Labor Advocate Online

by Dave Riehle

Can a moral equal sign be placed between the killings of the two special deputies and the two union pickets during the course of the 1934 Minneapolis truckers’ strikes, some have asked? At least four human lives were extinguished in the course of the two truckers’ strikes in the summer of 1934, two on each side of the virtual civil war that convulsed Minneapolis that year. Every individual life has an intrinsic value, and conscientious supporters of justice and fair play especially are often troubled by the human cost of struggles whose goals they uphold. To partisans of labor and the working class today, and to the strikers and their supporters in 1934 there is this difference:

The special deputies, citizens who were deputized specifically to fight the strikers for control of the streets, were killed in hand-to-hand combat. Both sides had armed to an equal degree with clubs and similar implements. The leading elements of the special deputies had committed themselves to this situation with foreknowledge of the circumstances of the fight, and were asserting their class-based right as employers and high-grade citizens to drive the strikers off the streets.

Other not so exalted citizens who were deputized were in many cases white-collar employees of Citizens Alliance businesses, pressured into “volunteering” to retain the good graces of their bosses, for which they were compensated $5.00 per day.

Bob Cramer, the editor of the Minneapolis Labor Review, came into the possession of a list of these individuals, which, like many other documents from employers’ files, were often surreptiously passed into the hands of the labor movement by secretaries who had inserted an extra piece of carbon paper into their typewriters when preparing their bosses’ correspondence. Those listed were mostly salesmen and other lower echelon white-collar employees who would have been under the thumb of their downtown bosses. Others, with addresses scattered among various rooming houses, and identified as laborers, were probably unemployed workers snagged for a few days by the Citizens Alliance employment office.

No one in this more humble portion of the “special deputies” cadre was killed in the fighting, although one man died of pneumonia a few days later, perhaps a forgotten and unidentified casualty. It does not appear that any members of this group were professional strikebreakers or thugs—more likely they were hapless souls trying to curry some favor with their bosses. One can assume that most of them took their clubs and found a safe refuge as the fighting raged, as did many of the uniformed police, either out of prudence or a distaste for clubbing workers. The news photos tend to support this conclusion. The identifiable special deputies are dressed in polo clothes and similar upper-class country club attire. Polo was not a sport engaged in by lower middle class salesmen, and the upper class “special deputies” probably did not have an extra set of work clothes handy in the garage.

The strikers had begun the May strike barehanded and only resorted to clubs after the police had attacked them with the same implements. While it would be needlessly provocative to go so far as to say that Lyman and Ball, the two fatally wounded special deputies, got what was coming to them, it should not be so difficult to assert that their surviving compatriots, who, utilizing their control of the Minneapolis police department hierarchy, contrived the Bloody Friday assault, were, under the laws prevailing at the time, if they had been applied objectively, guilty of first degree murder and conspiracy.

The murdered and wounded pickets were the victims of a cold-blooded trap with the deliberate and premeditated object of killing and wounding many workers with police riot guns, which are shotguns loaded with heavy slugs designed specifically to cause grievous physical injury or death to unarmed human beings. The governor’s commission appointed to investigate the shootings found that none of the strikers were armed, not even with clubs, and that “the physical safety of the police was at no time endangered.”

Six years after the strike was concluded, average wages in the trucking industry in Minneapolis had tripled, from $11 a week to $33. Millions of dollars of potential profits passed instead into the hands of workers and their families, and their lives and those of their families became better. This is indisputable.

Did it take fierce and bloody warfare in the streets of Minneapolis to accomplish this? The verdict of history is that the employers, controlling the economy and the city government, including its primary instrument of violence, the police, would not negotiate, would not concede, would not retreat one inch. When the workers, led by General Drivers Local 574, withdrew their labor and used the power of their numbers to change the social relationship of forces through essentially peaceful means, the employers used clubs, and then guns, to try to crush their movement. If there were any moral qualms expressed within the walls of the Minneapolis Club, when this decision was reached, and Chief Michael Johannes and Sergeant John Albrecht were given the assignment of organizing a heartless massacre, such dissent has not been recorded anywhere accessible to public history.

Like every anniversary, this one is an occasion for reflection as well as celebration. We celebrate and honor the courage, sacrifices and ultimate victory of the men and women of 1934, who truly did “Make Minneapolis a Union Town,” granting those of us who come after them a better life in the succeeding decades.

As organized labor is today acutely aware, the battleground on which they fought is still contested territory. The successes of 1934 and after, it becomes clearer and clearer, were not final victories, but truces and breathing spaces in a conflict that as yet has no end in sight. The three Minneapolis strikes of 1934, with their unmatched generalship and dynamism, deserve to be celebrated without apology, and more than that, studied as textbooks for the future.