BOOK REVIEW: How tactics and muscle made Minneapolis a union town in 1934.
By the early 1930s, worldwide communism had suffered a bitter schism. Stalinists hewed to their namesake’s push to consolidate the Bolshevik Revolution within the Soviet Union. Followers of the exiled Leon Trotsky pushed to export that revolution worldwide.
The Trotskyists who worked as Minneapolis truck drivers, concentrated in the coal yards, are the focus of Canadian academic Bryan D. Palmer’s new book, “Revolutionary Teamsters” (Haymarket Books, 308 pages, $28). Palmer will appear in Minneapolis next weekend in conjunction with events to commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Minneapolis trucker strikes of 1934.
This cadre of drivers steered the city’s truckers through three strikes between February and July 1934. While they held revolutionary ideals, they ultimately proved pragmatists in forging deals that made Minneapolis more of a union city. Their success at paralyzing the city’s truck deliveries, aided by the innovation of motorized squads of pickets, attracted national attention, with federal mediators dispatched by President Franklin Roosevelt to try to patch a compromise between militant truckers and recalcitrant employers.
Palmer’s narrative is best at tracing the growing union consciousness among workers and the backlash from police, many politicians, the virulent Citizens Alliance that fronted for employers, the local dailies and even the more conservative Roosevelt-aligned national Teamster leadership and craft union leaders in the Twin Cities.
His first two chapters, tracing the ideological split of the left and its role in two other landmark labor struggles that year in Toledo and San Francisco, will be heavy going for those who are not students of labor history. Palmer wisely saves a more detailed tracing of American Trotskyism for his appendix.
Debate continues today on whether the intervention of Farmer-Laborite Gov. Floyd Olson in calling out the National Guard to patrol city streets helped or hurt the strikers. Palmer argues that troops inhibited strike tactics and permitted more truck movement; the vagueness of the agreement he shepherded that settled the May strike also led to the July eruption.
The strikes provoked club-swinging confrontations between strikers determined to keep trucks from North Loop warehouses and deputized thugs and, then, police — the latter accused of shooting strikers in the back during one ambush.
Some strike leaders, notably Farrell Dobbs, went on to organize over-the-road drivers. But their reward was bitter as their enemies bided time to use muscle supplied by a young Jimmy Hoffa and the red scare of 1940 to wrest away control of the powerful Minneapolis Teamster local. Still, the legacy of Palmer’s revolutionary Teamsters lives on in a thoroughly unionized city, although the militancy fed by grass-roots activism has vanished from all but a few locals.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438