By ERNIE GOTTA
The great Minneapolis Teamsters strike of 1934, like the Toledo Autolite strike and the San Francisco longshoremen’s strike during the same year, showed what a tremendous force the working class can become when set in motion through a class-struggle left-wing leadership. The Teamsters strike in particular highlights the leadership of revolutionary Marxists—Trotskyists and members of the Communist League of America (CLA)—who entered the existing labor movement as rank-and-file workers with no official leadership positions and built up a base of union militants underneath the bosses’ noses.
In the process of fighting the bosses to win their union, the Trotskyists and their allies also swept away a stagnant union bureaucracy and replaced it with a rank-and-file leadership. The revolutionary Trotskyists, having been expelled from the Stalinized Communist Party (CP), posed an opposition to the party’s opportunist political swings and collaboration with the Democratic Party.
The Minneapolis Teamsters strike set an important example with many lessons for the working class today. Revolutionaries can use their example to find a way into the existing labor movement and politicize and win it to a position of class independence through a relationship to the broader social struggles to win COVID relief and health care, or to fight climate change and police brutality. We need a revolutionary socialist movement that has a real base among workers in industry, transportation, and logistics. We need to connect and unite with the struggles of nurses, teachers, and other workers in struggle against the capitalists’ efforts to put private profit before the real needs of society.
What are those lessons, and whom do they apply to today? This article is going to cover three points. First, we’ll discuss the strike strategy and tactics employed by the Trotskyists. This includes topics such as outflanking the union bureaucracy, implementing a women’s auxiliary, and the strike newspaper. Next we’ll talk about the significance of revolutionary Trotskyism and its orientation to the mainstream union movement. Finally, we’ll discuss the Trotskyists’ fusion with the American Workers Party in 1934 as it relates to the need to regroup the revolutionary left to fight for a mass workers’ party today.
Strategy and tactics of the strike
What are some of the key features of this strike that make it a unique example of how revolutionary socialists intervene in the class struggle? Defying all odds, how were the CLA comrades able to take leadership as rank-and-file workers and win important gains for the working class?
The Trotskyists, adept tacticians, did this without initially holding any official leadership positions in the union. That’s a key point to understand. A union militant doesn’t need an official position in a union or to even be a shop steward to lead. Real leadership means building a base of workers who have trust and confidence in your ability to fight the bosses.
How did the Trotskyists build confidence in their leadership through the strike? This strike was organized from start to finish by revolutionaries who implanted themselves in the coal yards of Minneapolis, where workers were making poverty wages largely due to the precarious nature of seasonal work. Although the coal yards were not a decisive sector of the U.S. economy, they saw an opening to enter the class struggle. It’s important to underline this lesson. Revolutionaries should have it in their DNA to find an opening to make their way to the mass movement of workers.
In Bryan Palmer’s book “Revolutionary Teamsters,” he called these comrades “propagandistic old moles.” These socialists had decades of experience in the labor movement. They were in many ways already marked as agitators. The Dunne brothers—Vincent Raymond, Grant, and Miles—and Carl Skoglund were the first to go in the yards. Along the way they recruited other now familiar names like Farrell Dobbs, Harry Deboer, Ray Rainbolt, and Marvel Scholl. The movement they were building was so dynamic that it converted workers like Farrell Dobbs from conservatives who had voted Republican to communists fighting for class independence, who deeply understood the class nature of society.
The period of the 1930s, not unlike today, saw a working class that had been backed into a corner by an economic crisis and was searching for a way forward. The situation was no different in Minneapolis in 1934, and in some ways it may have been worse. The entire city was known as an open-shop town dominated by a nefarious grouping of business owners called the Citizens Alliance. An open-shop town meant that the Citizens Alliance with the help of the police and local government kept unions and workers from winning strikes and getting a real foothold beyond a few weak craft unions that they had sweetheart deals with.
How did the Trotskyists in the CLA overcome these obstacles? First, after spending decades in the Minneapolis labor movement, they saw an opening in the Teamster local 574 that had no more than 150 members. There they had a bit of luck by building a relationship with the president of the local, Bill Brown, who had a real interest in fighting the bosses and building a movement. He cracked the door open for the “propagandistic old moles.”
But what really mattered was the mass of unorganized workers desperate to fight the bosses and win. What methods did they employ to organize the unorganized? With a core group of rank-and-file workers, the Trotskyists built a volunteer organizing committee. They used this committee to push the local toward a general organizing drive. They were able to outflank the union bureaucrats like Cliff Hall and even their top Teamster President Daniel Tobin, who tried to put the brakes on their efforts from his office in Washington, D.C.
What do Trotskyists mean when we say, “outflank the bureaucracy?” Some socialists and labor radicals today like to make a principle out of hollering at union bureaucrats about their awful policies. These radicals like to make themselves out to be the most militant workers. Some revolutionaries think that by calling out the misleadership and scandalizing bureaucrats before leading the workers in action, they can prove that their radical ideas are correct, and that workers will just follow. But that doesn’t usually work, beyond recruiting a handful of very disaffected workers.
Why doesn’t this method work? Often workers already in the labor movement hold onto illusions in the union leadership. The situation is similar to workers who have illusions that the Democratic Party is the friend of workers. But still, there are other workers who know an official union position can mean a path off the shop floor and a life living off their collected dues. More often than not they think that you too just want a job as a union rep. Making a full frontal assault on the leadership only helps to isolate you, get you expelled from the union, or make you a pariah among the ranks.
How does the “outflanking” tactic work? It works by mobilizing the ranks, when there’s an opening, in their own defense. You concentrate all your firepower on the bosses. The union bureaucracy then has a choice—they either go into action and mobilize the union with all its resources to fight in the workers’ interest against the bosses or they risk losing the confidence of the workers by failing to act decisively. Workers begin to understand through these many episodic fights how far the union officialdom will go. Our coworkers learn a hell of a lot more this way than by some socialist telling them that their leadership is a bunch of sellouts. Trotskyists have used the “outflanking” tactic to begin recruiting and building a left wing in their unions.
What did this look like in Minneapolis? The first test came on Feb. 7, 1934, during a cold streak, and in three days the Citizen Alliance had its first taste of defeat. The organizing committee had the ranks vote directly on the strike in a mass meeting.
They disregarded the bureaucratic method by which Daniel Tobin, the president of the Teamsters International union, a staunch opponent of industrial unionism, wanted them to proceed. The workers had already paralyzed the coal yards in the dead of winter and quickly won their demand for union recognition by the time they received Tobin’s letter in opposition to the strike. The recent innovation of the cruising or “flying” picket squads of donated vehicles played a decisive role, clearing the streets of scab trucks in three hours.
This historic victory in an open-shop town was a signal to the workers that the bosses could be beaten. Workers poured into the union. By May the union had grown to over 5000 members—both drivers and warehouse workers. The tiny insignificant craft union, Teamsters Local 574, had seemed to shift overnight to an industrial model that opened the door to drivers and inside workers alike.
Building solidarity throughout the working class
Meanwhile, the bosses were preparing for another showdown. The bosses didn’t want to accept the inside workers as part of a bargaining unit. So the workers again in May shut down the entire trucking operation in Minneapolis except for milk, beer, and ice cream. These drivers operated with special permits from the union.
In response, the Citizen Alliance held their own meetings of business owners. There they organized special deputies to assist the police in trying to open up city streets so scab trucks could keep goods moving. But the Trotskyists planned meticulously for this strike, and every step of the way they were in communication with the party, giving reports, and getting advice from other seasoned veterans of the class struggle.
They went to the whole of the working class to plead their case and ask for solidarity. They went to the labor councils and other unions to seek solidarity. The building trades would answer by calling a sympathy strike of 35,000 members. They went to the farmers association and offered them direct access to the markets to sell their produce. They took a page from the actions in Toledo and organized the unemployed into the union as an auxiliary fighting force that would also fight for the demands of those needing relief.
The comrades also organized a women’s auxiliary that mobilized hundreds of women in solidarity actions and strike support. Clara Dunne and Marvel Scholl, the partners of Grant Dunne and Farrell Dobbs, organized this effort. Their names are too often overlooked in this fight. The vision of the Trotskyist leadership was that industrial unionism one day would lead to an influx of women in industry. While this has yet to be fully realized, including the full and equal integration of non-binary or transgender workers into industry, the intention of our comrades was clear—industrial unionism should recognize every worker regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. Palmer writes in “Revolutionary Teamsters” that “Skoglund, who apparently first proposed the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary, was, according to one of his young recruits, committed to an industrial unionism that was ‘equal for everyone.’”
The union local rented a massive strike headquarters with garages, doctors, and a cafeteria all possible through the funds raised by the women’s auxiliary. From There they dispatched “flying” picketing squadrons of borrowed vehicles to stop the scab trucks from moving. This was no game or left-wing adventure. It was class struggle and a matter of life and death.
The strike began on May 16, and by the 21st and 22nd, the Citizen’s Alliance had had enough. They decided to mount a full attack on the strikers and break the strike. For the occasion the police deputized hundreds of businessmen, who thought they were going to have a good time bashing in the heads of strikers. Instead, the opposite happened. Masses of workers and the unemployed were mobilized and the fighting was intense. Dozens were injured on both sides and two deputies were killed in the fighting. Eventually, the deputized businessmen and police fled the scene. This episode was dubbed the “Battle of Deputies Run.”
Workers who at that time gathered in movie theaters across the country and watched newsreels about the Minneapolis events were inspired to learn about the masses of workers winning street battles against the police. Ten days later, on May 25, the bosses conceded defeat in round two.
But the bosses weren’t done; they stalled in implementing the demands won in the May strike. Two months later, on July 16, the workers would again prepare to go into battle with the bosses. Again the bosses, in collusion with the cops, would try a direct ambush with a calculated plan to shoot workers with live ammunition on Friday, July 20—also known as “Bloody Friday.” Two workers, Henry Ness and John Belor, died fighting for their right to have a union. Their deaths, instead of forcing the workers to retreat, pushed forward even larger mobilizations and convinced the rest of the class to join the Teamsters in solidarity. What had been a truckers’ and inside workers’ strike was being transformed into a general strike.
A funeral procession of 40,000 was followed by another mass rally of 40,000 that demanded the release of strike leaders who were arrested after Governor Floyd B. Olson had declared martial law and brought out the National Guard. It was a clever move intended to give the appearance of support for the workers, but in reality it helped the bosses and the scab trucks get on the road again and making profits.
Governor Olson was elected on the ticket of the Farmer-Labor Party and was supposed to be an ally of the workers. The Farmer-Labor Party by this time had largely been reorganized from its roots in the labor movement to being an appendage of the Democratic Party. The strike actions began to shake the illusions people had that the Farmer-Labor Party was some type of workers’ party.
On Aug. 22, after five weeks of fierce fighting in round three with the employers of the Citizen’s Alliance, the police, and the government labor board, and even the National Guard, the strikers won. The bosses signed an agreement and gave in to the union’s main demands. This included the right to represent “inside workers,” which the employers had threatened to fight to the bitter end.
The strike was conducted in democratic and militant fashion with the direct support of not just the Minneapolis comrades but the national leadership of the CLA. Comrades were flown in at tremendous expense (before they had a telephone) to lend their expert advice. James P. Cannon gave mass speeches, wrote articles, and helped with strategy, Max Shachtman edited the daily strike newsletter The Organizer, Albert Goldman was brought in for expert legal advice, and Hugo Ohler was brought in to help organize the unemployed. The CLA put everything they had into this strike. The strike paper in particular was essential. Cannon said, “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.”
The result of a strong political leadership helped pave the road forward for the next wave of working-class fightbacks in 1936-37. It helped break the workers’ illusions in the capitalist government, the labor board, and even the president of the U.S. The strike was the start of a wave of a new and militant union formation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
The Trotskyists would continue to build their own organization as a result, and their advance in the labor movement continued by devising a successful plan to organize Teamsters across the Northwest. With Local 574 as one of their platforms, the Trotskyists opposed the capitalist push toward World War II. It would take the combined effort of the bosses, the federal government, the police, and the Teamsters’ international union to halt the advance of their class-struggle strategy in 1941 and send the Trotskyist leadership to prison for their opposition to World War II
Trotskyism and regrouping the revolutionary left
The Communist League’s story in this period is really a story of escaping isolation and finding a way to the masses. The Teamsters strike is part of our history and it is an example of how a small group of revolutionaries moved, through a turn to the mass workers’ movement, from isolation to playing a central role in the class struggle.
There is a need for revolutionaries to be in the mainstream unions today. There are still millions of organized workers that if politicized can build a powerful left wing capable of swelling the ranks of the traditional unions. All sorts of new possibilities emerge from this outlook because the working class, through revitalized struggle, is not going to hesitate for a second to demand a leadership and movement that reflects the democratic militancy necessary for struggle today.
The political trend established by Trotskyism in the U.S. has typically fought for class independence and the construction of what we call a class-struggle left wing inside the existing labor movement. These historical debates are important for our work today. A full understanding can give us the best chance of being sucked in by the gravitational pull and influence of those non-revolutionary forces that are constantly putting pressure on workers to adapt to the capitalist class rather than to try to fight for their rights, and to overthrow it.
The class struggle can also become an important litmus test for revolutionary forces, in which they display their strategies, tactics, and ability to win against the bosses. It is often the basis for the fusions and splits that are a fact of life of the revolutionary movement. While Trotskyist parties have been wrongly stereotyped by an alleged tendency to split, fusing different political groupings in a revolutionary movement is no easy task. It means coming together based on principled and political agreements that are best realized in the course of struggle.
For Socialist Resurgence, working for the regroupment of revolutionary forces is a political priority, yet we recognize that the process cannot be forced or artificial.
For the CLA Trotskyists, their attempt at fusion with the American Workers Party (AWP) was pushed forward by the 1934 strike wave. This fusion was essential for their ability to play a more significant role in the broader radicalization in the U.S. that saw young workers and students looking for leadership from left-wing organizations.
At the time, a deep radicalization was in progress in the AWP. The radicalization developed through the course of their successful leadership of the Toledo Autolite strike. The AWP started out as a loose grouping of activists in the labor movement around A.J. Muste, who headed up a group called the Conference of Progressive Labor Action,or CPLA. The CPLA’s radicalization through the Autolite strike pushed them to turn their loose affiliation into a political party. The class struggle brings into focus the fact that workers need their own party to push their fight beyond the shop floor and economic demands.
How did these parties come together? The Trotskyist leadership of the Minneapolis Teamster strike, in the thick of the battle with bosses, the police, the state, and their own international union leadership, had party fraction meetings. They discussed in them not only the situation in Minneapolis but also what was happening in Toledo with the Autolite strike, and realized their group and the AWP were coming closer together politically. They began to communicate regularly with the AWP comrades and used the party paper, The Militant, to express their interest in fusing.
The CLA, led by James P. Cannon, saw that the AWP was coming closer to a Marxist perspective and fighting to build an independent workers party. Cannon knew from past experience that a fused party would help take on a new life for the revolutionary workers movement in the U.S. He wrote in a 1934 edition of The Militant, “The most important political news of the day is the report about the decisive steps taken during the past week to facilitate and hasten the fusion of the American Workers Party and the Communist League. The news is of paramount importance because it spells definite progress toward the forging of the sharpest and most indispensable weapon of the working class—a revolutionary party. By itself, the merger of these two organizations, of entirely different origins but moving toward the same goal, would signify the actual beginning of the new party and make its formal proclamation possible.
“Armed with the program of Marxism, the new political center thus created would speedily attract the scattered revolutionary militants as a magnet attracts steel particles. The adhesion of thousands of awakening workers could be expected. The expanded political organization would be in a position to connect itself with the stormy movement of the working masses and give that movement a conscious direction.”
The CLA and AWP fusion led to the Workers Party of America and then the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) via an entry into the Socialist Party. That initial fusion with the AWP helped to pull the Trotskyists out of isolation and opened new possibilities for the development of revolutionary socialism in the U.S. Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party would find themselves embroiled in other dynamic labor struggles in auto, maritime, and manufacturing. They survived heavy political repression targeted by the FBI and were integral parts of the civil rights movement, antiwar, Black power, women’s, LGBTQIA+ and other movements in the 1960s and ’70s.
Today, the scale of the decades-long collapse of leadership in the international revolutionary socialist movement has had a devastating effect on our ability to wage a collective struggle in an era of pandemic, economic, and climate crisis. The degeneration of the U.S. revolutionary movement included the Socialist Workers Party—the successor to the CLA—which today is unrecognizable from the party of Cannon, the Dunnes, and Dobbs that led the Teamster strike.
Now, in a period of rising militancy and class struggle, the opportunity to reforge that leadership should again be on the agenda. Socialist Resurgence stands in the tradition of the CLA and best years of the SWP. We recognize the urgent need to regroup a revolutionary fighting force rooted in the working class.
Even the most courageous and heroic struggles, absent of revolutionary theory applied consciously to our daily work, will fail to develop into a final struggle with the capitalists for power. Revolutionary socialists who carry forward the lessons learned from the Trotskyists during the Teamsters strike in 1934 will find new opportunities open to them to connect with the class struggle.
Illustration by General Strike Graphics