By Charles R Walker
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Working Class History: The Truck Stops Here

This article is over 17 years, 6 months old
Workers faced down the police and the army to unionise in 1930s America. Charles R Walker's classic American City takes up the story.
Issue 293

The city of tension

‘City Welcomes New Year With Gayest, Most Carefree Celebration In Years’ ran a Minneapolis headline on the first day of 1934. Minneapolis entered its year of greatest tension and of civil war a city of substantial optimists. The Depression had not hit Minneapolis manufacturers, it was said, as severely as it had a dozen other Midwestern cities. Minneapolis had weathered the storm of the Depression. Capitalism had survived, and Minneapolis business in particular had enjoyed rather more of its benefits in the form of subsidies, and less of its ‘costs in labour unrest’ than most cities.

Several important items, however, had been left out of their analysis of the city’s economy by the new year’s optimists. The first was the aftermath of the world depression on business, and on the living standards and mood of the rank and file. In 1932, 86 percent of the manufacturing plants in Minneapolis were operating at a loss. In the same year cost of living in the Twin Cities had dropped 20 percent but payrolls had gone down 35. By February 1933 flour production and meat packing had dropped to 65 percent of normal, although for the country as a whole food production had fallen by 10 percent. By the spring of 1934 unemployed and dependents constituted almost a third of the population of Minneapolis and Hennepin County.

To the rank and file, these economic phenomena had been concretised tragically in the lives of individuals. Many thousands of families were on a subsistence dole. The influence of organised labour was at its nadir. Minneapolis had a national reputation among businessmen as being a 100 percent open-shop town.

In the spring of 1934 the Citizens’ Alliance of Minneapolis appeared to all observers to be one of the most powerful and efficiently organised employers’ associations in the United States. Neither the businessmen, the workers nor the ‘average citizen’ had any doubt of it. It had long been criticised as reactionary and stupid, but it had outlived its critics. In the primary matter of maintaining the open shop in Minneapolis it had a record of almost unbroken success. With a permanent and well paid staff, a corps of undercover informers, and a membership of 800 businessmen, it had for nearly a generation successfully fought and broken every major strike in Minneapolis.

But that year two strikes in the trucking industry broke out in Minneapolis. As a distribution centre dispensing its own and other cities’ manufactures to an agricultural empire and receiving food products in return, transportation was a strategic key to the city’s commercial life. The strikes of truck drivers, which succeeded in paralysing the whole commercial life of the city, were to constitute the first major challenge for a generation by the rank and file to the empire builders.

One morning in the autumn of 1933 Karl Skoglund, a coal driver, was told by his employer that unless he stopped talking about a union for the truck drivers of Minneapolis he would lose his job. Skoglund was the typical Scandinavian immigrant. He had a strong predilection for unions and by 1933 had become both a labour organiser and a political revolutionist of record. In spite of the inference Karl had not been too successful in organising the truck drivers in Minneapolis. But ‘after that I said to myself, I got to put on my fighting clothes and organise a union here. If I don’t, I lose my job in about a week. Even if you are a revolutionist and know what it’s all about, you’re apt to put things off. Well, right now I couldn’t, or I’d be out on my ear.’

With such immediate and personal impact, general economic forces were driving other individuals into action in the trucking industry of Minneapolis. The primary impulse arose from low wages and long hours. Also workers by law were declared to be free ‘to join unions of their own choosing’. The prehistory of the first successful revolt of the city’s rank and file can be conveniently enlivened and filled in by turning to Bill Brown, who drove a truck in this strategic industry between 1919 and 1933:

‘For some reason or other the Teamsters’ council gave me the job of international organiser in 1933, so I decided to work with a few men in the union who knew how to organise. They were the Dunne boys, who were working in the coal yards at the time, and Karl Skoglund. Conditions were lousy and there was plenty of sentiment for the union. When the bosses threw our demands into the waste basket, we went to the Teamsters’ council for permission to strike. I said, “Hell, if we lose, we’re no worse off than we were. This is no union we’ve got now anyway, but if we win it will be like a red flag to a bull. The workers will come to us and we can organise the whole damn industry.” So they gave us permission. I wrote Daniel Tobin, international president of the union, for an OK. Two days after the strike was over he wrote back that we couldn’t strike. By that time we’d won and had a signed contract with increased pay.’

This somewhat personal monograph of the president of the truck drivers’ union touches on most of the organisational essentials of the prerevolt period. The men to whom Brown turned for organisational help, the Dunne brothers and Karl Skoglund, became the leaders and strategists for the rank and file in the wider and more significant revolts that followed the first skirmish. Several of the union leaders were members of the Communist League of America (Trotskyists). If no attempt was made, during the general truck drivers’ strike which followed, to establish a ‘soviet in Minneapolis’ as the employers charged, certain definite traits characterised the strikes which can be laid to the revolutionary training of the leaders:

(1) Militant picketing – termed by the employers ‘lawlessness.’

(2) Scepticism in all negotiations – based on a frankly working class point of view – of the good intentions of the employers, the police, or the government.

(3) Infinitely painstaking preparedness for any action undertaken and speedy audacity in its execution.

(4) The ability to distinguish between a city-wide strike and a revolution. It turned out that it was the employers and not the union leadership who were constantly confusing these two distinct social phenomena.

Bill Brown had made a sound prediction in the spring of 1934. The success of the coal strike [earlier in the year] meant that workers flocked into the union by their thousands. In the face of the blossoming of union buttons on the overalls of truck drivers – 3,000 by April – the representatives of the empire builders, inside the trucking industry and out, held a strategy meeting at the West Hotel. It was the first of its kind since their decisive victory in the Teamsters’ strike 18 years before. The session was distinguished by buoyant confidence, a reliance on old-time Citizens’ Alliance tactics, and a complete refusal to compromise with the union.

But to the employers’ disgust, when the owners met with the drivers’ representatives to feel them out, the latter insisted on discussing three points only: who did the employers represent; the demands of the union; what did the employers propose to do about them?

At a mass meeting shortly after, the rank and file of the major industry of Minneapolis voted to strike unless their demands were met. With the possible exception of the six strike leaders, no one in Minneapolis realised that this was to mean the first serious challenge in a generation to the status quo of the empire.

The first challenge

On the day before the strike of truck drivers paralysed the life of the city, and eight days before a citizen army hastily recruited was to battle openly with pickets in the marketplace, life in Minneapolis exhibited its usual reassuring normality and bustle. Even among workers, betting was prevalent that the deadline would pass without a strike. Shrewdly the employers had raised wages in key companies and for key workers’ groups. It was a fair guess that the drivers who had been picked out for wage favours would be divided from those who had not. And the Employers’ Committee had no intention of recognising the right of the union to speak for their employees, or of granting any of its principal demands.

On the evening of 12 May, in a mass meeting at Eagles’ Hall, upon the union leader’s recommendation, the truck drivers voted to strike. In the next 11 days the strike ran the whole gamut of class warfare in a sharp curve upward from steady picketing to a virtual general strike and the threat of civil war.

On the second day of the strike: ‘With nearly 3,000 picketers blocking every entrance to the city and massed about the gates of every large fleet owner, they succeeded in halting most of the ordinary trucking movements… In the central market [strategic concentration point for the union on account of lowest wages] the tie-up was particularly effective. No trucks were allowed to come in with farmers’ loads of vegetables… Newspaper deliveries were made by police escort… Large fleet owners were playing a waiting game,’ reported the local paper.

The sheriff described the situation to me as follows: ‘They had the town tied up tight. Not a truck could move in Minneapolis.’ There were two primary reasons for the strike’s effectiveness in these days of peaceful paralysis of the city’s life. The first was that several of the largest truck companies had deliberately ordered their trucks off the street – awaiting a more strategic moment for open battle. The second was the military precision of the strike machine. ‘If the preparations’, writes the Tribune on 16 May, ‘made by their union for handling it are any indication, the strike of the truck drivers in Minneapolis is going to be a far reaching affair, covering all the city and all its business and industry.’

The heart of the strike mechanism was the headquarters at 1900 Chicago Avenue. Here several hundred men from the cruising picket squads ate and slept and were dispatched with military precision to the ‘front’. And here the picket strategy was literally mapped out and put into motion.

The ‘Strike Headquarters of General Drivers’ Union Local 574′ – emblazoned in foot high letters on a banner before the headquarters – was an old garage. It served as barracks, commissary, hospital, auditorium, squad-car assembly and staff headquarters for the strike committee. The brain core of military operations was the dispatchers’ room. Men stood all day at four telephones which poured forth information to them and registered calls for strike help from every corner of the city. Picket captains were under instruction to phone every ten minutes from a known point, such as a friendly cigar store in their picket district, or a bar, or a striker’s home. ‘Truck attempting to move load of produce from Berman Fruit, under police convoy. Have only ten pickets, send help.’ Or, ‘Successfully turned back five trucks entering city at – Road North. Am returning Cars 42 and 46 to headquarters.’

The messages were in all cases written down by the man at the phone and passed to the dispatchers, V R Dunne and Farrell Dobbs. All dispositions of pickets were in their hands, hourly decision on strike tactics theirs, all instructions to picket captains written by them. Night or day, never less than 500 men hung around headquarters. A dispatcher’s window opened from the garage office onto the runway before the main exit; and as the squad car passed the window, the picket captain received written and secret instructions from the dispatcher. This was a precaution against stool pigeons.

‘Most strikes are lost,’ said one 574 leader to me, ‘because the strikers lose touch with the strike. They sit at home watching the food give out and reading newspapers telling them the strike is lost anyway. Lack of chow and the lies of the boss press finally drive them back to work. We never let these things happen in the truck drivers’ strike.’

Between four and five thousand persons ate at strike headquarters and slept in or near it for the strike’s duration. Fourteen or 15 hours of the day they were on the picket line, while at night they listened to the news of the strike, the status of negotiations, the bosses’ latest move, etc, which were reported in detail over the microphone. It is hard to find a strike in which the two strike fundamentals, food and morale, were more carefully provided for by the leaders than in the truck strikes in Minneapolis. The main interior of the garage became an auditorium, with a platform erected for speakers and musicians. About 2,000 men and women assembled nightly inside, and as high as 20 to 25 thousand in adjoining streets to listen to the loudspeaker.

The other side of the controversy likewise had its strike headquarters; in fact, in a few days, it was to parallel 1900 Chicago Avenue, with its own barracks, commissary and staff headquarters for a ‘citizens’ army’.

While the two headquarters operated, each in its own way, negotiations continued – and came to nothing. Indeed on the fourth and fifth day the strike entered a new and ominous phase. ‘The city’s food supply,’ writes the Tribune, ‘began to feel the pinch of the strike… a general shutdown of bakeries is estimated to be only a day away. In groceries similar conditions existed… The market gardeners have organised against the strike.’ Having failed to establish their case with the Regional Labour Board, or the governor, the Employers Committee nonetheless sensed a shift of public sentiment to them with the drying up of the food supply. A ‘Citizens’ Committee of 25′, named at a mass meeting of businessmen, was entrusted with seeing ‘that the city’s commercial transportation system [was] not indefinitely paralysed by the strike, and to lay plans to move trucks through the picket lines if necessary’.

The employers’ strategy committee went into secret session. The moment had come for an offensive. With the governor and the Regional Labour Board pressing hard for settlement, with losses in business volume mounting into millions, with the city ‘faced by starvation’, a settlement would have to come soon, or it would be the union’s victory. But whereas in the first days of the strike public sympathy had been with the union, it was now veering against them. The ‘correlation of forces’, as the military experts say, had changed. The union knew it; they also knew that the food supply was not as low as advertised. And they knew also that if the bakery trucks moved, and the market gardeners, on their heels piano trucks, factory trucks, taxicabs, and everything else would move too. So they stuck to their picket lines.

Business leaders proposed to move a Tribune paper truck as a decoy to attract pickets, falling upon them with a heavy reserve of armed guards and police held at first in ambush. Once in action the guards and police could beat the pickets into a pulp at their leisure. To execute such a plan was not easy. The strike machine at 1900 Chicago Avenue refused to allow pickets to expose themselves to armed guards without the shield of numbers. They had actually withdrawn picketing from the Tribune alley, suspecting a trap. To carry out the plan, treachery was required inside the union. A stool was accordingly sent in by the Minneapolis police, and the plan carried off with success. Two or three truckloads of pickets, including women as well as men, under instructions from the stool pigeon were dispatched to the alley near the Tribune’s office. They were there surrounded and roundly slugged by the Minneapolis police force and by special guards. It was the first serious defeat suffered by the union.

Following the Tribune Alley episode and the open declaration of an offensive by the employers, the strike entered into a phase of virtual civil war. A mass meeting of 2,000 businessmen had been held on the previous day in the Radisson Hotel, in which patriotic speeches were made in denunciation of the strike. At the same mass meeting the organisation of a ‘citizens’ army’ was begun. This ‘army of peace’ was rapidly recruited in the next few days. It was composed of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, insurance salesmen, clerks, and a few workers. It included scions of some of the oldest families, and the ‘socially prominent’ of Minneapolis.

At 1900 Chicago Avenue, as well, great clarity existed as to the issues of the coming battle, for a battle was on the order of the day, which both sides candidly admitted. Dobbs, strike leader, expressed it this way: ‘Both sides were preparing for a battle and we decided we would pick the battleground ourselves this time. We selected the market where there would be plenty of room.’ The employers centred their attention on the market as well. That great area of warehouses and market stalls, whose whole existence depended on trucks, was the natural heart of the strike. On Saturday members of the new army deputised as special police assisted in the convoy of market trucks. And on Saturday the police and the specials gave the strikers a second defeat. Pickets were still unarmed and some 40 of them were severely beaten by the police. The strikers, however, retired in good order, carrying their wounded. The union was not yet prepared for the test. For several days, however, the allies of the trucking union had been growing. The whole labour movement of Minneapolis was now on the defensive. They sensed that a decisive defeat for the striking truck drivers meant the beginning of the end for organised labour in Minneapolis.

Battle in the streets

To the historian in retrospect, the ‘Battle of Deputies Run’ as an episode in class warfare, appears clearly as a two-day battle and not a one-day engagement, in spite of the fact the second battle was more sensational and has received the widest fanfare of publicity. Monday’s battle was the more interesting and well ordered as a strictly military engagement between two forces of armed men. Tuesday’s battle, though it completed Monday’s work and in effect ended the war except for minor engagements, was, tactically speaking, both a rout and a riot.

A story of the Monday battle as seen from the viewpoint of a union leader follows: ‘We built up our reserves in this way. At short-time intervals during an entire day we sent 15 or 20 pickets pulled in from all over the city into the Central Labour Union headquarters on Eighth Street. So that although nobody knew it, we had a detachment of 600 men there, each armed with clubs, by Monday morning. Another 900 or so we held in reserve at strike headquarters. In the market itself, pickets without union buttons were placed in key positions. There remained scattered through the city, at their regular posts, only a skeleton picket line. The men in the market were in constant communication through motorcycles and telephone with headquarters. The special deputies [citizens’ army] were gradually pushed by our pickets to one side and isolated from the cops. When that was accomplished the signal was given and the 600 men poured out of Central Labour Union headquarters. They marched in military formation, four abreast, each with their club, to the market. They kept on coming. When the socialites, the Alfred Lindleys and the rest who had expected a little picnic with a mad rabble, saw this bunch, they began to get some idea what the score was. Then we called on the pickets from strike headquarters who marched into the centre of the market and encircled the police. They [the police] were put right in the centre with no way out. At intervals we made sallies on them to separate a few. This kept up for a couple of hours, till finally they drew their guns. We had anticipated this would happen, and that then the pickets would be unable to fight them. You can’t lick a gun with a club. The correlation of forces becomes a little unbalanced.

‘So we picked out a striker, a big man and utterly fearless, and sent him in a truck with 25 pickets. He was instructed to drive right into the formation of cops and stop for nothing. We knew he’d do it. Down the street he came like a bat out of hell with his horn honking and into the market arena. The cops held up their hands for him to stop, but he kept on; they gave way and he was in the middle of them. The pickets jumped out on the cops. We figured by intermixing with the cops in hand-to-hand fighting, they would not use their guns because they would have to shoot cops as well as strikers.

‘Casualties for the day included for the strikers a broken collar bone, the cut-open skull of a picket who swung on a cop and hit a striker by mistake as the cop dodged, and a couple of broken ribs. On the other side, roughly 30 cops were taken to the hospital.’

Despite the ferocity of Monday’s battle, and the fact that the union had succeeded again in halting the movement of trucks, and that many police and special deputies, as well as strikers and bystanders, were seriously wounded, the employers saw no reason for either halting or modifying the character of their offensive.

The employers’ strike headquarters in the West Hotel, in collaboration with the army which was gaining recruits at 1327 Hennepin Avenue, still had its heart set on settlement ‘without the intervention of the union’. They prepared to throw even greater forces into the marketplace.

On the day of the Battle of Deputies Run, the newspapers reported, ‘By late today there will be nearly 1,700 police including special officers – an additional 500 are being sworn in for active duty.’ The strikers too were gaining recruits. Nearly every worker who could afford to be away from his job that day, and some who couldn’t, planned to be on hand in the market. No one had announced a second battle, but 20 to 30 thousand people showed up in the marketplace on the morning of 22 May. As Dobbs put it to me a little regretfully, ‘A planned battle was almost impossible on that day.’ The two sides were simply there in force, and fought it out. The newspapers had reported that morning, ‘Several large produce houses are… to move perishables into their warehouse; other trucking operations are resuming on a small scale.’ This was the issue of the battle: will they move the trucks or won’t they? And the crowd knew it.

Finally it came – a trivial incident. Some petty merchant moving some crates of tomatoes – and a striker throws one of the crates through a window. The shattering of that glass was enough. The two sides joined battle, hand to hand, sap, blackjack, lead pipe, and night stick. It was actually over in less than an hour, with the police and the citizens’ army back in their headquarters, or hiding out, or in hospitals, and the strikers in control not only of the streets of Minneapolis but for the moment ‘of the situation’.

No succinct account of the battle was written or could be, least of all by the reporters with deadlines to meet who found it impossible to be in 50 places at once – or rather 150, for the battle with the deputies and police in retreat spread to all corners of the city.

This is the battle as Dobbs saw it: ‘Some 20,000 people jammed the market area. The actual spark which started the battle after several hours of waiting was a crate of tomatoes thrown through a plate-glass window. Instantly it became a free for all. Arthur Lyman was killed while running to cover in a grocery store – between the curb and the door. But it made no difference who it was provided he had a deputy’s badge or a club. Just to show you how dangerous it was to be a deputy, several of our fellows picked up the clubs from fallen deputies, and were immediately knocked cold by pickets. Our boys didn’t look in a man’s face – all they saw was the club. Hours after the battle deputies were getting theirs as far from the market as Nicollet and Twelfth Street.’

Bill Brown gives his experience: ‘I went down there with a couple of truck drivers who were supposed to be my bodyguards, but they kept seeing fights they wanted to get mixed up in, so that bodyguard stuff didn’t work very long. You know the market – well, imagine 60,000 people in there. [Dobbs reports 20,000, but Bill’s imagination is at least three times Dobbs’s in a fight.] People upon the roofs, a radio announcer, guys with cameras. Everybody waiting for the kick-off. I happened to be quite near where it started. Somebody brought a crate of eggs or tomatoes or something out of a little store. And a little blond feller, I don’t know who he was, yelled, “Hey, there’s a fink here, starting to move goods!” That was enough. They busted everything in the place. Somebody took the crate and crowned him with it. I can see him now, standing there with the crate around his neck like a collar. Then the blond feller yelled, “Come on, let’s get ’em,” and the crowd swept forward against the deputies. A picket captain yelled, “Some of you guys get over on this side.” So they completely surrounded ’em. The harness bulls [police] fell back but the crowd went after them. In an hour there wasn’t a cop to be seen on the streets of Minneapolis. About six o’clock I rode down Hennepin Avenue – about 15 blocks from the market – there were no cops; our fellers were directing traffic.’

At the battle’s conclusion a truce of 24 hours was declared at the governor’s request during which the employers agreed to move no trucks and the union consented to cease picketing – except for ‘a few strike pickets to see that the truce is really carried out’.

Throughout, the nub and core of the dispute was a matter of fundamental principle and strategy – for both sides – known as ‘recognition of the inside workers’. To the employers, the ‘banana men, the chicken pickers, and the pork picklers’ who worked inside their warehouses were outside the jurisdiction of a truck union. But why did they care so much? They cared because their inclusion meant that a kind of industrial union would be set up in the trucking industry of Minneapolis. Without the inside workers, they would be dealing with a pure and simple craft union of truck drivers, weaker in bargaining power, easier to manoeuvre and smash. To the union the issue of ‘the inside worker’ meant the same thing, a step toward industrial organisation, a strong union. In addition they pointed out that the inside workers were exploited like the rest, that they were already in the union, and had struck with the others.

The ‘inside worker’ Gordian knot was rewritten into a paragraph called Section 8, almost as famous in Minneapolis’s history as NRA’s 7A. And the governor assured the union that it included all the men over whom the union claimed jurisdiction. The agreement won by the union guaranteed a minimum wage, reinstatement, no discrimination, arbitration for future wage changes, seniority in hiring and layoff. But above all a recognition of the union – not direct, but via a Labour Board stipulation, and capable of development into a series of direct contracts with the employers’. It was a modest victory indeed, but it was a victory – and a beginning.

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