I recently stumbled upon some videos on YouTube so timely and important I decided to share them here. They present compelling lessons about power of labor, something that might strike some as an oxymoron. Labor? Powerful?
Just under 11% of workers in the United States today are unionized, down from a peak of almost 35% in 1954. What is the reason for this apparent lack of interest in unions?
Surely most working people today don’t feel they have adequate wages, fair and decent working conditions, and a secure path to better pay and opportunity in the future. The data says quite the opposite.
- Today’s average hourly wage has about the same purchasing power it did in 1978.
- Between 1970 and 2018, aggregate income to middle-class families and workers fell by 19%.
- About 13 million have to work multiple jobs to meet their household needs.
- 27.5 million have no health insurance.
- 12.6 million are unemployed, with millions more bureaucratically excluded from this official count.
- Over half a million are homeless.
These aren’t exactly good times. So, again, why the lack of interest in unions?
I don’t think there is a lack of interest in unions, but instead a lack of confidence in the capacity of unions. Many see too much corruption and a cowardly, compromised leadership joined at the hip with the employers. This lack of confidence in the unions becomes for workers a lack of confidence in themselves, which can appear and feel like passivity and apathy. This could be deceiving.
Back in 1933 the circumstances and mood of workers was very similar to now. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had lost half its membership over the previous 15 years — but things were soon to change. Workers faced conditions so desperate they were compelled to action. Soon in 1934 labor battles of national significance were waged by longshoremen in San Francisco and auto workers in Toledo.
The Minneapolis Teamsters Struggle &
Creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)
Minneapolis was a third front in this 1934 strike wave. Workers in Minneapolis organized to unionize the trucking industry. The fight was led by a class-conscious leadership. The struggle united the weak and splintered craft unions of that time into industrial unions of workers doing similar kinds of work. This led ultimately to creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
March 21, 2021, Los Angeles, California. Union leaders are joined by community group representatives, elected officials and social activists for a rally in support of unionization efforts by Amazon workers as they conduct their first warehouse union election in Bessemer, Alabama. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
The struggle launched in Minneapolis in 1934 contains lessons that remain absolutely relevant and vital today. While there are no comparable struggles happening at the moment, unions by the ones and twos are fighting for better wages, conditions and safety on the job. The highest profile action this year has been the effort by Amazon workers to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama.
Among the leaders of the Minneapolis campaign was Farrell Dobbs, a coal-yard worker in his twenties when the 1934 strikes began. He emerged from the ranks as a Teamster leader and was the central organizer of an over-the-road organizing campaign that began in 1937. He later resigned from the Teamsters organizing staff in 1940 in order to become the labor secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He was sentenced in 1941 to eighteen months in federal prison for this militant trade union activity and for organizing against U.S. entry into World War II. More on this below.
Farrell Dobbs Speaks: Teamster Battles of the 1930s
I recently stumbled upon videos on YouTube containing the audio of a 4-part lecture that Dobbs delivered in 1964 to members of the SWP. In these talks he recounted the history of the Minneapolis campaign and the events that followed. He leaves out no detail as he presents a meticulous, almost day-by-day account of the struggle, the challenges they faced and the many strategic decisions they made.
There are great lessons here! Anyone interested in effective union organizing will want to hear this first-hand participant account. Minneapolis proved the true power of labor when lead democratically by a class-conscious leadership that’s able to correctly size up the relationship of forces at a given juncture and act accordingly.
My brief overviews below are provided for convenience but are no substitute for hearing Dobbs in his own words!
In this first lecture of four, Dobbs describes the condition of workers and the unions in 1933, drawing comparisons from that period to the situation in 1964 — much of which still applies today in 2021. Unlike today, workers in the early 30s were divided into small craft unions. In trucking, for instance, there were small separate locals for drivers hauling coal, furniture, newspapers, milk, etc. This structure suited the employers perfectly because workers were divided up and unable to organize jointly. It suited the union leaders and bureaucrats as well. They could control the workers and collect dues without the muss & fuss of “rabble” protest. Things started to change in February 1934. Workers seeking union representation struck the coal yards in Minnesota as temperatures sank far below zero and demand for coal spiked.
This second lecture is a rich drama describing the two general truck drivers strikes in Minneapolis in 1934. Dobbs describes in detail the preparations made to enable the workers to conduct a serious and successful campaign. This included renting a block-long strike headquarters sufficient to house the strike office, strikers’ vehicles, a commissary and a hospital that was staffed by two volunteer doctors and three nurses. After they learned the police were wiretapping their phones, the union organized volunteers into a courier service to convey messages among the leaders and members. They also organized ‘flying squadrons’ of pickets. At one point, when armed police cars were escorting scab trucks during the strike, these flying squadrons were dispatched to join the parade in numbers exceeding the number of police cars. This completely unnerved the cops and led them to reduce their escorts. Dobbs also describes the Battle of Deputies Run when workers cleared the streets of cops violently attacking the strike.
The Minneapolis truckers’ strikes were backed by the full working class of the area. Dobbs describes the outpouring of volunteer support by non-union workers from various trades and by unemployed workers, as well as active participation by the wives of strikers. All performed critical functions necessary for the fight. Acting anonymously, stenographers in the company offices sent carbon copies of the bosses’ correspondence so the union would know what they were up to. The union helped small area farmers continue to operate during the strike, to which the farmers responded in kind by stocking the commissary at the strike headquarters.
Class-conscious leadership and democracy were the bedrock upon which workers built their strength and strategic advantage to win. Dobbs explained that every night in the strike headquarters the rank and file workers were given a full report on that day’s negotiations with the bosses. This ensured that no deals would be struck behind the workers’ backs, and negotiators could be issued instructions on what to do or not do the next day.
Dobbs also talks about The Organizer — the first daily strike newspaper ever produced by a union in the United States. Since the establishment radio stations and newspapers of Minneapolis backed the employers and lied about the strike, the union decided to publish its own daily newspaper. The Organizer was printed and widely distributed everyday.
In his third lecture, Dobb’s describes the union’s Certification Election held under supervision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) following the second general truckers’ strike in 1934. The union won a strong negotiated contract that most importantly protected workers’ right to strike at any time should employers violate the contract. (This is critical, yet during and since World War II contracts have typically included a ‘No Strike Clause’ which severely weakens the unions. This allows employers to violate a contract with impunity while bogging workers down in endless grievances — during which workers are compelled to continue working and following the rules.)
Following their victory the trucking workers faced reprisal attacks for having dared to beat the bosses through such a militant struggle. The first attack came from Daniel Tobin, General President of the Teamsters International. He revoked the local’s charter and set up a new local he hoped to control and keep passive. The idea was to clean out the radicals and get back to “business as usual” collaborating with the bosses. The workers also faced an FBI frame-up for having established a union defense guard to protect workers against physical attack by incipient fascists.
Later Dobbs describes events as the center of action moved to Omaha and a campaign to expand the Minneapolis victory to the region. There were various obstacles to overcome, one being a state-wide law in Nebraska that prohibited picketing. The union responded by picketing in large numbers from September 1938 to February 1939. This ultimately wore down the authorities as they grew weary of arresting violators by the hundreds over and over again.
In the end, the regional organizing campaign was victorious in winning an 11-state contract, the first of its kind. It effectively doomed the weak craft union structure and substantially strengthened the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The regional contract also gave workers an unconditional right to strike. [The recording ends abruptly just prior to the conclusion of this lecture.]
In this final lecture, Dobbs describes attacks against the union and workers in retaliation for their victories in Minneapolis and the 11 states. The aim was to squelch labor militancy as the U.S. prepared for entry into World War II. The Roosevelt Administration, Tobin and the whole union bureaucracy worked together against the workers. Among the attacks, the government seized the workers’ Minneapolis strike headquarters and property. The FBI also raided the Minneapolis offices of the SWP. Finding books there by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, the feds brought formal charges against 29 union and party leaders for (1) conspiracy to overthrow the government and (2) under the Smith Act of 1940, advocating overthrow of the government. Ultimately there were no convictions for conspiracy as none existed, but 18 served time in federal prison for opposing U.S. involvement in the war and for advocating the overthrow of capitalism — in other words, for mere expression of their beliefs! Full details in the lecture and books below.
Labor militancy subsided for a while leading into the war, but this didn’t last long. During the war in April 1943 half a million coal miners went on strike over wages and conditions. Roosevelt placed the mines under federal control and threatened to deploy troops against the miners. The miners responded by declaring “You can’t dig coal with bayonets!” They continued the fight until they won wages and concessions.
At the end of the war on V-J Day, U.S. troops demanded immediately that they be demobilized and sent home. “No Boats, No Votes!” the servicemen chanted, putting politicians and their class on notice there would be consequences if their demands weren’t met. 1945-46 saw a huge strike wave as over 2 million workers walked off the job in auto (GM), steel, coal, electrical, rubber, trucking and food production.
Eventually things quieted down and remained so, comparatively speaking, for the next 18 years until Dobbs delivered these lectures — and remain so today in 2021. Dobbs ended by talking about the reasons for this as well as the potential for a future labor upsurge. “Not everything you see is what appears to meet the eye,” he explained. “Apathy is a relative thing and change can be taking place without you’re being able to perceive at the moment, even where you see a relative stability in class relations… It does not take a catastrophic blow to break the stability and precipitate mass action. The constant [grind of everyday hardship] can trigger an explosion.”
The outcome, when it happens, will depend on leadership — on its ability to apply the class-conscious perspective and strategy that Dobbs presents in these lectures. [The recording ends abruptly just prior to the conclusion of this lecture.]
Footnote: Dobbs often refers to the “Trotskyists” in his lectures. For those who aren’t familiar, the SWP was established in 1938 as former members of the Communist Party USA regrouped following Stalin’s counter-revolution against Marxism in the Soviet Union. Leon Trotsky was the sole-surviving member of the initial leadership of the 1917 Russian Revolution. He was a brilliant mind and prolific writer, dedicating his life to fighting Stalinism and rebuilding a genuine communist movement in line with Marx, Engels and Lenin. The SWP aligned with this effort, calling itself “Trotskyist” to distinguish itself from the Stalinized Communist Party. The SWP no longer uses this tag since the Communist Party today has degenerated into little more than a left-wing of the Democratic Party. Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940 while living in exile in Mexico.
The Teamster Books by Farrell Dobbs
Dobbs also wrote a 4-book series again recounting the 1934 strikes in Minneapolis and everything that followed. These books contain beautiful glossy photo sections that help bring this history to life and are fully indexed for quick access to any information one might need.
“To the men and women who gave me unshakable confidence in the working class, the rank and file of General Drivers Local 574.”
– Farrell Dobbs
THIS IS THE STORY of the strikes and union organizing drive the men and women of Teamsters Local 574 carried out in Minnesota in 1934, paving the way for the continent-wide rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as a fighting social movement. Through hard-fought strike actions, which were in fact organized battles, they made Minneapolis a union town, defeating not only the trucking bosses but strikebreaking efforts of the big-business Citizens Alliance and city, state, and federal governments. They showed in life what workers and their allies on the farms and in the cities can achieve when they’re able to count on the leadership they deserve.
“The working class and the employing class confront each other on the industrial field. The drive for profit dominates the bosses’ life. Low wages, long hours, speed-up are weapons in the employers’ hands. A militant policy backed by united action must be opposed to the program of the boss.” – By-Laws, Teamsters Local 574
TEAMSTER POWER tells the story of how the men and women of Minneapolis Teamsters Local 574 and their class-struggle leadership used the power they had won through three hard fought strikes in 1934 to extend union power to cities throughout the Upper Midwest, help the unemployed organize and fight for jobs, combat employer frame-ups and assassinations, and launch an 11-state campaign that brought tens of thousands of over-the-road drivers into the union.
“Unionism and politics cannot be separated. Power generated at the trade-union level can be shattered by government blows. Workers must enter the political arena as an independent class force, with their own party.” – Farrell Dobbs
TEAMSTER POLITICS tells the story of how Minneapolis Teamster Local 544, guided by a class-struggle leadership in the 1930s . . . organized the unemployed and truck owner-operators into fighting union auxiliaries . . . deployed a Union Defense Guard to stop a membership drive by fascist Silver Shirts . . . combated FBI and “Justice” Department frame-ups . . . campaigned for workers to break politically from the bosses and organize a labor party based on the unions . . . and mobilized labor opposition to U.S. imperialism’s entry into World War II.
“The principal lesson of the Teamster experience is not that under an adverse relationship of forces, the workers can be overcome, but that with proper leadership, they can overcome.” – Farrell Dobbs
FARRELL DOBS TELLS THE STORY of the political campaign led by Minneapolis Teamsters to organize working-class and union opposition to the US rulers’ imperialist aims in World War II.
He explains how Washington, aided by the national Teamsters bureaucracy, deployed its political police, the FBI, to try to smash union power and silence antiwar militants, railroading to prison eighteen Teamster and Socialist Workers Party leaders.
Now with more than 130 photos and illustrations of the unfolding events, including the international campaign to free the framed-up workers.
1941 Court Transcript of the Smith Act Trial
As described by Dobbs in his 4th lecture above, leaders of Minneapolis truckers’ 544-CIO and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were indicted and convicted for “advocating overthrow of the government by force” through publications, talks, etc. Charges were brought under the federal Smith Act of 1940 that made the mere holding and expression of ideas illegal. No physical actions were required to violate this repressive law. Charges were brought by the Franklin Roosevelt Administration as reprisal for the militant labor organizing Dobbs describes in the lectures here. This book contains the transcript of court testimony delivered in Minneapolis in 1941 during a 3-day trial in the District Court of the United States, District of Minneapolis, Fourth Division. Testifying for the defendants was James P. Cannon, National Secretary of the SWP.
“It is absolutely true that Hitler wants to dominate the world, but it is equally true that the ruling group of American capitalists has the same idea. We’re not in favor of either of them.” – James P. Cannon
from the witness stand in federal court, 1941
James P. Cannon was the central defendant among the eighteen leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and Upper Midwest labor movement framed up in 1941 and imprisoned two years later on charges of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the US government. Their “crime”? Organizing opposition within the broad labor movement to Washington’s drive to enter World War II.
The US rulers tried to convince workers and farmers they would be fighting and dying “to defeat fascism.” Leaders of the SWP and of the massive Teamsters Central States over-the-road organizing campaign told them the truth.
Cannon’s testimony clearly and forcefully presents the communist program of the fighting vanguard of the working class.
Title image and Farrell Dobbs at lectern are screen shots from the videos.
“Make and Keep Minneapolis a Union Town” is the cover photo from Dobb’s book Teamster Power.
The rally supporting Amazon workers is embedded from Getty Images.
The ‘Battle of Deputies Run’ image is in the Public Domain.
Videos are shared from the YouTube page of Matthew Siegfried, which contains other videos you may find interesting.
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