Civil War in '34 : Lessons of the Minneapolis Teamster Union Strikes

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Lawler, Sebastian
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For labor in America, and in the world as a whole, 1934 was a climactic year. Adolf Hitler had just taken power as chancellor in Germany the year before; the Empire of Japan was solidifying its control over Manchuria and preparing for its invasion of China. Joseph Stalin reigned in the Soviet Union, extending significant control over Communist parties across the world. In the meantime, Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the second year of his first term as president of the United States, making drastic changes with his New Deal programs to the U.S. economy in an effort to stem and reverse the economic free-fall that had become the Great Depression. The Democratic Party rose to power with Roosevelt across the country, but in the Midwest-then still known as the Northwest-a different party held sway in the state of Minnesota. An alliance of rural and urban reformists known as the Farmer-Labor Party carved out a place in the Minnesota house of representatives and senate while Farmer-Labor candidate Floyd Olson rose to the governorship, driving the Democratic and Republican parties both into retreat. In spite of these political advances, the Farmer-Labor party had another faction to contend with. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, economic and political centers of the state, hosted an active and close-knit business community. Its interests were protected by a powerful economic organization of dozens of firms and businessmen known as the Citizens Alliance. The primary purpose of the Citizen's Alliance was preventing unionization of Minneapolis industries at any cost. The Great Depression presented significant problems for their organization; the economic crash hit their businesses hard, and the workers of the Twin Cities were desperate and restless. Around a quarter of the working population was unemployed nationwide, and the Twin Cities had their own "great army of unemployed"; even Roosevelt's federal relief and employment programs were not enough to end the unrest. Crime was also high, as the Twin Cities were notorious centers of gangster activity. Kidnappings and shootings were rampant. Even the weather had taken a turn for the apocalyptic. The early winter had been unusually warm before it plunged to unprecedented lows; then, in spring and summer, dust storms swept through the nation, and hordes of grasshoppers descended on the countryside. Circumstances forced Minnesota itself to deal with a drought that left the crops in ruins and resulted in horrible fires across the state. Worse than these for the Citizens Alliance was a small part of Roosevelt's new National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA)-section 7, a. to be exact-which granted all labor the right to organize and bargain collectively. Though the law clearly permitted unionization, the measure faced legal challenge, and anti-union actors might yet have maintained the status quo. It was on this stage that General Drivers and Helpers Local 57 4, affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, claimed the spotlight. It had existed before 1934 in a relatively feeble state as the union for coal drivers in the city of Minneapolis. In 1934, however, 57 4 came under the direction of a handful of radical new leaders. They had the assistance of allies across the rest of the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota, the support of the populace, and the benevolent neutrality of Governor Olson and President Roosevelt on their side. With this support, and in spite of opposition from the Citizens Alliance, local government officials, and even their own national union, Local574 managed to win three successive strikes and revitalize labor in both Minneapolis and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as a whole. Exploring this particular event requires a great deal of context if one is unfamiliar with the history of the American labor movement in general, the history of Minnesota in particular, or the state of the United States as a whole in 1934. As such this paper has been divided into two sections; the first is intended to familiarize the reader with the history of relevant actors and organizations involved in the strikes of 1934, drawing on a combination of primary and secondary sources. The second is intended to chronicle the succession of strikes and the evolution of the conflict, drawing extensively from issues of The Minneapolis Star, The Minneapolis Tribune, teamster strike bulletin The Organizer, and Farrell Dobbs' later account entitled Teamster Rebellion. For newspaper sources the online archive was extensively useful, and for primary sources by or on the Teamster leadership the Marxist Internet Archive was critical.
64 p.
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