By the third Friday in July 1934, truck drivers were at their breaking point.
Around 2 p.m., the city’s industrial workers had filled the intersection of 6th Avenue and N. 3rd Street in downtown Minneapolis. They were on their third strike of the year, frustrated by wages and working conditions. A delivery truck — a police decoy — started up N. 3rd Street, only to be cut off by a pickup truck crammed with pickets. Then, the police started firing.
Two died and about 60 were wounded in the event later dubbed “Bloody Friday,” July 20, 1934. The 80th anniversary of the confrontation — a moment that rallied public support for workers in the middle of the Great Depression — will be remembered with a string of events over the weekend, including a march, a street festival and a Teamsters picnic.
“This event hit national significance in terms of the American labor movement,” said David Riehle, an organizer for the Remember 1934 festivities and a former railroad engineer. “It really was one of the battles that ignited the struggle for unionization that unfolded throughout the ’30s.”
After Teamsters’ strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo, Ohio, came a slew of reforms, including legislation for better wages and child labor laws, he said.
A turning point for labor
As the Great Depression deepened, Teamsters’ strikes bubbled up in 1934, including February, May and July.
On Bloody Friday, 500 unarmed pickets and about 300 police had crowded around the area near where Target Field stands today, Riehle said.
By mid-July 1934, the truckers had shut down the delivery truck services in the city in a protest for higher wages and improved hours and working conditions, Riehle said. Many truckers were making about $12 to $14 a week for 10-hour workdays, he said. The strikes ended in August 1934, and most of the employers gave in to union demands for collective bargaining contracts.
While the strikes started with the union’s demands for drivers’ rights, other industrial workers and unemployed people seeking stronger unions joined the protests, too, Riehle said.
Initially, the local general drivers union had about 100 members. That jumped to about 2,000 after the February strike by coal truck drivers. By the start of the May strike, there were 5,000 workers, then 6,000 by the end of July, Riehle said.
After the strikes, unions gained power and benefits in the city.
“Minneapolis became kind of a citadel of new unionism,” Riehle said.
The Teamsters’ original striking local organization Local 574 now survives as Teamsters Local 120, which is participating in the event. Since the 1934 strikes, the union has organized in several industries.
“The Teamsters have gotten stronger as a group since this event and I think we’ve built our strength through politics and organizing,” said Paul Slattery, organizer and political coordinator for the Teamsters Local 120.
DFL state Rep. Debra Hilstrom’s grandfather Leslie Wachter was at the scene when police started shooting on Bloody Friday, she said.
He later became a union steward in the 1939 Teamsters’ strike at the University of Minnesota, when the FBI sent in undercover agents. He always carried his Teamsters badge, Hilstrom said. Years later, when Wachter had Alzheimer’s disease, Hilstrom said he’d feel like he was back in the strike days, fearing the FBI and trying to escape his nursing home when he heard police sirens.
Linda Leighton’s grandfather Vincent Raymond Dunne was one of the 1934 strike leaders.
“He talked softly, but he had a nice, deep rolling voice that you wanted to listen to,” said Leighton, of Hopkins.
Dunne protested alongside his two brothers, Miles and Grant. He was humble about his efforts, but people remembered his role and would speak to him about it, Leighton said.
“I always knew he was an important person,” she said.