When the Great Depression sank workers to new depths, craft unions weren’t up to the task. Then, in 1934, a team of revolutionary leftists in Minneapolis organized a brave and bloody strike that reinvigorated labor and changed the course of American history.

Police battle with striking truck drivers in Minneapolis, 1934. (National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

The following is an interview conducted for Organize the Unorganized: The Rise of the CIO, a Jacobin podcast series produced in collaboration with the Center for Work and Democracy.

Subscribe to Jacobin Radio to listen to the series (and don’t forget to rate us five stars so we can reach more people).

Bryan Palmer is professor emeritus of history at Trent University. He’s the author of several books, including James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890–1928, James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928–38, and, most applicable to this project, Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934.

Our interview focused in particular on the 1934 Minneapolis truckers strikes, and how they presaged the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) moment. The left-wing leadership of the strikes was rather small, but it was disciplined and bore a protracted view of building industrial unionism. For Palmer, the Minneapolis strikes are evidence of what dedicated left-wing organizers can do when embedded in trade unions.

In the interview below, Palmer mentions this quote from Saul Alinsky’s biography of John L. Lewis. That biography slips often into hagiography, and in any event is not the authoritative biography of Lewis that Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren van Tine have written. Nevertheless, it correctly highlights the importance of the Minneapolis strikes to the fateful turn in US labor initiated a few years later by Lewis and the CIO:

Lewis watched the unrest and flare-ups of violence through the summer of 1934. He saw the Dunne Brothers in Minneapolis lead a general strike of truck drivers into a virtual civil war. Blood ran in Minneapolis. In San Francisco a general strike spearheaded by Harry Bridges’ Longshoremen’s Union paralyzed the great Western city for four days. Before that year was out, seven hundred thousand workers had struck. Lewis could read the revolutionary handwriting on the walls of American industry.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Could you describe the genesis of the 1934 Minneapolis truckers strike?

Bryan D. Palmer

The Minneapolis trucker strikes of 1934 involved three strikes, which is pretty incredible, in a one-year period: a strike in February, another in May, and a final victorious strike in July and August. Those strikes were led by Trotskyists who were originally Communist but broke away from the Communist Party in 1929. They had been working, a small number of them, probably no more than eight to ten people, in the Minneapolis trucking sector, particularly in the coal yards, since the 1920s.

And they had a very protracted view of trying to build an industrial union within the local of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, or the IBT. They worked diligently over the course of the early years of the Depression, which of course were terrible years for trying to organize workers. Their union, the IBT, was totally opposed to organizing broadly in the trucking sector and among those workers who were affiliated with trucking but loaded produce at markets and things like that. The Teamsters Union hierarchy basically resisted anything of that nature, and the Trotskyists thought that was the way forward.

The amazing thing about these strikes they organized was that they were probably the most successful of the three mass strikes that took place in 1934, the others being the one among longshoremen in San Francisco and the one among auto parts workers in Toledo. The Minneapolis strikes were so successful that they basically broke the back of what had been a nonunion town. Minneapolis had been known in the ’20s as a center of resistance to unionism. And the strikes that were fought there were fought in a disciplined manner against a very recalcitrant and oppositional set of employers, against local police and municipal politicians, against in some ways a Farmer-Labor governor in Minnesota at the time, and, as I said, against their own trade union leadership.

The amazing thing about these strikes they organized was that they were probably the most successful of the three mass strikes that took place in 1934.

This small group of dedicated revolutionary Trotskyists took a union that probably had no more than two hundred people in 1932 or ’33, and by the end of 1934 it had over seven thousand members. From 1934 into the later 1930s, they parlayed this into an over-the-road organizing drive among truckers in the Midwest that really precipitated the Teamsters into a very forceful presence in the American labor movement.

It should be remembered that this was done out of the depths of the Great Depression, and before the CIO had achieved its major successes in 1936–37 with the Flint sit-down strike and other major breakthroughs into mass-production unionism. So in some senses, the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of 1934 were basically a preface to the CIO, if you will, but taking place inside instead of outside of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Benjamin Y. Fong

Could you describe the origin and role of some of the key leaders in the ’34 Teamsters strike?

Bryan D. Palmer

The leadership of the Minneapolis Teamsters came out of the Communist Party. Many of them had been active in radical politics and revolutionary politics for years. Some of them were members of the Socialist Party, particularly its ethnic Scandinavian section. And some were members of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies.

The four, I would say, key figures were three brothers, the Dunne Brothers — Vincent Ray Dunne, Miles Dunne, and Grant Dunne — and a Scandinavian socialist named Carl Skoglund. They had all been, by the late 1920s, very active in the Communist Party. But they left the Communist Party in 1929 when they were expelled for refusing to abide by a party dictate, the Communist Party dictate, against James P. Cannon, who led a very small group of people away from the party because of Trotsky’s critique of the degeneration of the Communist International and how that affected the American party.

Cannon was expelled along with those who were aligned with him. And the Minneapolis Teamsters who were members of the Communist Party, they really didn’t understand or know what the issues were. But they knew enough to know that this was a big deal, signifying a potential break in the party. They thought that if there was going to be a fight around Trotskyism, they should at least be allowed to read the documents and come to their own conclusions.

The Trotskyists saw the need to organize all workers who worked in the sector, including those who just unloaded produce in the markets, who heaved coal and who loaded up the trucks, as well as the drivers.

In this, they basically ran up against a party bureaucracy, led by Jay Lovestone, that was trying to silence people. It stopped them from reading documents, stopped them from looking at what was going on in the wider Communist International. When the Communists in Minneapolis, the Dunne brothers, Skoglund, and others said, “Well, we’d like to read the material, and we’d like to find out what this is about,” they too were expelled.

And so they aligned with Cannon and others in an organization, the first Trotskyist organization, called the Communist League of America. And it was as members of the Communist League of America that they devised this protracted strategy of organizing and building a new kind of unionism.

They were revolutionaries who understood that it wasn’t necessarily a revolutionary situation, and that the struggle wasn’t to build a kind of revolutionary entity within the Minneapolis Teamsters; but instead, that the struggle was to build a mobilization that would achieve union recognition and develop mass-production unionism within the AFL, which was dedicated to craft unionism.

In some senses, it’s kind of a contradiction — the notion that Teamsters and workers in the trucking sector were a highly skilled workforce. They weren’t, but they had this notion of the privileged elite workers being the ones who should be organized. This was a centerpiece of the IBT ideology, if you will. The Trotskyists saw the need to organize all workers who worked in the sector, including those who just unloaded produce in the markets, who heaved coal and who loaded up the trucks, as well as the drivers. And this was anathema to the employers in the sector who wanted nothing to do with a union that organized all workers as opposed to just a few who moved the actual trucks.

Benjamin Y. Fong

How did the Minneapolis trucking strike lay the groundwork for the expansion of the Teamsters in the later ’30s, and also for the CIO?

Bryan D. Palmer

The central importance of the Minneapolis strike was that, first of all, it showed that the battle to build a new kind of unionism could be built not only by revolutionaries and leftists within the labor movement, but also within the shell of the old declining AFL craft unionism. So that’s very significant.

And in some ways, it showed that there was a fighting spirit among workers that was developing by 1934. In the depths of the Depression, the workers’ movement had been dealt such blows through mass unemployment and plant closures and shutdowns that the old craft unions were withering on the vine of the social relations of production in America, basically handcuffed by depression and economic collapse.

And so the fact that this was taking place within the old, ossified craft unions showed an element of the leadership in those older unions, led by people like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America, that there was a fighting spirit in the working class that was beginning to emerge out of the doldrums of the Great Depression. There were workers thirsting for a new kind of unionism — the organization of the unorganized, and the organization of mass production workers and the organization of new sectors.

There were workers thirsting for a new kind of unionism — the organization of the unorganized, and the organization of mass production workers and the organization of new sectors.

Lewis himself looked at what happened in Minneapolis, and he saw the fact that blood had been spilled in the streets. And not just workers’ blood. What was decisive in the Minneapolis truckers strikes was that the workers fought back. In one of the first and decisive battles in the early strikes, when the employers’ association organized a bunch of special deputies to basically function as strikebreakers and break the picket lines, the workers routed them in the marketplace. And two of those special deputies actually succumbed to injuries and died.

This became the stuff of newsreels. The class battles unfolding in Minneapolis streets were filmed by large theater companies and shown as short features before the main movie was screened. Workers watched this and saw other workers fighting back. And people like Lewis, the progressive elements in the more ossified labor leadership of the AFL, saw this and saw a way forward. It moved these people to see the possibilities of a new kind of unionism.

And these were not radicals. John L. Lewis had been an archreactionary in the 1920s. He had organized gangsters and thuggery against the militants and dissidents within his own union, many of whom were communists. He was a violent anti-communist in the 1920s. But he was pushed by the militancy that was evident in the streets of Minneapolis to see that there was a new possibility, and that the old, ossified union structures in the AFL were in some senses archaic, outmoded, and needed to be pushed aside, and a new kind of unionism formed.

Minneapolis played a decisive role in that. A very early biography of Lewis by Saul Alinsky, a Chicago organizer, has a quote in it that goes something like, “Lewis looked to Minneapolis, he saw the militancy, he saw the blood in the streets, and he knew that the way forward had to be different than the way of the past.” That’s the real significance of the 1934 strike. Minneapolis was a preface to the mass campaigns that would culminate in the organization of the CIO later in the 1930s.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What were the most important things that the CIO did to finally realize the dream of industrial unionism?

Bryan D. Palmer

The CIO broke through the notion that trade unionism was the terrain of the skilled, white, male working class. By the 1930s, there were whole new sectors of capitalist development that relied not on the old nineteenth-century tradesmen, but on mass production work that depended on machine tenders and factory operatives.

The CIO broke through the notion that trade unionism was the terrain of the skilled, white, male working class.

Many of these people, the bulk of them I think, were immigrant workers with ethnic backgrounds, women, or African Americans. What the CIO did in organizing the mass-production sector — industries like steel, electrical, rubber, the industries of the second industrial revolution that were central to the auto sector and other areas — what it did was to organize people who had been, really for a century, outside of the trade union movement. And thus it expanded tremendously, not just the quantity of people who could be affiliated with trade unions, but it also changed qualitatively the nature of trade unionism by making it far more inclusive, by making it far more representative of not only new sectors of industry, but of the American population as a whole.

Benjamin Y. Fong

How would you describe the relationship between the “top-down” and “bottom-up” elements in the CIO?

Bryan D. Palmer

I think new steps forward for the trade union movement are always animated by developments from the mass base of workers who are looking for new possibilities, new avenues of mobilization, new kinds of organizing, alongside of a leadership that can be radical, and can even have revolutionary ideas and commitments. That leadership is also always going to contain more conservative elements. If you look at somebody like John L. Lewis, he was not instinctually radical, was certainly not revolutionary. But he nonetheless saw that there had to be a change in the trade union movement in the United States. He had the insight and the progressive inclinations to see that the new moment demanded new perspectives, new initiatives, a new kind of unionism. But it was never going to be a unionism that pushed the boundaries toward revolutionary possibility and the creation of a worker state.

But that unionism was willing to take radical people as organizers — Communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, other social democrats, socialists — because they were the most experienced and most dedicated organizers in this mass production unionism. All of the major strikes of 1934 that prefaced the creation of the CIO were led not by traditional AFL leaders, but by revolutionaries, people in the Communist Party, people in the Trotskyist movement, people who aligned with A. J. Muste and his American Workers Party in Toledo.

What Lewis saw was the potential to use these people to advance a new kind of unionism that would organize the unorganized, organize the mass-production sector. But he was never going to give those people free rein to push the boundaries of that toward the creation of a union movement that would push politically toward, for instance, a worker’s state.

All of the major strikes of 1934 that prefaced the creation of the CIO were led not by traditional AFL leaders, but by revolutionaries.

This is summed up in what is one of Lewis’s more famous statements. He was asked, “Why would you hire communists to be organizers when, in the 1920s, you used your own iron heel to crush them?” And his response was, “Well, who gets the bird? The hunter or the dog?” And so he was using these people to further his own ends, and they advanced the cause of unionism.

But at the same time, Lewis was never going to move the trade union movement onto an entirely different plane that many militants at the base and many of the radical and revolutionary organizers who worked in such dedicated ways to build the CIO might well have themselves been deeply committed to. So there was always this tension between the leaders and the militants, and how the rank-and-file workers actually related to both of those contingents.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What lessons can we draw from the CIO moment for today?

Bryan D. Palmer

It’s important to remember how bleak things would’ve looked in 1933–34. I don’t think people today have an appreciation of how decimated the workers’ movement was, how devastatingly bad things were for working people in the depths of the Depression in 1932–33. And yet out of that came the upheavals of 1934, which prefaced the larger mobilizations of the CIO in the ’36–37 period. So as bad as things look today, there are the possibilities of organizing new sectors, of building different kinds of unionism, of addressing the experiences of people who’ve been locked out of the possibilities of trade union entitlements and, in some sense, isolated from the historic struggles of the working class. Things were also bleak in the mid-1930s, when dedicated corps of labor organizers, many of whom were militantly committed to socialist or communist politics and highly critical of capitalism, worked to rejuvenate unions. So I think that breakthroughs can be made even in times that look very inauspicious.

But another lesson to be learned is that those breakthroughs will never happen unless there is an organized contingent of committed leftists who are both embedded in the trade union movement and willing to fight for new kinds of unionism, but also organized outside of it. Each one of those major strikes in 1934 was led by dissidents, politically committed leftists either in Muste’s American Workers Party, Cannon’s Communist League of America, or the Communist Party of America. The difficulty we have today is not only that the workers movement has suffered decades of defeats, but also that the revolutionary Left has basically been obliterated.

The lesson of the CIO is that if you want the trade union movement to move forward, that if you want social movements in general to push forward into new territories and advance the causes of social justice and a whole series of progressive possibilities, there simultaneously needs to be a rebuilding of the revolutionary left and a rebuilding of the trade union movement, aligned with the social movements that have become so important in our time. Without that connection, it seems to me, they will be handcuffed in their capacities to affect the kind of broad social change that they want.

So the CIO moment reveals the possibilities of breaking out of confinements that seem both rigid and insurmountable, but it also reveals that what’s necessary to make those breakthroughs is a rebuilding of the Left, as well as a rebuilding of the workers’ movement and the connections that are made between that rebuilt left, the trade union movement, and the social movements of our time.

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