and Social Democrats in Germany, who commanded the allegiance of millions of workers, did nothing to mobilize them in united action to smash Hitler’s brownshirts. The leaders of the Social Democratic Party had long ago gone over to the side of their “own” bourgeoisie in opposition to the fight for workers power. For its part, the CP criminally equated the Social Democrats with the capitalists’ fascist shock troops. After the resulting disaster in Germany, Stalin dumped the ultra-radical rhetoric of the “Third Period.” By 1935, in the name of the “popular front against fascism,” the Communist Parties around the world were ordered to ally with the “democratic” bourgeoisie against Nazi Germany.
Having many years earlier abandoned Marxist class principles in the service of the policies of the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy, few Communists in the U.S., or for that matter anywhere else, objected. They were all too accustomed to changing their political positions on a dime. In many ways, Darcy, Bridges et al., who broke with the CP’s “Third Period” denunciations of the AFL unions as “social fascist” and went into the ILA, were simply premature popular frontists.
CP supporters would be among the leaders of the gigantic working-class struggles that forged the CIO in the late 1930s. Carrying the American trade-union movement to unprecedented heights, these strikes set the stage for the further development of class consciousness in the working class, the most advanced elements of which were receptive to the idea of forming a workers party in opposition to the two capitalist parties. But the Stalinists and other strike leaders channeled these workers into support for FDR’s Democratic Party. As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky succinctly wrote in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940):
“The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new ‘leftist’ trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.”
Only the Trotskyists of the CLA, whose supporters led the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strikes, remained true to the principles and program of revolutionary Marxism. The A.J. Muste-led American Workers Party (AWP) had merged with the Communist League of America following the Toledo and Minneapolis strikes to found the Workers Party of the United States in December 1934. But Muste soon returned to the pulpit of religious pacifism and later preached the strategy of nonviolence to future liberal leaders of the civil rights movement and, in his final years, to Vietnam antiwar protesters. Other leaders of his organization made their own kind of peace with capitalist society. Nonetheless, a number of the AWP veterans of “The Battle of Toledo” remained adherents of Trotskyism, that is, to the ideals and goals that had inspired the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Spreading out from their base in Minneapolis, the Trotskyists were at the forefront of organizing truckers throughout the Midwest, transforming the weak, craft-divided Teamsters into a powerful industrial union. This course was obstructed when the Roosevelt administration, aided and abetted by Teamster president Daniel Tobin, brought sedition charges under the Smith Act against the Trotskyists for their opposition to the interimperialist slaughter of World War II. The central union leaders in Minneapolis as well as national Trotskyist leaders—29 in all—were convicted and jailed. Criminally, the CP supported the government’s persecution of the Trotskyists.
While the Stalinists have long portrayed WWII as a great democratic war against fascism, the Trotskyists recognized that, like World War I, it was a conflict between the imperialist powers to redivide the world. Calling for the defeat of all the imperialist combatants, the Trotskyists took no side between the competing Allied and Axis powers. At the same time, they fought steadfastly for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state.
In contrast, the Stalinists were among the most rabid supporters of U.S. imperialism during the war, portraying it as a supposed “anti-fascist” ally of the Soviet workers state against Hitler’s Germany. In the West Coast longshore union, Bridges enforced a no-strike pledge and massive speedup on the docks as part of the war effort. He also played a major role in smashing a 1944 strike by Montgomery Ward workers in the Midwest. Ordering the now CIO-affiliated International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast to ship scab cargo, Bridges went on to urge all of labor to make a permanent no-strike pledge, not only during the war but “indefinitely thereafter.”
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
Crime, as they say, does not pay. A few years after the end of the war, leaders of the Communist Party were themselves prosecuted under the Smith Act as purported advocates of the “violent overthrow” of the U.S. government. Bridges himself was repeatedly hauled into the courts and threatened with deportation on charges of being a CP member. We take no satisfaction in the bitter irony that the Stalinists were themselves prosecuted under the very laws that they had urged the capitalist state to bring down on the Trotskyists. These trials were opening shots in the first Cold War against the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism’s “ally” in WWII.
Communists and other militants who had led the CIO organizing battles were driven from the unions. This witchhunt was codified in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which demanded a “loyalty oath” from union officials and outlawed sympathy strikes, hot cargoing and other class-struggle weapons that had built the unions. In 1949-50, eleven unions associated with the CP, including the ILWU, were expelled from the CIO. The red purges cemented the leadership of a hardened pro-capitalist, anti-Communist bureaucracy whose first loyalty was to U.S. imperialism.
The bureaucrats condemned, and continue to condemn, Taft-Hartley as a “slave-labor act.” But the union misleaders themselves helped put on the shackles and have bowed before the government’s strikebreaking laws ever since, sapping the fighting strength of the unions. A watershed was when the labor tops let Reagan get away with smashing the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in 1981. While mouthing impotent words of “solidarity,” the AFL-CIO leadership did nothing to mobilize the powerful airline unions in strike action to shut down the airports. The aftermath has been a three-decade tsunami of union-busting that has devastated the ranks of organized labor.
The AFL leaders of old abhorred the class struggle. Today, the union tops argue that it is simply not possible for labor to struggle. Instead, to preserve their diminishing dues base, they engage in dog-eat-dog jurisdictional disputes with other unions, a throwback to the backstabbing of the craft unions that had to be surmounted to organize industrial unions. Rather than mobilizing for battle against the capitalist rulers, the bureaucrats peddle the lie that the workers have a stake in maintaining capitalist profitability. This class collaboration is codified in the subordination of labor to the parties of the capitalist class enemy, particularly the Democrats.
To be sure, it is not easy for the workers to win in the face of the forces arrayed against them. The situation is all the more daunting given the ebb of class and social struggle, a condition reinforced by the decades of betrayals by the trade-union bureaucracy. But the rulers, aided by their labor lieutenants, cannot extinguish the class struggle that is born of the irreconcilable conflict of interests between workers and their exploiters. The very conditions that grind down workers today can and will propel them into battle, together with their allies, against the class enemy. Winning these battles is, at bottom, a question of leadership.
The 1934 strikes showed what militant unions could accomplish in a period of growing class and social discontent. Under a leadership that grasped the class nature of American capitalist society and the social power of those whose labor makes it run, the workers fought against improbable odds and won. These are the kind of battles that will need to be waged today to organize the growing masses of unorganized workers. For the workers to prevail over their exploiters, it is essential to win them to a Marxist political program that links labor’s fight to the building of a multiracial revolutionary workers party capable of leading the struggle to do away with this whole system of wage slavery through socialist revolution. Although our forces are currently small, it is the purpose of the Spartacist League, as it was of our Trotskyist forebears, to win the workers through patient education and in the course of struggle to the program and perspective of forging the party of international working-class revolution.
***Tales From The Old North Adamsville Neighborhood-In The
Time Of The Hard Motorcycle Boys-With Kudos To Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
years ago I was trying to finally reconcile myself, after many false starts, un-kept
makings-up, and bewildering events that would take me back to square one in
that effort, with the hard upbringing I had had in my old working-class town of
North Adamsville south of Boston. Hard economically since we were the poorest
of the poor, the marginally working at a place where that group met the lumpen
elements, literally met the jack-rollers, drifters, grifters, and midnight
sifters (night sneak thieves for the unknowing), and other riffraff who preyed
not on the rich, or even the middle-class up the road but the closest targets,
the easy targets, the working poor, us. Hard too, hard to not understand why
those outrageous wanting habits (for a room of my own, for a typewriter, for
when I came of age a car, for, well, you get the idea, wanting habits) could
never be satisfied and when I squawked about it as I did, did squawk there is
no other way to put it, all hell came raining down on my head from my mother, mainly.
So it took a long while to not cringe every time I tried once I got out from
under to make my peace with the old neighborhood, with that wanting habit business
(wanting habits still there), with my family or what was left of it after I
finally reconciled myself to certain facts that some things in this world are
not going to be explained, maybe can’t.
One of the helpful tips I got from a
gal who had gone through her own wanting habits childhood was by talking about
some of the old neighborhood things I remembered from those days. One time I
happened to mention to some new friends that in high school in the early 1960s
I had been drawn to and repulsed by the hard ass motorcycle guys from Boston.
Guys, white guys, who called themselves the Devil’s Disciplines from around Dorchester,
who roamed at will through the streets of our town to get to Adamsville Beach. That
beach the nearest point to the ocean in the area and also complete with plenty secluded
parking areas and a magnet for good-looking young women (high school girls mainly)
who spent their daytime summer hours sunning themselves in order to looked well-tanned
when the night time was the right time. And you can figure out what the right
time and what was done in that right time yourselves. Naturally I, and sometimes
some guy friends, car-less would sit on the seawall and see what was what. These
friends I mentioned that romance of the bike to, a couple of them from working
class neighborhoods themselves, looked at me askance when I said that I had
been drawn to outlaw motorcycle guys what with their reputation for murder,
mayhem, drugs, mayhem, or did I say that already. Looked leery at me a guy who
has spent his life arguing against the degradation of human life and those who
would treat it as cheaply as those outlaws seemed to do. And was not exactly a
poster boy for Harley-Davidson.
Of course that later wisdom was gathered
after the initial romance of the outlaw that exploded in straight-laced red
scare Cold War America wore off but early on I could have gone that way if I
had been a little tougher, no, a lot tougher. Oh yeah, and could do anything,
except for once, do anything besides ride on the back seat of a bike. See that beach
was a local rendezvous for bikers, babes, and watching “submarine races” after
midnight. Not all of those three things came together and maybe none together
depending on who was down there any given night. Who meaning what young women,
and what kind, were drawn to that locale when those guys, sometimes in two
bytwo formation sometimes four
depending how confrontational they wanted to be with the cops and the square citizenry,
with their chrome-infested bikes came to a stop. It was also the place where
poor ass corner boys with no bikes but also with no cars, not even a clunker
(are you kidding we half the time did not have the wherewithal for a “father
car” much less for some kid to go cruising looking for the heart of Saturday
night) sat stone-faced on the seawall that protected the boulevard from the
furies of Mother Nature when she decided to give humankind a lesson, a good
dunking. Sat stone-faced wondering what would happen if, for once, I had access
to a chopper and one of girls from notorious Five Point ready to do my bidding.
Those Five Point girls were known, high school known, at least from that Monday
morning before school boy and girl restroom talk, to be happy to accommodate
those love-starved bikers, and at least one, Marie, was according to an old
girlfriend of mind who heard the talk in that Monday morning lounge, ready for
more, ready to turn up a guy’s toes, maybe, more than one, guy not toes. So
that was one of the “drawn to” parts. Especially when they came in formation
scaring the citizenry, no cops to be found with a mile of the beach, and the
girls looked lustily their way.
But that girl longing stuff was
eternal, whether bikers existed in the universe or not. Eternal out in front of
corner boy hang-out Salducci’s Pizza Parlor trying to cadge some time with girls
going in for an evening slice of pizza and soda (if a girl ordered onions on top,
I, we, would know to forget her that night because she had already determined
not a damn thing was going to happen, that night, and we constantly worked for
the minute on this subject, or earlier in junior out in front of Doc’s
Drugstore waiting for the girls to go inside and spend their nickels, dimes and
quarters playing the jukebox on songs they (we) heard on American Bandstand and could not get enough of, or at some woe
begotten school dance hoping for that last chance last dance with that girl you
have made your eyes sore over, or maybe just in the corridor checking out some
girl with that furtive glance that we had worked into a science.
The “drawn to” part of the motorcycle
guys for me really was that they were “cool,” outlaw guys with those big
motorcycles blazing and I fancied myself a rebel. These guys could give a f- -
k if school kept or not (just an expression since most of these guys from what
I heard had dropped out of school or if they stayed in school then they were over
at Boston Trade working the kinks out of some motor problem, or grabbing school
property shop stuff to sell to get gas money together. While my form of
alienation was totally different from theirs, or I liked to think that, they
were nonplussed by the trappings of bourgeois society circa 1960. Made their
own society, kept their own counsel, had no fear of the cops, had no fear of
dying when I talked to one guy once who told me “jail or the streets it don’t
make no different to me as long as I have my dope, my woman, and my hog when I
am on the streets. Oh yeah, and they show the “colors” when my time comes, and
I don’t care when that is.” Cool. Existential philosophers, even old brother
Jean Genet a true outlaw himself, pouring out a torrent of words could not
express the plight of the modern mass man who has fallen through the cracks in
the post-World War II golden age better that that doomed biker. Of course that
is me later rationalizing my attraction, then it was just guys who got lots
respect, no, better, fear by just stepping on the clutch. Got even more
fearsome in my eyes when I found out that a couple of guys from my street,
tough guys in their own right and who had allegedly committed a couple of armed
robberies of local gas stations to get their bikes, were rejected by the Boston
guys, the Disciples, for being “pussies.” Jesus.
Yeah so for a while the outlaws had me
in thrall. Then the “repulsed by” part came in, the part where they had no
rules at all. One night, a summer night, hot, sweaty (at least it must have
been humid because I was sweaty), sultry, a night with no good omens to
recommend it about a dozenDisciples
rode in formation to the beginning the beach, the area where during the day the
local families would bring the kids, maybe have a picnic, a barbecue, and would
leave plenty of trash in the trash barrels stopped and began to systematically
light the barrels on fire, and then started tearing the benches and picnic
tables apart and throwing the wood on the fires. The cops came about an hour
later after the fires had flamed out.Worse they would, not that night as far as I know since they seemed to
be intent on pure destruction, pick on regular guys sitting in their cars (or
their father-borrowed car) trying to “make” their dates (and hassle those dates
too with ugly language and gestures which appalled most of them). Here is the
kicker though they thought nothing of beating up guys for just looking the
wrong way at them. And that is not just filler for this story but based on
personal experience. One night I was pissed off at something, probably some
beef with Ma, or maybe just pissed off to be pissed of like I was a lot of time
in those days. And most of the times when I was pissed off I would head to
Adamsville Beach. Walking, of course, it wasn’t far, maybe a mile or so from
the house. And wound up sitting alone down at the biker end of the beach. And
get this just kind of staring absent-mindedly in the bikers’ direction. Well
one guy, a tall, thin guy with a chip on his shoulder (but I only though of
that later) came over to me and asked why I was looking at him, or his girl. I
said as I stood up to try to explain I wasn’t looking at anybody or anything
but thinking about stuff because I was pissed off. He didn’t like that answer
because then without warning or another word he kicked me in the groin and
walked away saying “if you are pissed off don’t come here and bother me, got
that?” Yeah, I got it. Got it about fifteen minutes later when the pain finally
subsided. In the end I feared them more than saw them as heroic figures, but still
that was a close thing.
A couple of years ago, now like I said generally
reconciled with my roots, I got in contact with the reunion committee for my
class at North Adamsville which after the 40th anniversary reunion
had put together a website for classmates to communicate through. One of the sections
on the site was for interactive messages about whatever subject came into your
head. I had just seen, or seen again, the classic 1950s motorcycle film, Marlon
Brando’s The Wild Ones, and the
generational, our generation, our generation of ’68 “hippie” free as the wind
classic, Easy Ride. So I was hopped up
to ask a question about motorcycles, about what people had to say about them.
But I put the question a little differently from that straight motorcycle talk because
I was, once again, in thrall to that old biker time experience (forgetting that
kick in groin).
The way I posed the question since I
had an answer already in mind was asking about what classmates thought was the
classic working-class love song, the song that would “speak” to those old
times. Now North Adamsville was in those days a classic working-class suburb
dependent on factory and service jobs although there were pockets of middle-class-dom
as pictured in the glossy magazines so not everybody from school would
gravitate to the idea of the classic working class song. But enough would to
make the question worth asking. Moreover I was looking for something that might
speak to our working-class roots as well as the intricacies of the working-class
love ritual which I really believed (and still believe) is a different gradient
than the middle-class ritual. And so I motivated my question by presenting my
answer alongside. Here is what I had to say:
Okay here is the book of genesis, the
motorcycle book of genesis, or at least my motorcycle book of genesis which
drives my choice of great working-class love song, Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. But, before I get all that let
me make about seventy–six disclaimers. First, the whys and wherefores of the
motorcycle culture, except on those occasions when they become subject to
governmental investigation or impact some cultural phenomena, is outside the
purview of the leftist politics that have dominated my life. There is no abstract
leftist political line, as a rule, on such activity, nor should there be. (Some
of my best friends are bikers, okay, will that hold you.) Those exceptions
include when motorcyclists, usually under the rubric of “bad actor” motorcycle
clubs, like the famous (or infamous) Oakland, California-based Hell’s Angels
are generally harassed by the cops and we have to defend their right to be left
alone (you know, those "helmet laws", and the never-failing pull-over
for "driving while being a biker") or, like, going the other way,
since they are not brethren when the Angels were used by the Rolling Stones at
Altamont and that ill-advised decision represented a watershed in the 1960s
counter-cultural movement. Decisive some say and we have been fighting a
rear-guard action ever since. Or, more ominously, from another angle, when such
lumpen formations form the core hell-raisers of anti-immigrant,
anti-black liberation fascistic demonstrations and we are compelled, and
rightly so, to go toe to toe with them. Scary yes, necessary yes, bikes or no
Second, in the interest of full
disclosure I own no stock, or have any other interest, in Harley-Davidson, or
any other motorcycle company. Third, I do not now, or have I ever belonged to a
motorcycle club or owned a motorcycle, although I have driven them, or, more
often, on back of them on occasion. Fourth, I do not now, knowingly or
unknowingly, although I grew up in a working- class neighborhood like you did
where bikes and bikers were plentiful, hang with such types. Fifth, the damn
things and their riders are too noisy, despite the glamour and “freedom of the
road” associated with them. Sixth, and here is the “kicker”, I have been,
endlessly, fascinated by bikes and bike culture as least since early high
school, if not before, and had several friends who “rode.” Well that is not
seventy-six but that is enough for disclaimers.
Okay, as to genesis, motorcycle
genesis. Let’s connect the dots. A couple of years ago, and maybe more, as part
of a trip down memory lane, the details of which do not need detain us here, I
did a series of articles on various world-shaking, earth-shattering subjects
like high school romances, high school hi-jinx, high school dances, high school
Saturday nights, and most importantly of all, high school how to impress the
girls( or boys, for girls, or whatever sexual combinations fit these days, but
you can speak for yourselves, I am standing on this ground). In short, high
school sub-culture, American-style, early 1960s branch, although the emphasis
there, as it will be here, is on that social phenomena as filtered through the
lenses of a working- class town, a seen-better-days- town at that, our growing
up wild-like-the-weeds town.
One of the subjects worked over in that
series was the search, the eternal search I might add, for the great working-
class love song. Not the Teen Angel, Earth Angel, Johnny Angel generic
mush that could play in Levittown, Shaker Heights or La Jolla as well as
Youngstown or Moline. No, a song that, without blushing, we could call our own,
our working- class own, one that the middle and upper classes might like but
would not put on their dance cards. As my offering to this high-brow debate I
offered a song by written by Englishman Richard Thompson (who folkies, and folk
rockers, might know from his Fairport Convention days, very good days, by the
way), 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. (See lyrics below.) Without
belaboring the point the gist of this song is the biker romance, British
version, between outlaw biker James and black-leathered, red-headed Molly.
Needless to say such a tenuous lumpen existence as James leads to keep himself
“biked" cuts short any long term “little white house with picket fence”
ending for the pair. And we do not need such a boring finish. For James, after
losing the inevitable running battle with the police, on his death bed
bequeaths his bike, his precious “Vincent Black Lightning”, to said Molly. His
bike, man! His bike! Is there any greater love story, working class love story,
around? No, this makes West Side Story lyrics and a whole bunch of other
such songs seem like so much cornball nonsense. His bike, man. Wow! Kudos,
Brother Richard Thompson (the first name needed as another Thompson, Hunter,
Doctor Gonzo, of journalistic legend, cut his teeth on the Hell’s Angels)
Now despite my flawless logic and the
worthiness of my choice a few, actually a torrent of comments by fellow
classmates followed, after denying that our town was working-class, went on and
on about how Mark Dinning’s Teen Angel
with the girl falling through the cracks of life to save her guy’s class ring
from some speedy train, the Shirelles Leader
Of The Pack where the guy, big tough hellish biker, falls apart, goes not gentle
into that good night when the girl’s parents told her to drop the dude, even
Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey Girl ( I
admit Jersey is working class enough once you get away for the New York City
orbit) where the guy is trying to piece off his girl with trips to some two-bit
amusement park where I guess he figures she will give him whatever he wants if
he wins her a kewpie doll all were better choices. Jesus. Well, I grabbed the
ticket, I took the ride on that question.
Needless to say that exploration, that
haunted question, was not the end, but rather the beginning of thinking through
the great American night bike experience. And, of course, for this writer that
means going to the books, the films and the memory bank to find every seemingly
relevant “biker” experience. Such classic motorcycle sagas as “gonzo”
journalist, Doctor Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and other, later Rolling
Stone magazine printed “biker” stories and Tom Wolfe’ Hell Angel’s-sketched
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (and other articles about California subset
youth culture that drove Wolfe’s work in the old days). And to the hellish
Rolling Stones (band) Hell’s Angels “policed” Altamont concert in 1969. And, as
fate would have it, with the then recent passing of actor/director Dennis
Hooper, the 1960s classic biker/freedom/ seeking the great American night film,
Easy Rider. And from Easy Rider to the “max daddy” of them all,
tight-jeaned, thick leather-belted, tee-shirted, engineer-booted,
leather-jacketed, taxi-driver-capped (hey, that’s what it reminds me of),
side-burned, chain-linked wielding, hard-living, alienated, but in the end
really just misunderstood, Johnny, aka, Marlon Brando, in The Wild One.
Okay, we will cut to the chase on the
plot. Old Johnny and his fellow “outlaw” motorcycle club members are out for
some weekend “kicks” after a hard week’s non-work (as far as we can figure out,
work was marginal for many reasons, as Hunter Thompson in Hell’s Angels
noted, to biker existence, the pursue of jack-rolling, armed robbery or grand
theft auto careers probably running a little ahead) out in the sunny California
small town hinterlands.(They are still heading out there today, the last time I
noticed, in the Southern California high desert, places like Twenty-Nine Palms
and Joshua Tree.)
And naturally, when the boys (and they
are all boys here, except for a couple of “mamas”, one spurned by Johnny, in a
break-away club led by jack-in-the-box jokester, Lee Marvin as Chino) hit one
small town they, naturally, after sizing up the local law, head for the local
café (and bar). And once one mentions cafes in small towns in California (or
Larry McMurtry’s West Texas, for that matter), then hard-working, trying to
make it through the shift, got to get out of this small town and see the world,
dreamy-eyed, naïve (yes, naive) sheriff-daughtered young waitress, Kathy, (yes,
and hard-working, it’s tough dealing them off the arm in these kind of joints,
or elsewhere) Johnny trap comes into play. Okay, now you know, even alienated,
misunderstood, misanthropic, cop-hating (an additional obstacle given said
waitress’s kinships) boy Johnny needs, needs cinematically at least, to meet a
girl who understands him.
The development of that young hope,
although hopeless, boy meets girl romance relationship, hither and yon, drives
the plot. Oh, and along the way the boys, after a few thousand beers, as boys,
especially girl-starved biker boys, will, at the drop of a hat start to
systematically tear down the town, off-handedly, for fun. Needless to say,
staid local burghers (aka “squares”) seeing what amount to them is their worst
1950s “communist” invasion nightmare, complete with murder, mayhem and rapine,
(although that “c” word was not used in the film, nor should it have been) are
determined to “take back” their little town. A few fights, forages,
causalities, fatalities, and forgivenesses later though, still smitten but
unquenched and chaste Johnny (and his rowdy crowd) and said waitress part,
wistfully. The lesson here, for the kids in the theater audience, is that biker
love outside biker-dom is doomed. For the adults, the real audience, the
lesson: nip the “terrorists” in the bud (call in the state cops, the national
guard, the militia, the 82nd Airborne, The Strategic Air Command, NATO, hell,
even the “weren't we buddies in the war” Red Army , but nip it, fast when they
come roaming through Amityville, Archer City, or your small town).
After that summary you can see what we
are up against. This is pure fantasy Hollywood cautionary tale on a very real
1950s phenomena, “outlaw” biker clubs, mainly in California, but elsewhere as
well. Hunter Thompson did yeoman’s work in his Hell’s Angels to
“discover” who these guys were and what drove them, beyond drugs, sex, rock and
roll (and, yah, murder and mayhem, the California prison system was a “home
away from home”). In a sense the “bikers” were the obverse of the boys (again,
mainly) whom Tom Wolfe, in many of his early essays, was writing about and who
were (a) forming the core of the surfers on the beaches from Malibu to La Jolla
and, (b) driving the custom car/hot rod/drive-in centered (later mall-centered)
cool, teenage girl–impressing, car craze night in the immediate post-World War
II great American Western sunny skies and pleasant dream drift (physically and
Except those Wolfe guys were the
“winners”. The “bikers” were Nelson Algren’s “losers”, the dead-enders who
didn’t hit the gold rush, the Dove Linkhorns (aka the Arkies and Okies who in
the 1930s populated John Steinbeck’s Joad saga, The Grapes Of Wrath).
Not cool, iconic Marlin-Johnny but hell-bend then-Hell Angels leader, Sonny
And that is why in the end, as
beautifully sullen and misunderstood the alienated Johnny was, and as
wholesomely rowdy as his gang was before demon rum took over, this was not the
real “biker: scene, West or East.
Now I lived, as a teenager, in a really
marginally working- poor, neighborhood of North Adamsville that I have
previously mentioned was the leavings of those who were moving up in post-war
society. That neighborhood was no more than a mile from the central
headquarters of Boston's local Hell’s Angels (although they were not called
that as I said they were Devil’s Disciples). I got to see these guys up close
as they rallied at various spots on our local beach or “ran” through our
neighborhood on their way to some crazed action. The leader had all of the
charisma of Marlon Brando’s thick leather belt. His face, as did most of the
faces, spoke of small-minded cruelties (and old prison pallors) not of misunderstood
youth. And their collective prison records (as Hunter Thompson also noted about
the Angels) spoke of “high” lumpenism. And that takes us back to the beginning
about who, and what, forms one of the core cohorts for a fascist movement in
this country, the sons of Sonny Barger. Then we will need to rely on our leftist
politics, and other such weapons. But for now bad ass bikler James and his
perfect working-class love gesture to his benighted red-headed Molly rule the
ARTIST: Richard Thompson
TITLE: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
Lyrics and Chords
Said Red Molly to James that's a
A girl could feel special on any
Said James to Red Molly, well my
hat's off to you
It's a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I've seen you at the corners and
cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my
favorite color scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Box Hill they did ride
/ A - - - D - / - - - - A - / : / E
- D A /
/ E - D A - / Bm - D - / - - - - A -
- - /
Said James to Red Molly, here's a
ring for your right hand
But I'll tell you in earnest I'm a
I've fought with the law since I was
I robbed many a man to get my
Now I'm 21 years, I might make 22
And I don't mind dying, but for the
love of you
And if fate should break my stride
Then I'll give you my Vincent to
Come down, come down, Red Molly,
called Sergeant McRae
For they've taken young James Adie
for armed robbery
Shotgun blast hit his chest, left
Oh, come down, Red Molly to his
When she came to the hospital, there
wasn't much left
He was running out of road, he was
running out of breath
But he smiled to see her cry
And said I'll give you my Vincent to
Says James, in my opinion, there's
nothing in this world
Beats a 52 Vincent and a red headed
Now Nortons and Indians and
Greeveses won't do
They don't have a soul like a
He reached for her hand and he
slipped her the keys