Could the events of 1934 provide a blueprint for a reinvigorated working-class movement?
By Caleb Brennan
On Friday, July 20, 1934, shots rang through the corridors of the Market District in Minneapolis, the echoes bouncing off the cobblestone and masonry. Behind the barrel of a Thompson riot gun was a Minneapolis police officer who had opened fire on a group of striking workers—more specifically, coal truckers who were attempting to stop the movement of goods during the most crucial labor action in the history of the city.
Unlike other metropolitan areas at the time, Minneapolis was no home to organized labor. The city’s elites, brought together through an employers’ syndicate called the Citizen’s Alliance, had resisted calls for higher pay, union recognition, and decent benefits. While wages had risen by eleven percent throughout the country during the Roaring 20s, Minneapolis workers saw a pay increase of just two percent during that time. This was compounded by the fact that only a small fraction of workers had any kind involvement in trade unions. And with the Depression still wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of the city’s majority, there was little sign that even the reformist Roosevelt administration would alleviate all the causes of their deprivation.
In response, the General Drivers’ Local 574 of the Teamsters Union had been waging an all-out assault on the robber barons and affluent gentry of Minnesota’s commercial hub. A coalition of radical unionists, committed socialists, unemployed workers, and underpaid laborers coalesced around Local 574 to demand a better life. By July of 1934, what started in the coal yards of the city’s industrial sector had grown into a burgeoning workers movement and one of the most comprehensive strikes of the Depression era.
On July 20—a day that would become known as “Bloody Friday”—unarmed picketers rallied to the Slocum Bergren Company’s warehouse lot. They were hoping to interrupt scab drivers. “There were at least five thousand to six thousand pickets there,” Harry DeBoer, one of the key organizers in the strike and a witness to Bloody Friday, recalled later. “You can visualize almost a whole block of pickets.”
As the truck began to pull away from the loading dock, the picketers swarmed. The warehouse was guarded by members of the Minneapolis Police Department, equipped with shotguns and semi-automatics. They opened fire without warning. According to Randy Furst, long-time reporter for the Star-Tribune, those who fled were shot in the back. To DeBoer, it seemed like a setup: “The bullets came from all over. It really was organized.” The cost: sixty-seven union men injured and two dead.
DeBoer was among the injured. His knee was so shot up that the surgeon at the scene feared amputation would be necessary (DeBoer refused, and another doctor eventually saved his leg). While he languished in the hospital, the young men of the rank-and-file wanted retribution for the massacre. But DeBoer would have none of it. He knew that if the union retaliated, the popular support they had garnered would evaporate, and the Citizen’s Alliance would use such violence to justify its actions.
Instead, the nascent labor leader offered up a timeless union aphorism: Hold the line. “There is only one way to win a strike: Shut the operation down,” he wrote in his 1987 essay How to Win Strikes: Lessons From the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers Strike. “If it is a factory or other business, it cannot operate. If it is a transportation industry, it cannot move. A strike means all work must stop…It requires mass action in the street, led by the striking union.”
For much of the twentieth century, the Minneapolis chapter of the Citizen’s Alliance—who represented everyone from the small businessman to the city’s largest employers—had constrained union organizing throughout the Twin Cities. It provided strikebreakers and paid thugs, labor spies and legal counsel—and, most importantly, sympathetic media coverage for the captains of industry. Local banks aligned with the Alliance went so far as to deny loans to employers that negotiated with organized labor.
Minnesota’s working class was uniquely radical, given its large Scandinavian population—many had participated in socialist politics before immigrating to the States. “We had in Minneapolis alone about seven or eight thousand men in the backshops of the railroads,” wrote Vincent Dunne, an agitator who had spent twenty-five years with the Teamsters. “They had to be skilled workers in the main [shop], and so that’s where they were. That’s why they had a lot of power in the trade union movement.”
But it would take more than just numbers to defeat the Alliance’s power. So leftists like Carl “Skogie” Skoglund—the elder statesman of 574’s left-wing core, blacklisted by railroad companies for his involvement with the Communist Party USA—and the Brothers Dunne (Vincent, Miles, and Grant), set about pitching a compelling alternative to the status quo. And, after several years of clandestine organizing, they found the right moment to unleash the city’s bubbling class rage.
It came in the form of an unusually warm January. 1934. The coal drivers of the city were essentially paid on a commission, their wages dependent on the amount of product they transported. After long hours moving tons of fuel up countless stairwells, most workers brought home around $15 a week—a paycheck that could just barely cover the expenses of your average working-class family. But in the first month of 1934, temperatures rose into the 40s. As households canceled their usual coal orders to cut costs. In turn, workers had their hours slashed. Disgruntled drivers, packers, and shovelers idled in the yard, anxious about their dwindling pay.
At first, the leadership of both the Local and the wider American Federation of Labor were hesitant to agitate employers with a strike, fearing the meager gains they had secured would be obliterated; an initial closed-shop agreement prevented the Teamsters from organizing all the coal workers involved in the energy sector. But newly radicalized laborers like Farrell Dobbs would not be denied. In his book Teamster Rebellion, Dobbs recalls that a sizable number of non-union workers became emphatically interested in joining the Local. “After quite a hassle, the board reversed itself and decided to take us into the union,” writes Dobbs. “…Before long an impressive number of workers were recruited into the union.”
Soon, Dobbs wrote, elected representatives of each coal yard were collaborating to draw up demands for the employers: “union recognition, increased wages, shorter hours, premium pay for overtime, improved working conditions, and job protection through a seniority system.” The bosses responded by refusing to negotiate. Soon, a packed union hall full of dues-paying laborers revolted, and a work stoppage was authorized—just as the fury of a Midwest winter returned in full force.
Hundreds of workers reported to the picket line, even as harsh prairie winds smothered the metropole. Delivery drivers intentionally locked their keys in the cabin of their vehicles. Loads of coal were poured out to prevent deliveries. Police convoys were interrupted by lines of seething strikers. Harry DeBoer organized “roving pickets” to speed across the north side in run-down jalopies, blocking scab drivers and providing reinforcements.
Temperatures continued to fall. Most of the fuel was not making its way to residential furnaces. Customers were irate. After only a few days of sabotage, the employers conceded and offered a pay raise, up to an additional six dollars an hour. But the real spoils were still months away.
The organizers of Local 574 saw this victory as a foothold. With sympathies from some labor leaders and members in other sectors in the Minneapolis economy—like milk drivers and subsistence farmers—alongside Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson, whose budding Farmer-Labor party brought much needed institutional support from the liberal left, the anticapitalist Teamsters sought to further unify the working class of Minneapolis.
In the aftermath of the coal yard action, the Teamsters’ ranks had swelled to around three thousand, up from a paltry seventy-five the previous year. But as the warm currents of spring thawed out the mighty Mississippi, tensions grew in the Twin Cities. The end of the coal season meant that seasonal work would come to a close, and employers made sure that radical agitators were the first to get the boot, further insulting the union that they refused to recognize.
While the Teamsters organized rallies and outreach programs, the Citizen’s Alliance coordinated its own meeting in hopes of bringing together the entirety of the city’s upper crust. Farrell Dobbs infiltrated the gathering, as he had yet to become a clear union leader. Disguised as a “cockroach boss,” Dobbs reported that the Alliance was attempting to frighten its base by claiming that 574’s “communist plot” included plans to take over the entire city. Most importantly, Dobbs said, the Citizen’s Alliance had guaranteed synergy with Minneapolis Mayor Buzz Bainbridge and MPD Police Chief Mike “Bloody Mike” Johannes.
By May of 1934, the air was thick with hostility. But leftists like Skoglund feared they did not have the numbers to properly execute the large-scale strike needed to defeat the employer cartels. The labor market was so loose, they theorizedthat many unemployed workers would cross the picket-line. However, in a pivot that surprised even the most experienced labor organizers, the unemployed proved to be the most urgent constituency in the second strike of Minneapolis’ generation-defining labor struggle.
That month, ten thousand jobless men and women—almost a third of the unemployed population of the city—marched on city hall to demand work or welfare for their malnourished children. They were met by an army of police officers who clubbed and gassed them. To socialist organizers of Local 574, the tremendous violence at City Hall offered an opportunity for a general strike—one that would allow for all segments of the working class to win much needed labor rights.
The Teamsters and unemployment consortiums prepared to shut down the entire city of Minneapolis. They commandeered a warehouse at 1900 Chicago Avenue, and almost immediately workers and volunteers from the vast spectrum of the city’s underclass went about transforming the site into a functioning headquarters: Carpenters and plumbers assembled an expansive commissary to feed hungry strikers; chefs from the Cooks and Waiters Union trained housewives in the art of mass food production; an ad-hoc hospital wing was assembled and headed by Dr. McCrimmon and nurses from the local university; and mechanics were on the scene to keep the Teamsters’ junkers and motorcycles humming. The Local even had incidental moles: sympathetic secretaries who worked for the employers would listen in on Alliance meetings and relay intel back to the strikers.
The general committee—led by Local 574 leadership to provide updates and boost morale— became so large that a speaker system had to be installed so the thousands of members could make out every syllable spoken. A strike committee of one hundred was assembled; a nightwatch kept a lookout for cops; an aid task force was arranged to collect donations and food supplies from local businesses, sympathetic unions, and even Governor Olson himself. Most urgently, a Women’s Auxiliary was created to support every function of the headquarters. The Auxiliary, albeit oriented around antiquated gender roles, was credited as being the backbone of all the successes that would unfold in the coming months.
With an imposing collection of working-class women, unemployed picketers, a progressive political party, friendly unions across the entire economic sphere, and a corps of youthful volunteers, Local 574—now boasting six thousand workers— unanimously authorized a strike on May 15. The following day, the Teamsters effectively shut down the entirety of the city’s commercial streams—only union trucks were allowed to make their way through the urban passageways and alleys. Even the outskirts of the city were defended by strikers who turned back anyone who wasn’t with the union. Entire industries, from gas and oil outlets to laundry houses and bakeries, were frozen out of the local economy.
For several days Harry DeBoer’s signature roving pickets flashed up and down the boulevards, disrupting even the scab trucks that were protected by a robust police entourage. The strike actually won over some of the scab workers, who, upon learning why they had been hired in the first place, apparently became irate. (According to Furst, some of these scabs became excellent union stewards.)
In response, the Citizen’s Alliance mobilized to force business to resume. Its members were deputized by the police to restore order, and Mayor Bainbridge begged Governor Olson to declare martial law (he declined). Doctors, lawyers, business brokers, and affluent fraternities at the University of Minnesota—often made up of the ruling elite’s progeny—armed themselves. And these class tensions inevitably boiled over into all-out urban warfare.
On May 21 the Alliance attempted to lock the strikers out of their headquarters and allow produce companies to begin moving their rotting goods. As they make their way into the grounds of the market center, the debonair mob and their police escorts brutalized every picketer in sight. A bare-knuckle battle broke out before a single ounce of cargo could be moved: homemade clubs sparred with baseball bats and batons. A group of six hundred union sympathizers ambushed the cops—numbering close to a thousand—from the AFL headquarters perched on the corner of the market district.
Meanwhile, the Women’s Auxiliary began a march on city hall, further amping up the pressure. Police Chief Johannes frantically deputized as many people as he could to even out the numbers. For almost forty-eight hours, the Market District of Minneapolis was a socio-economic brawl. The second day, nearly twenty thousand sympathizers rallied at the market square, and the police were unable to use their firearms without putting everyone in danger. Both sides suffered numerous injuries, and two members of the Citizen Alliance were killed.
Nearly sixty-five percent of the city’s population supported the strike, and, in the end, the embargo remained intact. The Teamsters’ populist battle cry had won the hearts and minds of the Minneapolis masses.
The events at “Deputies Run,” as the May action came to be called, led to another exhausting round of negotiations in which the union was again granted its demands, only for the Alliance its their employer representatives to ultimately undermine the agreement with hundreds of documented cases of discrimination against union workers. This blatant sleight would generate the final strike of the labor war, which took place on July 20, 1934—Bloody Friday. The murders of two union members, which a government commission ruled unjustified, generated enough public support to turn the tide.
The funeral of Henry Ness, one of the martyrs, was attended by more than one hundred thousand people. “Night and day workers held their children up to see the body of Ness,” wrote the Minnesota writer Meridel Le Sueur. “Tuesday, the day of the funeral, one thousand more militia were massed downtown. It was still over ninety in the shade. I went to the funeral parlors and thousands of men and women were massed there waiting in the terrific sun. One block of women and children were standing two hours waiting.”
Eventually, Governor Olson bent to the Alliance’s demands and imposed martial law, which forced the hostile parties to come to the negotiating table one last time, and, ultimately, broke the strike by allowing private firms to move their goods without opposition. With assistance from the Roosevelt administration and local, non-partisan leaders, a concrete agreement was at last sealed in arbitration—strikers were rehired, pay raises were cemented, and union elections were permitted. But Local 574’s persistence recast Minneapolis into a labor town, and the influence of the Alliance waned over the next decade. And alongside similar strikes in Toledo and San Francisco, an emboldened labor force generated enough momentum to pass the Wagner Act, a federal law protecting the right to unionize.
These days, union membership is at an all-time low. Simultaneously (and perhaps not discretely), we are trapped in futile social and economic gridlock. Could the ‘34 strike provide a blueprint for a reinvigorated working-class movement? Consider the recent unionization efforts at Starbucks, which kicked off in Buffalo; the John Deere strike in Iowa and Illinois; the Kellog walk-outs in Battle Creek; an impending labor action by St. Paul teachers and their support staff. Under the banner of a multi-racial, working-class coalition, such workers could fundamentally disrupt the regional structures that are preventing a meaningful shift in the way wealth is distributed throughout the Midwest.
And with union membership rising locally, labor organizing is being reintroduced to a new generation of Minnesotans. Tangentially, insurgent DFL candidates with democratic socialist commitments like Omar Fateh, Jen McEwen, Aisha Gomez, Robin Wonsley-Worlobah, Jason Chavez, and Aisha Chughtai have achieved office, and they have all expressed a deep commitment to fighting with unions for more beneficial political outcomes. Now, as in the early part of the last century, Minneapolis could be a lodestar for a national shift in workers’ rights. ■
Caleb Brennan is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.
Cover image: an altercation between Teamsters and police in 1934. Public Domain image.
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