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Vol. 74/No. 33      August 30, 2010

How 1934 Minneapolis
strikes advanced union fight
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below is an excerpt from The History of American Trotskyism, 1928-1938. The Spanish edition is one of the Books of the Month for August. It contains 12 talks given in 1942 by SWP leader James P. Cannon. He recounts the formative chapter of the effort to build a communist party in the United States—how Communist League members integrated themselves into union battles and social struggles that from the early 1930s on signaled stirrings of resistance by working people to the economic and social catastrophe of the Great Depression. The piece below discusses the significance of the strike wave in 1934, including the gains won in Minneapolis in the coal yards and trucking industry for union recognition, and how this helped pave the way for broader social struggles that created industrial unions. Copyright © 1944 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

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… .

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 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 mainstream of the labor movement represented by the American Federation of Labor….

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.
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Tehran daily serializes ‘Teamster Rebellion’  
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