Friday, January 31, 2014

For a Class-Struggle Fight to Organize West Coast Port Truckers!

Workers Vanguard No. 1038
Break Bosses’ Owner-Operator Scam!
For a Class-Struggle Fight to Organize Port Truckers!
With the latest round of “clean air” regulations at the Port of Oakland threatening their very livelihoods, hundreds of truck drivers at the port went on strike three times in the months before the New Year. Just a few years ago, the port truckers had to shell out thousands of dollars to retrofit their trucks to comply with environmental standards. Now they faced a January 1 deadline requiring the replacement of all trucks whose model year was older than 2007, a cruel Catch-22 for truckers who do not even make enough to maintain their current rigs. Demanding subsidies to help cover these costs as well as compensation for increased hours of unpaid waiting time, they formed the Port of Oakland Truckers Association. Setting up picket lines, the truckers braved an army of cops mobilized to prevent them from stopping the flow of cargo in and out of waterfront terminals. In the end, they did not prevail. Up to 800 truckers who couldn’t afford new rigs can no longer work at the port.
In November, drivers who work for Green Fleet Systems and American Logistics International, which service the Los Angeles/Long Beach ports, carried out a three-day strike to protest company retaliation against their efforts to unionize. Unlike the port truckers in Oakland and the bulk of the 100,000 others in the U.S., who are classified as owner-operators and barred from unionizing under antitrust laws, the striking L.A. drivers are part of the small fraction of port truckers employed directly by the trucking companies. Although making marginally more in wages than what many owner-operators earn, these overwhelmingly unorganized “employee” truckers are subject to similar long hours and grueling work conditions.
The harsh reality of the job today is the product of the deregulation of the trucking industry. Beginning in the late 1970s and codified in the 1980 Motor Carrier Act enacted under the Democratic Party administration of Jimmy Carter with the strong backing of liberal Senator Ted Kennedy, the push to deregulate trucking was one of the opening shots of the union-busting onslaught that has swept this country ever since. The resulting proliferation of owner-operators was a harbinger of the flood of non-union contracts and casual labor in the U.S. as well as in Europe and beyond.
Union power in port trucking, which had been organized by the Teamsters in the U.S., was strangled. Companies sold their trucks to their previously unionized drivers and then contracted with the new “owner-operators” on a per load basis. Through this swindle, the trucking companies dumped most costs onto the drivers. As owner-operators, port truckers were made responsible for maintaining their rigs and for fuel, licenses and tolls, as well as for loans taken out to purchase or lease their trucks. They also were no longer covered by workmen’s compensation, social security or unemployment insurance and had no paid sick leave or vacation time, much less health or pension benefits.
The purpose was not just to give a huge boost to profits, particularly of the top shippers as well as the cargo and stevedoring companies. It also was to foster ambitions within a layer of what was then a majority white workforce that as independent contractors they could not only be “their own boss” but potentially open their own trucking business. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the port truckers were the legal equivalent of small businessmen. As such, they were made subject to antitrust laws that blocked their unionizing.
New trucking companies began to spring up at the ports, with each trying to undercut the other in a race to capture business. Rates for individual drivers tumbled as costs rose. Today, there are some 5,000 port trucking firms, most of them small-time local operations, with the dominant companies varying by port. It is a cutthroat, cockroach capitalist industry. Benefiting from this patchwork system are the giant retailers and manufacturers. Their shipping rates already plummeting due to containerization, these companies backed the deregulation of the trucking industry to obtain further rate cuts.
As Rutgers University Labor Studies professor David Bensman vividly documents in Port Trucking Down the Low Road: A Sad Story of Deregulation (2009): “Drivers who couldn’t make a living as owner operators fled the industry, creating chronic shortages.... Port trucking had changed from a good union job to an industry of last resort—a place shunned by workers with alternatives.” Those without alternatives were largely desperate immigrants, many of them refugees from the brutal depredations of the U.S. and other imperialist powers.
But unlike most options open to immigrants, such as precarious and starvation-wage jobs in the textile industry and agribusiness, port trucking seemingly offered a foot in the door of the “American Dream” through petty entrepreneurship. This has overwhelmingly proved a cruel and cynical hoax. Paid by the load, not the hour, port truckers are under constant pressure to speed up, working at least 10-12 hour days, with long, unpaid waiting time. Their estimated median earnings are a miserable $28,000 a year.
Far from “independent,” most owner-operators are beholden to the trucking companies. As detailed in The Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution, and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at America’s Ports (2010), the trucking companies determine “how, when, where, and in what sequence drivers work” and “unilaterally control the rates that drivers are paid.” Lacking the funds to buy their trucks outright, many have to take out bank loans or make leasing arrangements with the trucking companies, a form of debt bondage that has only worsened with the implementation of clean-air regulations. Not satisfied with simply deducting payments from drivers’ paychecks, trucking companies at the L.A./Long Beach ports have devised terms that allow for repossession if the truckers can’t pick up and deliver a designated number of containers a week. As a representative of the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association described it, this “rent-to-own scheme” makes “the payday loan industry” look ethical by comparison.
The Owner-Operator Scheme
As a vital part of the port workforce and a key link in the vast global cargo chain, the truckers have tremendous potential social power that could be brought to bear in taking on the trucking, shipping and stevedoring companies. However, their classification as independent contractors is not simply a legal barrier to organizing their collective power in a union. It also poses the question of which class they identify with—the workers or the bosses. On this score, the port truckers are riven by conflicting interests and consciousness.
A handful of former truckers have established companies that own a small truck fleet as well as lease the trucks and services of individual owner-operators. Making profits through exploiting the labor of others, they are petty capitalists. So, too, are the owner-operators who still drive their trucks but also own one or two others for which they hire drivers. In contrast, those who drive company-owned trucks and work directly as employees—either paid by the load or by the hour—are workers with interests clearly counterposed to those of their bosses. However, such drivers are estimated to be slightly less than 18 percent of port truckers nationally.
Most port truckers own and drive their own trucks, leasing their services to the trucking companies. Their trucks are not simply expensive tools like those that other workers, particularly in the skilled trades, may have to buy. On the contrary, these rigs are a capital investment that many hoped to leverage into their becoming small-time bosses. The reality has overwhelmingly been far different, with the trucking companies driving these truckers to the wall. Their desperate scramble to survive has impelled several strikes, including struggles for unionization, particularly at the L.A./Long Beach ports in the late 1980s-early ’90s. Within the growing layer of drivers today enduring what amounts to debt servitude are those who see through the owner-operator scam.
The Teamsters have made some small but important inroads in organizing port truckers who are employees. In 2012, drivers for Toll Group at the L.A. port won the first union contract in port trucking since deregulation. Last summer, more than 100 drivers who work for Toll in servicing the Port of New York and New Jersey also voted to become Teamsters. Some Toll workers joined Green Fleet and American Logistics truckers on their picket lines in November. So, too, did owner-operators who work for Pacific-9 Transportation, demanding an end to the “independent contractor” charade. In 2012, port truckers in Seattle waged a two-week strike in order to be reclassified as workers. More recently, truckers at the Savannah port, many of whom are American blacks, have held meetings to protest their classification.
Breaking the chains that presently enslave the owner-operators to the trucking companies will take hard class struggle by the unions on the waterfront. Such a mobilization of union power in defense of port truckers would win vital allies for organized labor in the battle against Wal-Mart, Target and the other multibillion-dollar shippers as well as the stevedoring companies. Coupled with a fight for these drivers to be paid at full union-scale wages and benefits, the whole owner-operator scam could be shattered, breaking through the petty-bourgeois consciousness it induces. Port truckers would come to view joining the ranks of organized labor as wage workers as a far better alternative to their present destitution.
In turn, the unions would be infused with immigrant workers, many of whom have experiences in class battles and other struggles in their countries of origin, which range from Mexico and Central America to the Horn of Africa, the Indian Punjab and beyond. As a Sikh port trucker remarked amid a two-week strike in Seattle in 2012: “We are not scared. We come from India, and we fought there against the British and kicked them out. We are fighting for the same thing here—integrity and simple respect.” If the unions in the U.S. rallied behind the port truckers, demanding full citizenship rights for all immigrants, it would forge a vital link of international working-class solidarity in the ever-expanding global cargo chain.
A Class-Struggle Policy
The idea of the unions waging such a campaign might seem far-fetched, particularly in a day and age where the wages, working conditions, benefits and very organizations of the working class have been ravaged. But such battles are what originally laid the basis for organizing the Teamsters as a bastion of labor power nationwide. The breakthrough came in 1934 in Minneapolis, a notoriously open shop city where the fight to organize truckers sparked citywide strikes. What made the difference was that these strikes were led by Trotskyist union militants, supporters of the Communist League of America. As James P. Cannon, the founding leader of American Trotskyism, put it: “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.”
Prominent among these militants was Farrell Dobbs, who would go on to play a key role in the early drive to organize over-the-road truckers nationally. Dobbs documented these struggles in a series of books beginning with Teamster Rebellion. In an appendix to Teamster Politics, titled “How the Teamsters Union Organized Independent Truckers in the 1930s,” he wrote of the policies pursued to win owner-operators who were not employers to the union’s side. In Minneapolis, the union won the solidarity of many of these drivers by supporting their demands for higher rates from the trucking companies. In turn, many owner-operators provided the trucks that transported flying squads of picketers around the city to shut down scab operations and served on the front lines in pitched battles with the cops and other strikebreaking forces.
The union was victorious in Minneapolis despite the opposition of the Teamsters International union bureaucracy under Daniel Tobin. When the Trotskyists and other militants from Minneapolis launched a multistate drive to organize over-the-road truckers into the Teamsters, they had to confront the surge in owner-operators during the Great Depression. Unemployed drivers who could make the down payment were lured into investing in their own trucks as the ticket to getting paid to run supplies for government “make work” projects for the millions of others out of a job. Dobbs described the situation:
“Firms holding carrier rights issued by the government employed many of these independents, paying them flat rates by the mile, ton, or trip for rig and driver. It was truly a cut-throat setup. Diverse methods were used to heap inordinate trucking costs upon the owner-operators, thereby shaving down their earnings as drivers. At the same time, devious patterns were woven to confuse the true nature of the employer-worker relationship and turn the individuals involved in an antiunion direction.”
To win owner-operators to the union’s cause, Dobbs argued that the companies should be made to pay them union-scale wages and cover all the costs of operating their trucks. To cut against the small-business aspirations that went with owning a truck, union organizers were clear that their purpose was to make the companies bear the costs, not to help the drivers secure a profit. The aim was to put an end to the whole owner-operator scam by eliminating its advantage for the companies and fostering the understanding among these drivers that they would be better off as unionized wage workers.
This course was reversed when the Trotskyists were purged from the union leadership during World War II through the collusion of the Teamsters International bureaucrats and the Democratic Party administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The crackdown on the Trotskyists, which was criminally supported by the Stalinist Communist Party, foreshadowed the later purges of Communists and other militants who had led the battles that forged the CIO industrial unions in this country. In addition, in 1949-50 eleven unions associated with the CP were expelled from the CIO. Those purges helped consolidate a trade-union bureaucracy that renounced the very class-struggle means through which the unions were built.
In the 1930s, Trotskyists who were leaders of Teamsters organizing campaigns fought it out class against class, mobilizing workers and their allies in opposition to the bosses and their government. Today, the Teamsters tops are telling port truckers to seek redress through the very state agencies that exist to defend the employers’ interests. As part of an alliance with environmentalists, the union pushed for the Port of Los Angeles to add a provision to its 2008 clean truck plan that required trucking companies to provide low-emissions trucks and hire drivers as employees. Predictably, the capitalist courts shot down the provision after the American Trucking Associations challenged it.
Now the Teamsters bureaucrats are lobbying for a federal clean-ports bill, begging the Department of Labor to challenge the owner-operator classification and flooding the courts with lawsuits claiming back pay for truckers who have been misclassified. Port truckers should take whatever redress might trickle down from legal challenges and suits. But the entire history of the American labor movement shows that it took defiance of anti-labor laws and court decisions, not bowing before them, to make the unions what they were.
ILWU Local 10 Tops Issue Scabbing Orders
In 2001, the Teamsters, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) announced an alliance to make the ports “100 percent union.” More than a decade later, the longshore unions are virtually the last bastions of organized labor at the ports amid a sea of predominantly non-union workers, from port trucking to the warehouses, intermodal rail facilities and the mammoth cargo ships. As we wrote following port truckers’ strikes in Oakland in 2008: “The ILWU will either take up the fight to extend union rights and union-scale wages, benefits and conditions to these workers or it will sooner or later face government-backed union-busting by the capitalist employers without union allies on the docks” (WV No. 916, 6 June 2008).
It’s now sooner. Even in the face of its own impending battle with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) shipping bosses when the union contract expires this July, the leadership of Bay Area ILWU Local 10 stabbed the Oakland port truckers in the back. During the truckers’ strikes in August and October, many Local 10 longshoremen initially respected trucker picket lines. But the bureaucrats later told them to report to work. On the eve of their November strike, the Port of Oakland Truckers Association (POTA) sought to reverse this course, issuing a statement appealing for Local 10’s solidarity:
“Longshoremen and truckers are two links in the same chain. Together, we provide the labor that is necessary for international commerce to flow in and out of the Port of Oakland as truckers and longshoremen do at every port in the world. Shippers and terminal operators to retailers and manufacturers, every industry that relies on the port of Oakland to generate billions of dollars in profit, also relies on our labor. Each of our workforces, when united, hold tremendous power and leverage. Together in solidarity, we are unbeatable.”
As reported on Indybay (30 November 2013), a contingent from POTA attended the Local 10 union meeting in November asking for the support of longshoremen. After a contentious debate, the membership voted two-to-one to honor the truckers’ picket lines. These ILWU members understood that their union needs all the allies it can get.
But the membership’s decision was reversed by the local ILWU tops, who ordered longshoremen to go to work. Local 10 officials cited an arbitrator’s ruling that the truckers’ picket lines were not “bona fide” as well as the PMA’s threats of court injunctions and fines if the ILWU respected the picket lines. The port was turned into an armed police camp, with cops preventing the pickets from blocking longshore entrances to the terminals. Truckers expressed bitterness at the Local 10 leadership for repudiating the pledge of solidarity as picket signs reading “Thank You ILWU For Your Support” littered the ground. Nonetheless, many jobs were not filled when some longshoremen refused to follow their leadership’s scabbing directive.
Longshoremen would do well to remember that like the truckers today, they were once treated as contract labor, lining up for the “shape up” in which they were hired by the day by gang bosses based on favoritism and kickbacks. In 1934, their picket lines were also not considered “bona fide” by their then-union leaders in the ILA. But the 15,000 West Coast ILA members went on strike in defiance of their leadership and were soon joined by seamen. The Teamsters at the port honored the picket lines, ensuring that no cargo was moved. This solidarity was crucial to the eventual victory of this strike, out of which the ILWU would be forged as a powerful industrial union. The struggle united black workers and others of many ethnic backgrounds behind the union, in opposition to the employers’ efforts to wield racism and anti-immigrant chauvinism to keep the longshore workers divided and beholden to the gang bosses.
These days it is a common myth in the ILWU that the port truckers are the makers of their own fate because they “opted out” of the Teamsters in the late 1970s. But the vast majority of these drivers today were not even in this country at the time. Indeed, many port truckers have no idea that there ever was a union in port trucking, much less consider there to be a real prospect of organizing one. Why would they? The labor misleaders have waged little if any struggle in defense of their own members, to say nothing of the growing millions of unorganized workers. Their subservience to the employers only serves to reinforce the owner-operator scam, as many port truckers weigh the thousands of dollars they have been made to invest in their trucks against the benefits of unionization. Such calculations are amplified by the hostile, often anti-immigrant treatment the truckers experience from some longshoremen.
By ordering their members to cross the truckers’ pickets, the ILWU Local 10 tops have created potential enemies out of potential allies. As a self-serving alibi, the bureaucrats and others argue that the truckers are not only non-union but don’t want to be organized in one. If such is the case for some truckers, no small part of the responsibility can again be laid at the doorstep of the union misleaders. In 1996, 5,000 port truckers went out at the L.A./Long Beach ports demanding union recognition. They confronted the same shipping interests that the ILWU faces. But rather than mobilizing their power behind the truckers’ strike, the ILWU crossed their picket lines and continued to work. The strike was defeated, ushering in a wave of demoralization among the truckers.
The Road Forward for Labor
The 1934 Minneapolis strikes showed what a militant union could accomplish during a period of rising class and social discontent. It wasn’t simply a question of militancy but of the political program that guided the Trotskyists who led these battles. Their strategy was rooted in the understanding of the social power of the working class when mobilized in opposition to all the agencies and institutions of the capitalist ruling class. Today, the class struggles of the workers are at low ebb, a condition reinforced by 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 labor and its exploiters. The very conditions that grind down and demoralize workers today can and will propel them into battle, together with their allies, against their class enemy. Although avowed socialists today have virtually no significant base in the unions, radical leaders will arise once again, and they will be no less militant than the labor pioneers. For the workers to prevail against their exploiters, they must be armed with a Marxist political program that links labor’s fight to the building of a multiracial workers party capable of leading the struggle to do away with this entire system of wage slavery through socialist revolution.


Fourth International

May 1944

The Great Minneapolis Strikes

James P. Cannon

Source: Fourth International, May 1944. Original bound volumes of Fourth International and microfilm provided by the NYU Tamiment Labor Libraries.
Transcription\HTML Markup:Andrew Pollack

EDIITOR’S NOTE: THE GREAT MINNEAPOLIS STRIKES is the eighth chapter of James P. Cannon’s The History of American Trotskyism which Pioneer Publishers has scheduled for publication this spring.

* * *

The year 1933, the fourth year of the great American crisis, marked the beginning of the greatest awakening of the American workers and their movement towards union organization on a scale never seen before in American history. That was the background of all the developments within the various political parties, groups and tendencies. This movement of the American workers took the form of a tremendous drive to break out of their atomized state and to confront the employers with the organized force of unionism.
This great movement developed in waves. The first year of the Roosevelt administration saw the first strike wave of considerable magnitude yield but scanty results in the way of organization because it lacked sufficient drive and adequate leadership. In most cases the efforts of the workers were frustrated by governmental “mediation” on one side and brutal suppression on the other.
The second great wave of strikes and organization movements took place in 1934. This was followed by a still more powerful movement in 1936-37, of which the high points were the sit-down strikes in the auto and rubber factories and the tremendous upsurge of the CIO.
Our lecture tonight deals with the strike wave of 1934 as represented in the Minneapolis strikes. There, for the first time, the effective participation of a revolutionary Marxist group in actual strike organization and direction was demonstrated. The basis of these strike waves and organization movements was a partial industrial revival.
This has been mentioned before and must be repeated again and again. In the depths of the depression, when unemployment was so vast, the workers had lost their self-confidence and feared to make any move under the ominous threat of unemployment. But with the revival of industry, the workers gained new confidence in themselves and began a movement to wrest back some of those things which had been taken away from them in the depths of the depression. The ground for the mass activity of the Trotskyist movement in America was, of course, laid by the action of the masses themselves. In the Spring of 1934 the country had been electrified by the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo in which some new methods and new techniques of militant struggle had been introduced. A political, or at least semi-political grouping, represented by the Conference for Progressive Labor Action, which had set up the Provisional Committee for the formation of the American Workers Party, had led this tremendously significant strike in Toledo through the medium of their Unemployed League. There was shown for the first time what a great role can be played in the struggles of industrial workers by an unemployed organization led by militant elements. The unemployed organization in Toledo, which had been formed and was under the leadership of the Musteite group, practically took over the leadership of this Auto-Lite strike and raised it to a level of mass picketing and militancy far beyond the bounds ever contemplated by the old line craft union bureaucrats.
The Minneapolis strikes raised the level even higher. If we measure by all standards, including the decisive criterion of political direction and the maximum exploitation of every possibility inherent in a strike, we must say that the high point of the 1934 wave was the strike of the Minneapolis drivers, helpers and inside-workers in May, and its repetition on a still higher scale in July-August 1934. These strikes put American Trotskyism to a crucial test.
For five years we had been a voice crying in the wilderness, confining ourselves to criticism of the Communist Party, to the elucidation of what appeared to be the most abstract theoretical questions. More than once we had been accused of being nothing but sectarians and hairsplitters. Now, with this opportunity presented in Minneapolis to participate in the mass movement, American Trotskyism was put squarely to the test. It had to demonstrate in action whether it was indeed a movement of good-for-nothing sectarian hairsplitters, or a dynamic political force capable of participating effectively in the mass movement of the workers.

Trotskyists Seize Opportunity

Our comrades in Minneapolis began their work first in the coal yards, and later extended their organizing campaign among the general drivers and helpers. That was not a preconceived plan worked out in the general staff of our movement. The drivers of Minneapolis were not by far the most decisive section of the American proletariat. We began our real activity in the labor movement in those places where the opportunity was open to us. It is not possible to select such occasions arbitrarily according to whim or preference. One must enter into the mass movement where a door is open. A chain of circumstances made Minneapolis the focal point of our first great endeavors and successes in the trade union field. We had in Minneapolis a group of old and tested Communists who were at the same time experienced trade unionists. They were well-known men, rooted in the locality. During the depression they worked together in the coal yards. When the opportunity opened up to organize the yards they seized it and quickly demonstrated their capacities in the successful three-day strike. Then the extension of the organizing work to the trucking industry generally followed as a matter of course.
Minneapolis wasn’t the easiest nut to crack. In fact it was one of the hardest in the country; Minneapolis was a notorious open-shop town. For fifteen or twenty years the Citizens Alliance, an organization of hard-boiled employers, had ruled Minneapolis with an iron hand. Not a single strike of any consequence had been successful in those years. Even the building trades, perhaps the most stable and effective of all the craft unions, were kept on the run in Minneapolis and driven off the most important construction jobs. It was a town of lost strikes, open shops, miserably low wages, murderous hours, and a weak and ineffectual craft-union movement.
The coal strike, mentioned in our discussion last week, was a preliminary skirmish before the great battles to come. The smashing victory of that strike, its militancy, its good organization and its quick success, stimulated the general organization of the truck drivers and helpers, who up to that time and throughout the years of the depression, had been cruelly exploited and without benefit of organization. True, there was a union in the industry, but it was holding on to the ragged edge of nothing. There was only a small handful of members with some poor kind of contract with one or two transfer companies—no real organization of the mass of truck drivers and helpers in the town.
The success of the coal strike uplifted the workers in the trucking industry. They were tinder for the spark; their wages were too low and their hours too long. Freed for so many years from any union restraints, the profit-hungry bosses had gone too far—the bosses always go too far—and the ground-down workers heard the union message gladly.
Our trade union work in Minneapolis, from beginning to end, was a politically directed campaign. The tactics were guided by the general policy, hammered home persistently by The Militant, which called on the revolutionists to enter into the main stream of the labor movement represented by the American Federation of Labor.

The Revolutionary Course

It was our deliberate course to go along the organizational line the masses were travelling, not to set up any artificially constructed unions of our own in contradiction to the impulse of the masses to go into the established trade union movement. For five years we had waged a determined battle against the ultra-left dogma of “Red Unions,” such unions set up artificially by the Communist Party were boycotted by the workers, thus isolating the vanguard elements. The mass of the workers, groping for organization, had a sound instinct. They sensed the need of help. They wanted to be in contact with other organized workers, not off on a sideline with some howling radicals. It is an unfailing phenomenon: The helpless, unorganized mass in industry have an exaggerated respect for established unions, no matter how conservative, how reactionary, these unions may be. The workers fear isolation. In that respect they are wiser than all the sectarians and dogmatists who have tried to prescribe for them the exact detailed form of a perfect union. In Minneapolis, as elsewhere, they had a strong impulse to get in with the official movement, hoping for its assistance in the fight against the bosses who had made life pretty tough for them. Following the general trend of the workers, we also realized that if we were to make the best of our opportunities, we should not put unnecessary difficulties in our path. We should not waste time and energy trying to sell the workers a new scheme of organization they did not want. It was far better to adapt ourselves to their trend, and also to exploit the possibilities of getting assistance from the existing official labor movement.
It wasn’t so easy for our people to enter the American Federation of Labor in Minneapolis. They were marked men who had been doubly expelled, doubly damned. In the course of their struggles they had been thrown not only out of the Communist Party, but also the American Federation of Labor. During the “Red Purge” of 1926-1927, at the height of the reaction in the American labor movement, practically all of our comrades who had been active in the trade unions in Minneapolis had been expelled. A year later, to make their isolation complete, they were expelled from the Communist Party.
But the pressure of the workers toward organization was stronger than the decrees of trade union bureaucrats. It had been demonstrated that our comrades had the confidence of the workers and had the plans whereby they could be organized. The pitiful weakness of the union movement in Minneapolis, and the feeling of the members of the craft unions that some new life was needed—all this worked in favor of our people making their way back into the American Federation of Labor through the Teamsters Union. In addition, there was the fortuitous circumstance, a lucky accident, that at the head of Local 574 and the Teamsters Joint Council in Minneapolis was a militant unionist named Bill Brown. He had a sound class instinct, and he was strongly attracted by the idea of getting the cooperation of some people who knew how to organize the workers and give the bosses a real fight. That was a fortunate circumstance for us, but such things do happen now and then. Fortune favors the godly. If you live right and conduct yourself properly, you get a lucky break now and then. And when an accident comes your way—a good one—you should grab it and make the most of it.
We certainly made the most of this accident, the circumstance that the president of Teamsters’ Local 574 was that wonderful character, Bill Brown, who held open the door of the union to the “new men” who knew how to organize the workers and lead them in battle. But our comrades were new members in this union. They weren’t in there long enough to be officers; they were just members when the fight began to pop. So not a single one of our people—that is, members of the Trotskyist group—was an official of the union during the three strikes. But they organized and led the strikes just the same. They were constituted as an “Organizing Committee,” a sort of extra-legal body set up for the purpose of directing the organization campaign and leading the strikes.

The ’Organizing Committee’

The organizing campaign and the strikes were carried on virtually over the head of the official leadership of the union. The only one of the regular officials who really participated in a direct way in the actual leadership of the strikes was Bill Brown, along with the Organizing Committee. This Organizing Committee had one merit which was demonstrated in the beginning—other merits were revealed later—they knew how to organize workers. This is one thing the ossified labor skates in Minneapolis did not know and apparently could not learn. They know how to disorganize them. This breed is the same everywhere. They know how, sometimes, to let the workers into the unions when they break the doors down. But to go out and really organize the workers, stir them up and inspire them with faith and confidence—the traditional craft-union bureaucrat cannot do that. That is not his field, his function. It is not even his ambition.
The Trotskyist Organizing Committee organized the workers in the trucking industry and then proceeded to line up the rest of the labor movement to support these workers. They did not lead them into an isolated action. They began working through the Central Labor Union, by conferences with the labor skates as well as by pressure from below, to put the whole labor movement in Minneapolis on record in support of these newly-organized truck drivers; worked tirelessly to involve the officials of the Central Labor Union in the campaign, to have resolutions passed endorsing their demands, to make them take official responsibility. When the time came for action, the labor movement of Minneapolis, as represented by the official unions of the American Federation of Labor, found themselves in advance in a position of having endorsed the demands and being logically bound to support the strike.
In May the general strike burst into flames. The bosses, grown complacent from long unchallenged domination, were greatly surprised. The lesson of the coal strike had not yet convinced them that “something new” had been added to the trade union movement in Minneapolis. They still thought they could nip this thing in the bud. They tried stalling and maneuvering, and bogging our people down in the negotiations with the Labor Board where so many new unions had been cut to pieces. Right in the middle of the business, when they thought they had the union tangled in this web of negotiations for indefinite delay, our people just cut through it at one stroke. They hit them on the nose with a general strike. The trucks were tied up and the “negotiations” were taken to the streets.

Effect of the Strike

This May general strike shook Minneapolis as it had never been shaken before. It shook the whole country, because this was no tame strike. This was a strike that began with such a wallop that the whole country heard about it, and about the role of the Trotskyists in its leadership—the bosses advertised that widely, and also hysterically. Then we saw again the same response among the observing radical workers that had followed our resolute action in the case of Field and the New York hotel strike. When they saw the performances in the May strike in Minneapolis, that same sentiment was expressed again: “These Trotskyists mean business. When they undertake anything, they go through with it.” The jokes about the Trotskyist “sectarians” began to turn sour.
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.
All modern strikes require political direction. The strikes of that period brought the government, its agencies and its institutions into the very center of every situation. A strike leader without some conception of a political line was very much out of date already by 1934. The old-fashioned trade union movement, which used to deal with the bosses without governmental interference, belongs in the museum. 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. Consequently, they expected from the start that the union would have to fight for its right to exist; that the bosses would not yield any recognition to the union, would not yield any increase of wages or reduction of the scandalous hours without some pressure being brought to bear. Therefore they prepared everything from the point of view of class war. They knew that power, not diplomacy, would decide the issue. Bluffs don’t work in fundamental things, only in incidental ones. In such things as the conflict of class interests one must be prepared to fight.
Proceeding from these general concepts, the Minneapolis Trotskyists, in the course of organizing the workers, planned a battle strategy. Something unique was seen in Minneapolis for the first time. That is, a strike that was thoroughly organized beforehand, a strike prepared with the meticulous detail which they used to attribute to the German army—down to the last button sewn on the uniform of the last individual soldier. When the hour of the deadline came, and the bosses thought they could still maneuver and bluff, our people were setting up a fortress for action. This was noted and reported by the Minneapolis Tribune, the mouthpiece of the bosses, only at the last moment, a day before the strike. The paper said:
“If the preparations made by their union for handling it are any indication, the strike of truck drivers in Minneapolis is going to be a far-reaching affair.... Even before the official start of the strike at 11:30 P.M. Tuesday, the 'General Headquarters' organization set up at 1900 Chicago Avenue was operating with all the precision of a military organization.”

Thorough Preparations

Our people had a commissary all fixed up. They didn’t wait until the strikers were hungry. They had it organized beforehand in preparation for the strike. They set up an emergency hospital in a garage—the strike headquarters was in a garage—with their own doctor and their own nurses before the strike even broke. Why? Because they knew that the bosses, their cops, and thugs and deputies would try in this case, as in every other, to beat the strike down. They were prepared to take care of their own people and not let them be sent, if injured, to a city hospital and then placed under arrest and put out of commission. When a fellow worker was injured on the picket line they brought him to their own headquarters and doctored him up there.
They took a leaf from the Progressive Miners of America and organized a Women’s Auxiliary to help make trouble for the bosses. And I tell you, the women made lots of trouble, running around protesting and scandalizing the bosses and the city authorities, which is one of the most important political weapons. The strike leadership organized picketing on a mass basis. This business of appointing or hiring a few people, one or two, to watch and count and report how many scabs have been hired, doesn’t work in a real struggle. They sent a squad to keep any scabs from going in. I mentioned that they had their strike headquarters in a garage. This was because the picketing was put on wheels. They not only organized the pickets, they mobilized a fleet of picketing cars. Every striker worker, sympathizer and trade unionist in town was called upon to donate the use of his car or truck. The strike committee thus had a whole fleet at its disposal. Flying squads of pickets on wheels were stationed at strategic points throughout the town.
Whenever a report came in of a truck being operated or any attempt to move trucks, the “dispatcher” called through the loudspeaker in the garage for as many cars, loaded with pickets, as were needed to go out there and give the operators of the scab trucks an argument.
The “dispatcher” in the May strike was a young man named Farrell Dobbs. He came out of a coal yard in Minneapolis into the union and the strike, and then into the party. He first became known to us as a dispatcher who shot out the squad cars and the pickets. At first the pickets went out barehanded, but they came back with broken heads and injuries of various kinds. Then they equipped themselves with shillalahs for the next trips. A shillalah, as any Irishman can tell you, is a blackthorn stick you lean on in case you suddenly go lame. Of course, it is handy for other purposes too. The attempt of the bosses and the police to crush the strike by force culminated in the famous “Battle of the Market.” Several thousand special deputies in addition to the whole police force were mobilized to make one supreme effort to open up a strategic part of the town, the wholesale market, for the operation of trucks.

Battle of ’Deputies Run’

Those deputies, recruited from the petty-bourgeois and the employing classes of the town, and the professions, came to the market in a sort of gala holiday spirit. They were going to have fun down there just beating up strikers. One of the special deputies wore his polo hat. He was going to have one hell of a time down there, knocking strikers’ heads around like polo balls. The ill-advised sportsman was mistaken; it was no polo game this time. He and the whole mob of deputies and cops ran into a mass of determined, organized pickets of the union supplemented by sympathetic unionists from other trades and by members of the unemployed organizations. The attempt to drive the pickets from the marketplace ended in failure. The counter-attack of the workers put them to flight. The battle has gone down in Minneapolis history as “The Battle of Deputies Run.” There were two casualties, and they were both on the other side. That was one of the features of the strike that lifted Minneapolis high in the estimation of the workers everywhere. In strike after strike of those days the same story had been monotonously repeated in the press: Two strikers killed; four strikers shot; twenty strikers arrested, etc. Here was a strike where it wasn’t all one-sided. There was one universal burst of applause, from one end of the labor movement to the other, for the militancy and resoluteness of the Minneapolis fighters. They had reversed the trend of things, and worker militants everywhere praised their name.
As the organizing campaign developed, our National Committee in New York was informed of everything and collaborated as much as possible by mail. But when the strike broke out we were fully conscious that this was the time for us to do more, to do all that we possibly could to help. I was sent to Minneapolis by airplane to assist the comrades, especially in the negotiations for a settlement. This was the time, you will recall, when we were still so poor that we couldn’t afford a telephone in the office. We had absolutely no financial basis for such extravagant expenses as airplane fares. But the consciousness of our movement was expressed very graphically in the fact that in the moment of necessity we found the means to pay for an airplane trip to save a few hours time. This action, taken at an expense far beyond what our budget could normally carry, was designed to give the local comrades involved in the fight the benefit of all the advice and assistance we could offer, and to which, as members of the League, they were entitled. But there was another aspect, just as important. In sending a representative of the NC to Minneapolis our League meant to take responsibility for what they were doing. If things went wrong—and there is always the possibility that things will go wrong in a strike—we meant to take responsibility for it and not leave the local comrades to hold the sack. That has always been our procedure. When any section of our movement is involved in action, the local comrades are not left to their own resources. The national leadership must help and in the final analysis take the responsibility.

A Partial Victory

The May strike lasted only six days and a quick settlement was reached. The bosses were swept off their feet, the whole country was clamoring to get the thing settled. There was pressure from Washington and from Governor Olson. The settlement was severely attacked by the Stalinist press, which was very radical at that time, because it was not a sweeping victory, but a compromise; a partial victory that gave recognition to the union. We took full responsibility for the settlement our comrades had made, and took up the challenge of the Stalinists. Our press simply chased the Stalinists off the field in this controversy. We defended the settlement of the Minneapolis strike and frustrated their campaign to discredit it and thereby to discredit our work in the unions. The radical labor movement was given a complete picture of this strike. We published a special issue of The Militant which described in detail all the different aspects of the strike and the preparations leading up to it. This issue was written almost entirely by the leading comrades in the strike.
The main point around which we wove the explanation of the compromise settlement was: what are the aims of a new union in this period? We pointed out that the American working class is still unorganized, atomized. Only a part of the skilled workers are organized into craft unions, and these do not represent the great mass of American labor. The American workers are an unorganized mass and their first impulse and need is to take the first elementary step before they can do anything else; that is, to form a union and compel the bosses to recognize that union. Thus we formulated the problem.
We maintained - and I think with full justice—that a group of workers, who in their first battle gained the recognition of their union, and on that basis could build and strengthen their position, had accomplished the objectives of the occasion and should not overtax their strength and run the danger of demoralization and defeat. The settlement proved to be correct because it was enough to build on. The union remained stable. It was not a flash in the pan. The union began to forge ahead, began to recruit new members and educate a cadre of new leaders. As the weeks went by it became clear to the bosses that their scheme to trick the truck drivers out of the fruits of their struggle was not working so well.
Then the bosses came to the conclusion that they had made a mistake; that they should have fought longer and broken the union, so as to teach the workers of Minneapolis the lesson that unions could not exist there; that Minneapolis was an open-shop slave town and should remain that way. Somebody gave them some bad advice. The Citizens Alliance, the general organization of the employers and labor haters, kept needling and inciting the bosses in the trucking industry to break the agreement, to chisel and stall on the concessions they had agreed to give, and whittle away the gains that had been made by the workers.
The leadership of the union understood the situation. The bosses had not been sufficiently convinced by the first test of strength with the union and needed another demonstration. They began to prepare another strike. Again the workers in the industry were prepared for action. Again the whole labor movement of Minneapolis was mobilized to support them, this time in the most impressive, the most dramatic fashion. The campaign for the adoption of resolutions in the Central Labor Union and its affiliated unions in support of Local 574 was pointed toward a great parade of organized labor. The members of the various unions turned out in force and marched in solid ranks to a huge mass meeting in the City Auditorium, to back up the truck drivers and pledge them support in the impending struggle. It was an imposing demonstration of labor solidarity and of the new militancy which had taken hold of the workers.
The bosses remained obdurate. They raised the “Red Scare” in a big way, denouncing the “Trotsky Communists” in screaming advertisements in the newspapers. On the union side, preparations went ahead as in the May strike, but on an even more highly, organized plane. When it became clear that another strike could not be avoided without sacrificing the union, our National Committee decided that the whole Communist League of America would have to go all-out in its support. We knew that the real test was here, that we dared not dabble with the issue. We sensed that here was a battle that could make or break us for years to come; if we gave half-hearted support, or withheld this or that aid which we could give, it might tip the balance between victory and defeat. We knew that we had plenty to give to our Minneapolis comrades.

The Real Test

In our movement we never played with the absurd idea that only those directly connected with a union are capable of giving assistance. Modern strikes need political direction more than anything else. If our party, our League as we called it then, deserved to exist it would have to come to the aid of the local comrades. As is always the case with trade union leaders, especially in strike times, they were under the weight and stress of a thousand pressing details. A political party, on the other hand, rises above the details and generalizes from the main issues. A trade union leader who rejects the idea of political advice in the struggle against the bosses and their government, with its cunning devices, traps and methods of exerting pressure, is deaf, dumb and blind. Our Minneapolis comrades were not of this type. They turned to us for help.
We sent quite a few forces into the situation. I went there about two weeks before the outbreak of the second strike. After I had been there a few days, we agreed to call in more aid—a whole staff, in fact. Two additional people were brought from New York for journalistic work: Shachtman and Herbert Solow, an experienced and talented journalist who was a sort of sympathizer of our movement at that time. Borrowing an idea from the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, we called in another comrade whose specific tack was to organize the unemployed to assist the strike. That was Hugo Oehler who was a very capable mass worker and trade unionist. His work in Minneapolis was the last bit of good he ever did for us. He caught the sectarian sickness soon afterwards. But up to then Oehler was all right, and he contributed something to the strike. On top of this, we imported a general attorney for the union, Albert Goldman. We knew from previous experience that a lawyer is very important in a strike, if you can get a good one. It is very important to have your own “mouthpiece” and legal front who gives you honest advice and protects your legal interests. There are all kinds of ups and downs in a hard-fought strike. Sometimes things get too hot for the “disreputable” strike leaders. Then you can always push a lawyer forward and he says calmly: “Let us reason together and see what the law says.” Very handy, especially when you have such a brilliant lawyer and loyal man as Al Goldman.
We gave all we could to the strike from our center in New York, on the same principle as I mentioned before, which should serve as the guiding line for every kind of activity of a serious party, or a serious person for that matter. This is the principle: If you are going to do anything, for heavens’ sake do it properly, do it right. Never dabble, never do anything halfway. Woe to the lukewarm! “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.”

The July-August Strike

The strike began July 16, 1934, and lasted five weeks. I think I can say without the slightest exaggeration, without fear of any contradiction, that the July-August strike of the Minneapolis truck drivers and helpers has entered into the annals of the history of the American labor movement as one of its greatest, most heroic and best organized struggles. Moreover: the strike and the union forged in its fires are identified forever in the labor movement, not only here but all over the world, with Trotskyism in action in the mass movement of the workers. Trotskyism made a number of specific contributions to this strike which made all the difference between the Minneapolis strike and a hundred others of the period, some of which involved more workers in more socially important localities and industries. Trotskyism made the contribution of organization and preparations down to the last detail. That is something new, that is something specifically Trotskyist. Second, Trotskyism introduced into all the plans and preparations of the union and the strike, from beginning to end, the class line of militancy; not as a subjective reaction—that is seen in every strike—but as a deliberate policy based on the theory of the class struggle, that you can’t win anything from the bosses unless you have the will to fight for it and the strength to take it.
The third contribution of Trotskyism to the Minneapolis strike—the most interesting and perhaps the most decisive—was that we met the government mediators on their own ground. I tell you, one of the most pathetic things observable in that period was to see how in one strike after another the workers were outmaneuvered and cut to pieces, and their strike broken by the “friends of labor” in the guise of federal mediators.
These slick rascals would come in, take advantage of the ignorance and inexperience and political inadequacy of local leaders, and assure them that they were there as friends. Their assignment was to “settle the trouble” by extorting concessions from the weaker side. Inexperienced and politically unschooled strike leaders were their prey. They had a routine, a formula to catch the unwary. “I am not asking you to give any concession to the bosses, but give me a concession so that I can help you.” Then, after something had been given away through gullibility: “I tried to get a corresponding concession from the bosses but they refused. I think you had better make more concessions; public sentiment is turning against you.” And then pressure and threats: “Roosevelt will issue a statement.” Or, “We will feel obligated to publish something in the papers against you if you aren’t more reasonable and responsible.” Then get the poor greenhorns into conference rooms, keep them there hours and hours on end and terrorize them. This was the common routine these cynical scoundrels employed.
They came into Minneapolis all greased up for another standard performance. We were sitting there waiting for them. We said, “Come on. You want to negotiate, do you? All right. That is fine.” Of course our comrades put it in the more diplomatic language of the negotiations “protocol,” but that was the gist of our attitude. Well, they never negotiated two cents out of the Trotskyist leaders of Local 574. They got a dose of negotiations and diplomacy which they are still gagging from. We wore out three of them before the strike was finally settled.

Federal Confidence Men

A favorite trick of the confidence men known as federal mediators in those days was to assemble green strike leaders in a room, play upon their vanity and induce them to commit themselves to some kind of compromise which they were not authorized to make. The federal mediators would convince the strike leaders that they were “big shots” who must take a “responsible” attitude. The mediators knew that concessions yielded by leaders in negotiations can very rarely be recalled. No matter how much the workers may oppose it, the fact that the leaders have already committed themselves in public compromises the position of the union and creates demoralization in the ranks.
This routine cut many a strike to pieces in that period. It didn’t work in Minneapolis. Our people weren’t “big shots” in the negotiations at all. They made it clear that their authority was extremely limited, that they were in fact the more moderate and reasonable wing of the union, and that if they took a step out of line they would be replaced on the negotiations committee by other types. This was quite a poser for the strike-butchers who had come to Minneapolis with their knives out for unsuspecting sheep. Every once in a while Grant Dunne would be added to the Committee. He would just sit in a corner saying nothing, but scowling every time there was any talk of concessions. The strike was a hard and bitter fight but we had plenty of fun in planning the sessions of the union negotiations committee with the mediators. We despised them and all their wily artifices and tricks, and their hypocritical pretenses of good fellowship and friendship for the strikers. They were nothing but the agents of the government in Washington, which in turn is the agent of the employing class as a whole. That was perfectly clear to a Marxist, and we took it as rather an insult for them to assume that we could be taken in by the methods they employed with novices. They tried it though. Apparently they didn’t know any other methods. But they didn’t make an inch of headway until they got down to cases, put pressure on the bosses and made concessions to the union. The collective political experience of our movement was very useful in dealing with the federal mediators. Unlike stupid sectarians, we didn’t ignore them. Sometimes we would initiate discussions. But we didn’t let them use us, and we didn’t trust them for one moment. Our general strategy in the strike was to fight it out, not give anything away to anybody; to hold on and fight it out. That was Trotskyist contribution number four. It may appear to be a very simple and obvious prescription, but that is not the case. It was obvious to the great majority of strike leaders of the time.

The ’Daily Organizer’

The fifth and crowning contribution that Trotskyism made to the Minneapolis strike was the publication of the daily strike newspaper, the Daily Organizer. For the first time in the history of the American labor movement, strikers were not left dependent on the capitalist press; were not befuddled and terrorized by it; did not see public sentiment disoriented by the capitalist monopoly of the press. The Minneapolis strikers published their own daily newspaper. This was done not by half-million coal miners, a hundred thousand auto or steel workers, but by a single local union of 5,000 truck drivers, a new union in Minneapolis which had Trotskyist leadership. This leadership understood that publicity and propaganda are highly important, and that is something very few trade union leaders know. It is almost impossible to convey the tremendous effect of this daily newspaper. It wasn’t a big one—just a two-page tabloid. But it completely counteracted the capitalist press. After a day or two we didn’t care what the daily papers of the bosses said. They printed all kinds of things but it didn’t make that much difference in the ranks of the strikers. They had their own paper and took its reports as gospel. The Daily Organizer covered the town like a blanket. Strikers at the headquarters all used to get it straight from the press. The women’s auxiliary sold it in every tavern in town that had working class customers. In many saloons in working class neighborhoods they would leave a bundle of papers on the bar with a slotted collection can beside them for contributions. Many a dollar was collected that way and carefully watched by the friendly bartenders.
Union men used to come from the shops and railroad yards every night to get bundles of the Organizer for distribution among the men on their shifts. The power of that little paper, its hold on the workers, is indescribable. They believed the Organizer and no other paper. Occasionally a story would appear in the capitalist press about some new development in the strike. The workers wouldn’t believe it. They would wait for the Organizer to see what the truth was. Press distortions of strike incidents and outright fabrications—which have destroyed the morale of many a strike—didn’t work in Minneapolis. More than once, among a crowd that always surged around strike headquarters when the latest issue of the Organizer was delivered, one could hear remarks such as this: “You see what the Daily Organizer. This powerful instrument didn’t cost the union a penny. On the contrary, the Daily Organizer made a profit from the first day and carried through when there was no money in the treasury. The profits of the Organizer paid the daily expenses of the commissary. The paper was distributed free to anyone who wanted it, but nearly every sympathetic worker gave from a nickel to a dollar for a copy. The morale of the strikers was kept up by it, but above all, the role of the Organizer was that of an educator. Every day the paper had the news of the strike, some jokes about the bosses, some information about what went on in the labor movement. There was even a daily cartoon drawn by a local comrade. Then there would be an editorial drawing the lessons of the past 24 hours, day after day, and pointing the way ahead. “This is what has happened. This is what is coming next. This is our position.” The striking workers were armed and prepared in advance for every move of the mediators or Governor Olson. We would be poor Marxists if we couldn’t see 24 hours in advance. We called the turn so many times that the strikers began to take our forecasts as news and to rely upon them as such. The Daily Organizer was the greatest of all the weapons in the arsenal of the Minneapolis strike. I can say without any qualification that of all the contributions we made, the most decisive, the one that tipped the scale to victory, was the publication of the daily paper. Without the Organizer the strike would not have been won.
All these contributions which I have mentioned were integrated and carried out in the greatest harmony between the staff sent by the National Committee and the local comrades in the leadership of the strike. The lessons of the hotel strike, the lamentable experiences with swell-headed and disloyal people, were fully assimilated in Minneapolis. There was the closest collaboration from beginning to end.

Olson’s Dilemma

The strike presented Floyd Olson, Farmer-Labor governor, with a hard nut to crack. We understood the contradictions he was in. He was, on the one hand, supposedly a representative of the workers; on the other hand, he was governor of a bourgeois state, afraid of public opinion and afraid of the employers. He was caught in a squeeze between his obligation to do something, or appear to do something, for the workers and his fear of letting the strike get out of bounds. Our policy was to exploit these contradictions, to demand things of him because he was labor’s governor, to take everything we could get and holler every day for more. On the other hand, we criticized and attacked him for every false move and never made the slightest concession to the theory that the strikers should rely on his advice.
Floyd Olson was undoubtedly the leader of the official labor movement in Minnesota, but we did not recognize his leadership. The labor bureaucrats in Minneapolis were under his leadership, just as the present bureaucrats of the CIO and AFL are under the leadership of Roosevelt. Roosevelt is the boss, and Floyd Olson was the boss of the whole labor movement in Minneapolis except Local 574. But he wasn’t our boss; we didn’t hesitate to attack him in the most ruthless manner. Under these attacks he would flinch a little bit and make a concession or two which the strike leadership would grab on the fly. We had no sentiment for him at all. The local labor bureaucrats were weeping and wailing in fear that his political career would be ruined. We didn’t care. That was his affair, not ours. What we wanted was more concessions from him, and we hollered for them day after day. The labor skates were scared to death. “Don’t do this; don’t push him into this calamity; remember the difficulties of his position.” We paid them no mind and went our own way. Pushed and pounded from both sides, afraid to help the strikers and afraid not to, Floyd Olson declared martial law. This is really one of the most fantastic things that ever happened in the history of American labor. A Farmer-Labor governor proclaimed martial law and stopped the trucks from running. That was supposed to be one on the side of labor. But then he allowed the trucks to run again under special permits. That was one for the bosses. Naturally the pickets undertook to stop the trucks, permit or no permit. Then, a few days later, the Farmer-Labor governor’s militia raided the headquarters of the strike and arrested the leaders.

Martial Law

I am jumping a little ahead of the story. Upon the declaration of martial law, the first casualties, the first military prisoners of Olson and his militia became myself and Max Shachtman. I don’t know how they found out we were there, as we were not very conspicuous in public. But Shachtman was wearing a great big ten-gallon cowboy hat—where he got it, or why in God’s name he wore it, I never knew—and that made him conspicuous. I suppose that is how they located us. One evening Shachtman and I came away from the strike headquarters, walked downtown and, being in need of diversion, looked around to see what shows were playing. Toward the lower end of Hennepin Avenue we were confronted with two alternatives: in one place a burlesque show, next door a movie. Which to go to? Well, naturally, I said the movie. A couple of detectives, who had been on our trail, followed us in and arrested us there. What a narrow escape from being arrested in a burlesque show. What a scandal it would have been. I would never have lived it down, I am sure.
They kept us in jail for about 48 hours; then took us into court. I never saw so many bayonets in one place in my life as there were in and around the courtroom. All these young, up-state “apple-knockers” and white collar squirts in the militia seemed to be quite eager to get a little bayonet practice. Some of our friends were in the court watching the proceedings. Finally the judge turned us over to the military, and Shachtman and I were marched down the corridors and down the stairs between two rows of bayonet-clutching militiamen. As they were marching us out of the courthouse, we heard a shout overhead. Bill Brown and Mick Dunne were sitting comfortably up in a third-floor window watching the procession, laughing and waving at us. “Look out for those bayonets,” Bill shouted. Anything for a laugh in Minneapolis. When a few days later Bill and Mick were arrested by the militia, they took it just as light-heartedly.
They threw us into the guardhouse and kept two or three of these nervous rookies watching us with their hands on their bayonets all the time. Albert Goldman came down, threatening legal action. The militia chiefs seemed to be anxious to get us off their hands and avoid any trouble with this lawyer from Chicago. On our side, we did not care to make a test case of our detention. We wanted, above all, to get out so that we could be of some help to the steering committee of the union. We decided to accept the offer they made. They said, if you agree to leave town you can go. So we said, all right. We moved across the river to St. Paul. There every night we had meetings of the steering committee as long as any of the leading comrades were out of jail. The steering committee of the strike, sometimes with Bill Brown, sometimes without him, would get into a car, drive over there, talk over the day’s experiences and plan the next day. There was never a serious move made during the whole strike that was not planned and prepared for in advance.
Then came the raid on the strike headquarters. One morning the troops of the militia surrounded the headquarters at 4:00 A.M. and arrested hundreds of pickets and all of the strike leaders they could lay their hands on. They arrested Mick Dunne, Vincent Dunne, Bill Brown. They “missed” some of the leaders in their hurry. Farrell Dobbs, Grant Dunne and some others slipped through their fingers. These simply set up another committee, and substitute headquarters in several friendly garages; the picketing, organized underground, went on with great vigor. The fight continued and the mediators continued their finagling.
A man named Dunnigan was the first one sent into the situation. He was an impressive looking fellow who wore pince-nez glasses suspended on a black ribbon and smoked expensive cigars, but he didn’t know very much. After trying vainly for a while to push the strike leaders around, he worked out a proposal for a compromise providing for substantial wage increases for the workers without granting their full demands. In the meantime, one of Washington’s ace negotiators, a Catholic priest named Father Haas, was sent in. He associated himself with Dunnigan’s proposal and it became known as the “Haas-Dunnigan Plan.” The strikers immediately accepted it. The bosses stalled, and were put in the position of opposing a government proposal, but that didn’t seem to bother them. The strikers exploited the situation effectively in mobilizing public opinion in their favor. Then, after a few weeks had gone by, Father Haas found out that he couldn’t put any pressure on the bosses, so he decided to put the pressure on the strikers. He put the issue baldly to the union’s negotiating committee: “The bosses won’t give in so you must give in. The strike must be settled; Washington insists.”
The strike leaders answered : “No, you can’t do that. A bargain’s a bargain. We accepted the Haas-Dunnigan plan. We are fighting for your plan. Your honor is involved here.” Whereupon Father Haas said—this is another threat they always hold over strike leaders: “We will appeal to the rank and file of the union in the name of the United States government.” That threat usually scares the pants off inexperienced labor leaders.
But the Minneapolis strike leaders were not scared. They said: “All right, come on.” So they arranged a meeting for him. Oh, he got a meeting that he never bargained for. That meeting, like every other important action taken in the strike, was planned and prepared in advance. Father Haas had no sooner ended his speech than the storm broke over his head. One by one, the rank and file strikers got up and showed how well they had memorized the speeches that had been outlined in caucus. They almost drove him out of the meeting. They made him physically sick. He threw up his hands and left town. The strikers voted unanimously to condemn his treacherous attempt to wreck their strike and thereby their union.
Dunnigan was finished, Father Haas was finished. Then they sent in a third federal mediator. He had obviously learned from the sad experiences of the others not to try any shenanigans. Mr. Donaghue, I think that was his name, got right down to business and in a few days worked out a settlement which was a substantial victory for the union.
The names of a new galaxy of labor leaders flashed in the northwestern sky: William S. Brown; the Dunne brothers—Vincent, Miles and Grant; Karl Skoglund; Farrell Dobbs; Kelley Postal; Harry De Boer; Ray Rainbolt; George Frosig.
The great strike came to an end after five weeks of bitter struggle during which there hadn’t been an hour free from tension and danger. Two workers were killed in that strike, scores injured, shot, beaten on the picket line in the battle to keep the trucks from running without union drivers. A great deal of hardship, a great deal of pressure of every kind was endured, but the union finally came out victorious, firmly established, built on solid rock as a result of those fights. We thought, and we wrote later, that it was a glorious vindication of Trotskyism in the mass movement.

Significance of the Victory

Minneapolis was the highest point of the second strike wave under the NRA. The second wave surged higher than the first, as the third wave was destined to transcend the second and reach the peak of the CIO sit-down strikes. The giant of the American proletariat was beginning to feel its power in those years, was beginning to show what tremendous potentialities, what resources of strength, ingenuity and courage reside in the American working class.
In July of that year, 1934, I wrote an article about these strikes and the strike waves for the first issue of our magazine, the New International. I said:
“The second strike wave under the NRA rises higher than the first and marks a big forward stride of the American working class. The enormous potentialities of future developments are clearly written in this advance. . . .
“In these great struggles the American workers in all parts of the country are displaying the unrestrained militancy of a class that is just beginning to awaken. This is a new generation of a class that has not been defeated. On the contrary, it is only now beginning to find itself and to feel its strength, and in these first tentative conflicts the proletarian giant gives a glorious promise for the future. The present generation remains true to the tradition of American labor; it is boldly aggressive and violent from the start. The American worker is no Quaker. Further developments of the class struggle will bring plenty of fighting in the USA.”
The third wave, culminating in the sit-down strikes, confirmed that prediction and gave us ground to look forward with the greatest optimism to still greater, more grandiose demonstrations of the power and militancy of the American workers. In Minneapolis we saw the native militancy of the workers fused with a politically conscious leadership. Minneapolis showed how great can be the role of such leadership. It gave great promise for the party founded on correct political principles and fused and united with the mass of American workers. In that combination one can see the power that will conquer the whole world.

* * *

During that strike, tied up as we were from day to day with innumerable details and under the constant pressure of daily events, we didn’t forget the political side of the movement. In the steering committee, on occasion, we discussed not only the day’s immediate problem of the strike; as best we could, we kept alive and alert to what was going on in the world outside Minneapolis. At that time Trotsky was elaborating one of his boldest tactical moves. He proposed that the Trotskyists of France should make their way into the revivified left-wing section of the French Social Democracy and work there as a Bolshevik faction. This was the famous “French turn.” We discussed this proposal in the heat of the strike at Minneapolis. We translated it for America as an injunction to hasten the amalgamation with the American Workers Party. The AWP was obviously the political group closest to us and moving toward the left. We decided to recommend to the national leadership of our League that it take decisive steps to speed up the unification and to accomplish it before the end of the year. The Musteites had led a great strike in Toledo. The Trotskyists had distinguished themselves in Minneapolis. Toledo and Minneapolis had become linked as twin symbols of the two highest points of proletarian militancy and conscious leadership. These two strikes tended to bring the militants in each battle closer together; to make them more sympathetic to each other, more desirous of close collaboration. It was obvious, by all the circumstances, that it was time to give the signal for the unification of these two forces. We returned from Minneapolis with this goal in view and moved decisively to the fusion of the Trotskyists and the American Workers Party, to the launching of a new party—the American section of the Fourth International.


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