US workers: from despair to victory

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After years of vicious repression, US workers rose in 1934 in a series of magnificent struggles, transforming the nation's industrial landscape.

John Newsinger reviews a new book about one of the most significant, that in Minneapolis.

In the aftermath of the First World War the US labour movement suffered a succession of crushing defeats that were to leave it on its knees throughout the 1920s. A countrywide "open shop" campaign saw union organisation broken, driven out of whole industries, and militants and activists sacked and blacklisted.

This capitalist offensive was accompanied by a ferocious "Red Scare" that had been launched during the war but continued afterwards, leaving the left weak and divided. Throughout the 1920s militants and socialist and communist activists were actively persecuted, sometimes violently repressed and spied on by private detective agencies that were unique to America. And all this was accompanied by a powerful ideological offensive, a celebration of capitalism and the capitalist, that successfully closed down any consideration of an alternative social order.

How did the trade union leaders respond to this situation? The American Federation of Labour (AFL) moved further to the right, turning its back on the unorganised and the unskilled and positively embracing the virtues of unbridled capitalism. As far as the union leadership was concerned, the only way the unions could survive was on sufferance, by collaborating with the employers.

Indeed, in the 1920s many union leaders came to measure success not by their members' standard of living, but by how closely their own lifestyle mirrored that of the rich. Many actually became capitalists themselves, combining their union positions with extensive share portfolios, membership of the best clubs and the personal friendship of the very men who exploited their members.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed overwhelmed an already weak labour movement, plunging millions of men and women into misery. The official unemployment figures went up from 1.5 million in 1929 to nearly 13 million in 1933, but these figures seriously understated the situation.

The real figure was more than 16 million. And there were as many working short-time, their hours and earnings drastically cut. And, on top of this, employers imposed wage cuts across the board. In the US in the early 1930s, in what was still the richest country in the world, millions went hungry and hundreds starved to death.

Banksters
Celebration of capitalism turned sour. Bankers, in particular, became widely hated, popularly known as "banksters". They had caused the crisis, but everyone except them was paying the price. The government bailed out the banks, while letting millions of public sector workers go without pay. A succession of scandals revealed that the rich had effectively exempted themselves from paying tax. This all sounds terribly familiar.

In the 1932 presidential election the Republican, Herbert Hoover, was swept away and the Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, took office. Roosevelt had actually campaigned promising to cut government expenditure, and on occasions had even accused Hoover of being a spendthrift.

Once in office, however, his administration took decisive action to prop up big business and the banks (the most important part of the "New Deal" neglected by most historians) and to provide some relief for the unemployed. This was not motivated by humanitarian concerns, but by fear. The administration was seriously worried that unless something was done to alleviate the situation for ordinary people, there would be widespread disorder that would cause an opening to the left. Roosevelt's supposed concern for the American working class is mythical; his overriding concern was to protect American capitalism.

In June 1933 the administration introduced its National Industrial Recovery Act, intended to strengthen big business, but which also included a prop for the ailing AFL. There was absolutely no intention of encouraging trade unionism in areas where it was not already established, but this is what it did. Across the US employers had relentlessly ground their workers down by cutting wages and increasing work loads and unleashing a bullying rampant management.

Even the half-hearted gesture reluctantly agreed to by Roosevelt led to an explosion on the shopfloor, an explosion many union leaders found embarrassing. The workers flooding into the unions wanted to fight, but the union leaders resisted, urging their members to trust Roosevelt. The result was the containment and then the rollback of this initial surge of class struggle. The employers desperately tried to close the door to union organisation.

What kicked the door wide open were the three great mass strikes that erupted in 1934 in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis, strikes that decisively changed the balance of class forces in the US. Bryan Palmer's marvellous new book, Revolutionary Teamsters, is a superb account of the industrial conflict that raged in Minneapolis. It is required reading for everyone on the left.

To write of these great strikes "erupting" is misleading. While they required working class anger and outrage, a determination to put an end to intolerable conditions, they were also prepared in each case by the dedicated activity of militants, men and women, on the left, working in the unions for years.

In all three cities the strikes were led by revolutionaries: by members of the American Workers Party in Toledo, by members of the Communist Party in San Francisco and by the Trotskyists of the Communist League in Minneapolis. They had worked patiently for the upturn and now they were in a position to provide the leadership necessary to defeat employers who were prepared to see people die rather than recognise the union.

In Minneapolis, Trotskyist members of the Teamsters union preached working class self-reliance: workers could only rely on themselves, the union leaders would side with the employers and would have to be swept aside and no trust could be put in either Roosevelt or state governor Floyd Olson.

What would defeat the city's ferociously anti-union employers, organised in the powerful Citizens' Alliance, was militancy, solidarity and organisation. The rank and file held the key to victory in their own hands. This gospel was tirelessly argued by some of the most remarkable men in the history of the international Trotskyist movement: the three Dunne brothers, Ray, Miles and Grant, Carl Skoglund and Farrell Dobbs.

As Palmer insists, this struggle is of more than mere historical interest because even today "it has things to tell us, ways of showing that the tides of history, even in times that seem to flow against change, can be put on a different course". What it also provides is an object lesson in the waging of the class struggle still relevant today.

There were three teamsters' strikes in Minneapolis in 1934. The first was a strike of the city's coal-yard workers, called on 7 February. It was a meticulously planned confrontation, that, if unsuccessful, could have derailed all their efforts, but if successful would open the way to transforming the teamsters in the city from a weak craft union into a powerful general union, transforming Minneapolis from an open shop city into a union city.

The union put mass pickets on the main yards, but also introduced "cruising picket squads", four or five men, patrolling delivery routes, looking for scab vehicles. When one was spotted they would force the scab to stop and while the driver was being persuaded of the error of his ways, pull the dump-lever and shed his load in the road. Particular recalcitrant scabs had their trucks confiscated with the loads deposited in working class districts redistributed. The employers gave in.

Strategic importance
Although only a small victory, it was a victory of tremendous strategic importance because it showed the working class that even in open shop Minneapolis the employers could be beaten. The second strike, once again meticulously prepared, began on 15 May. On this occasion, the police and deputised volunteers raised by the Citizens' Alliance attempted to beat the pickets off the streets, breaking heads and limbs in the process. The fight culminated in the famous battle of Deputies Run.

Palmer provides a superb account of this confrontation. He tells of how, before the battle, the union HQ "was abuzz with the sound of hacksaws cutting lead-piping and two-by-twos being formed into club lengths". A truck-load of clubs for the Citizens' Alliance was successfully intercepted and the weapons distributed to union men.

And on the day the teamsters' ranks were swollen by workers from all over the city, including many building workers who had struck in sympathy. The deputies were put to flight, leaving two of their number fatally injured, and the union master of the streets. A crucial role in all this was played by the Women's Auxiliary. By now the union leadership in the shape of Daniel Tobin was actively involved in trying to curb the Minneapolis teamsters, condemning them as reds, refusing to support strike action and threatening disaffiliation.

The battle of Deputies Run was followed by a truce before the next round was to be fought. The third strike began at midnight on 16 July. This time the police used their guns, killing two pickets before martial law was declared, and the city was placed under military occupation. Ostensibly on the workers' side, Governor Olson allowed large-scale strike-breaking under the martial law regime.

The union responded by putting cruising picket squads back on the road. Olson ordered the arrest of the strike leadership. For a while the fight looked lost, but the employers, under pressure from Washington, gave way first. This was a great historic victory that prepared the way for the great battles still to come, a victory won by the rank and file under revolutionary leadership.

A few criticisms: the book would have benefited from more discussion of subsequent developments, the formation of the CIO and the great sit-down strikes of 1936-37, and why it was that the Trotskyists failed to repeat their 1934 successes. There are times when Palmer strains a bit too hard to fit Trotskyist theory to the situation in Minneapolis. And, of course, there is the outrageous price of the book. We need the paperback now!

Revolutionary Teamsters: Revolt in Minneapolis 1934 by Bryan Palmer is published by Brill at 107 GBP. A paperback will be published by Haymarket Books.