Labor Advocate Online
A Unique Commemoration Of A
Treasured Historic Victory
by Bill Onasch
The American working class doesn’t have a lot of great victories to savor but the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes rank among the top of those deserving special recognition. John De Graaf entitled his 1982 award winning documentary about these strikes "Labor’s Turning Point." Indeed it was.
For the first few years of the Great Depression, that began in 1929, workers were reeling from one setback after another. Massive unemployment allowed the bosses to impose wage cuts and exhausting hours and working conditions. The few attempts made at strikes were brutally and thoroughly smashed. Demoralization was a constant companion of growing poverty.
Along with the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, and the San Francisco general strike during the same time frame, the Minneapolis Teamsters gave American workers new inspiration as well as tactical and organizational models to learn from. These three exceptional local strikes paved the way for the large scale, nationally coordinated CIO victories in basic manufacturing industries a few years later.
The socialist leaders of the Minneapolis strikes went on to revive and expand the entire local labor movement. They led the charge in breaking the iron grip of the bosses’ Citizens Alliance that had kept Minneapolis largely "union free," as they say today. By the end of the decade Minneapolis became very much a union town.
During interludes in off and on battles with the Teamsters international leadership, Farrell Dobbs, and other 1934 leaders, went on to help organize 125,000 workers across the Midwest into the IBT.
None of the major leaders of the Minneapolis strikes are with us still. The last passed away about five years ago. But there are some of my generation who had an opportunity to get some valuable training from people such as Dobbs, V.R. Ray Dunne, Jake Cooper, Harry DeBoer, Jack Maloney, and others.
As the bosses accelerate their drive to make Minneapolis once again union free, again closing plants and driving down living standards and working conditions, there is renewed interest among young workers as well in the victory of 1934. Some are fighting to organize nursing homes, restaurants, book stores, and similar low wage, no benefits occupations that growing numbers of young people—as well as some not so young—must accept.
Some from these two groups got together a committee to put on a "Street Festival For the Working Class," One Day In July— Remembering 1934 When Minneapolis became a Union Town.
A central organizer of the committee was Dave Riehle. Riehle, a locomotive engineer on the Union Pacific, and Local Chairman of United Transportation Union Local 650, is an accomplished labor historian. He is especially knowledgeable about history in the Twin Cities, where he has lived most of his life. Over the years he spent countless hours probing the memories of Harry DeBoer, Jake Cooper, Jack Maloney, and others from the Teamsters struggles. He made sure the event was well grounded in historical accuracy.
Assisting in that aspect was another veteran activist, Christine Frank, who produced dramatic presentations of short speeches, and skits, based on the words and actions of the 1934 participants. Frank also found time to make a beautiful banner for the event.
But it was the younger people on the committee who put a fresh stamp on the character of the event. In addition to a few brief speakers, and the dramatic interpretation, the program was dominated by music. There was some traditional folksy acoustic guitar, some blues, even some very light jazz. But it was the rock and hip-hop groups that really got things rockin’. Some of the most popular local performers volunteered their service. And the amazing strike came all the way from Chicago on their own dime, asking only for a little liquid refreshment.
The venue for this eight-hour festival was in the old Minneapolis warehouse district, just off of downtown. It was chosen because this was the site of a cop massacre that killed two and wounded dozens of strikers on July 20, 1934.
The souvenir program book contained an excellent two-page summary of the 1934 events. The organizers also produced a beautiful poster, attractive t-shirt, and a replica Teamsters button.
There were numerous literature tables, food vendors, and—fortunately under utilized—a well staffed and equipped first aid station.
The organizers did a first class job in publicizing the event—and it paid off. While it was impossible to get an accurate count clearly at least several hundred attended some part of the festival. This was especially impressive as they were going head-to-head with major events in the Minneapolis Aquatennial.
This blend of historical education, class struggle agitation, and cultural inspiration, is exactly what the working class needs from time to time. The talented, hard working Minnesota comrades deserve our applause and admiration. Let’s hope they also spark some imitation.
July 27, 2004