A truckers’ strike in Minneapolis during 1934 changed the course of US history. Workers made desperate by the Great Depression and their city’s violently anti-union rulers became fused with the Communist League. This small Trotskyist group was active in Local 574, a Teamsters Union branch in Minneapolis. The result was one of the best organised and most militant strikes ever seen by the world. Local 574’s stunning victory galvanised America’s labour movement, leading towards mass strikes and union drives which tore major concessions from corporate bosses and politicians. FARRELL DOBBS, a Trotskyist strike leader, tells their inspiring story in Teamster Rebellion. Sections of his book follow, with slight alterations to make it more understandable to readers today.
‘Nothing moved without union permission’
Local 574’s combat leaders, acting through the organising committee, had no illusions about the gravity of the impending conflict. They were fully aware that Minneapolis bosses would try to smash the strike.
If the Teamsters Union was to win, a tremendous battle would be necessary. Under the pressures of such a fierce struggle, manoeuvres detrimental to the union could be expected from the US administration’s Labor Board and from state governor Floyd Olson, a reformist politician elected on a Farmer-Labor Party ticket.
We could also anticipate weakness on the part of the city’s American Federation of Labour (AFL) officialdom, which was bound to be squeamish about physical combat and prone to urge the workers to rely completely on Olson.
In the last analysis the outcome of the strike would hinge on the fighting capacity of the union ranks. Seeking to impart this understanding to the membership, the combat leaders prepared to teach the workers the ins and outs of fighting for their rights. This circumstance made the strike quite exceptional. Fighting spirit in the ranks was usually restrained and dampened by the AFL officials, while in this case a militant struggle was being organised by what had become the key section of the top union leadership.
Seldom anywhere, in fact, had there been such a well-prepared strike. When the sun rose on 16 May 1934, the strike headquarters was a beehive of activity. Union carpenters and plumbers were installing gas stoves, sinks and serving counters in the commissary. The Cooks & Waiters Union sent experts on mass cooking and serving to help organise things and train the volunteer help.
Working in two 12-hour shifts, over 100 volunteers served 4,000 to 5,000 people daily. Sandwiches and coffee were always available and a hot meal was served whenever the commissary’s resources and the circumstances of the strike permitted. In addition, arrangements were made so that key personnel could sleep in or near the headquarters for the duration.
Committees were set up to promote material aid. They solicited friendly grocers for necessities to be used in the commissary and to help out the needy families of strikers. Similar donations were also received from sympathetic farmers.
The committees fought city hall to get public relief for union members, and the facts of life were explained to landlords who pressed the workers for rent payments. Money donations from other unions helped to stock the commissary, as well as to buy gasoline for the cruising picket squads and medical supplies for the union’s emergency hospital. Even governor Olson contributed $500 to Local 574.
The union’s medical staff included Dr McCrimmon and two interns from the University of Minnesota hospital who volunteered their services during their off hours. Three trained nurses headed up a larger volunteer staff that provided such efficient care that, despite the many open wounds treated, not one bad infection developed. To avoid air pollution in the hospital and commissary, picket cars were pushed into and out of the headquarters.
About a score of skilled auto mechanics had turned to, bringing their tools with them, to keep the strikers’ cars in working order. The former tool crib and supply room in the building was turned into a general office where volunteers did the typing and mimeographing and signed up new members pouring into the union.
An organised guard was maintained in and around the headquarters to watch for police intrusions, prevent drinking, cool down temper flareups and keep order. Except at critical times, when everyone worked to the point of exhaustion, the various assignments were rotated.
Special attention was given to keeping the workers informed about the strike’s progress and helping them to answer lies peddled by the bosses. Each evening a general assembly was held at the headquarters for this purpose. Reports were made by the strike leaders, guest speakers were invited from other unions to help morale through expressions of solidarity, and some form of entertainment usually followed. A loudspeaker system was installed so that packed meetings could hear what was said, as could the overflow crowds outside, which often numbered two to three thousand.
There were also regular meetings of the strike committee of seventy-five, who had been elected by the union membership. This body, which made the general decisions about strike policy, had in turn designated a small sub-committee to handle complaints. Most of the complaints had to do with requests from small bosses who asked for special permission to operate their trucks. Usually the requests were unjustified and were automatically turned down, but having a special committee to handle these matters saved unnecessary wear and tear on the picket commanders.
Another sub-committee was charged with arranging legal assistance for picketers arrested during the strike. The first lawyer obtained proved to be a shyster whose method was to make a deal with the public prosecutor. In return for dismissal of cases against a few picketers he would plead a larger number guilty. He did that just once and the union fired him. We didn’t expect our lawyer to win every case, but at least we wanted him to fight for us. The union committee went in search of one who would.
Picket dispatching was assigned to Ray Dunne and me. This was Ray’s first official function in Local 574, although he had headed the Communist League group in the union from the start of the organising drive in coal. Previously he had been handicapped by loss of his coal job which stripped him of a formal basis for union membership. However, he was able to step forward as a volunteer supporter of the strike, along with hundreds of other individual workers. Many in the strike committee were aware of his impressive trade union credentials, and he was given an important assignment accordingly.
Working beside Ray impressed upon me the experience and education one gains through membership in a revolutionary socialist party. He knew a lot about conducting a strike, and he taught me a lot about the team concept in leadership. Ray was a superb combat leader with a clear sense of purpose, backed up by strong willpower and the ability to keep a cool head in critical situations. He not only taught by the example he set, never shirking either hazardous or minor tasks, he also gave others leeway for initiative, seeking only to safeguard against serious blunders. Never a dabbler at anything he did, Ray tried to find some role for everyone who wanted to help. “Don’t write people off lightly,” he often said. “It’s not the mark of an organiser.”
As dispatchers, Ray and I were in charge of all picketing assignments and it was our responsibility to direct tactical operations. We had a special staff at our disposal to handle the telephones and operate a shortwave radio used to monitor police calls. Teenage volunteers with motorcycles were organised into an efficient courier service. Scooting around the city under strict orders to stay out of the fighting, they served as the eyes and ears of the picket dispatchers and as a swift means of contact with picket captains.
So many cars and individually owned trucks were volunteered that we had more than enough to achieve the high degree of mobility required in the strike. Trucks were used to transport stationary picket squads and their relief shifts to truck terminals, the market area, warehouses and other places where trucks normally operated. Picket crews also kept a vigil at points where the main highways crossed the city limits.
Cruising squads in autos were assigned, district by district, to sweep through the streets on the lookout for scab trucking operations. A captain was designated for each of these squads and for each detachment of stationary pickets. At all times a reserve force with the necessary transportation was kept on hand at the strike headquarters.
In situations where large forces were involved, a field commander was appointed and a command post set up to co-ordinate activities and keep in touch with the headquarters.
Special cruising squads with handpicked crews were constantly at the disposal of the picket dispatchers. They were captained by qualified leaders who carried credentials authorising them to supersede all other authority in the field. These squads were used for special assignments on their own, and they were sent into tense situations to marshal the union forces and lead the fight.
Assembling the mass forces for such extensive picketing proved to be no problem at all. As soon as the strike was called, new members poured into Local 574 from all sections of the trucking industry. In no time at all the union almost doubled its mid-April strength, reaching a figure of nearly 6,000.
The union’s approach to the unemployed workers brought spectacular results. Hundreds upon hundreds of jobless poured into the strike headquarters, volunteering their services, and they fought like tigers in the battles that followed.
Unorganised workers from other industries came forward. Together with women and men from other unions, they came to the strike headquarters at the end of their day’s work, ready to help in whatever way they could. Deep in the night they would finally stretch out wherever they found a place to get a little sleep before returning to their jobs.
A significant number of college students pitched in to help the union. All in all, picketers were on hand by the thousands.
A majority of the city’s population proved sympathetic to the strike and soon a spontaneous intelligence service was in operation. People telephoned reports of scab activities, and other information was mailed in anonymously, often with the postage having been paid by some unknowing employer. Typists, even personal secretaries, slipped in an extra carbon to make a copy for the union when a boss dictated something they felt the strikers should know about. Material arrived that had obviously been salvaged from wastebaskets, some of it coming from the offices of the Citizens Alliance, the bosses’ central strike-breaking organisation.
As matters now stood, the union had its strategy worked out, the necessary forces had been mobilised and picketing operations were planned with military precision. The next step was to begin the big push against the employers. Trucking operations had to remain tied up, despite all attempts to use scabs working under police protection, until the employers agreed to deal with the union.
At the outset the coal heavers were about the only ones who had experience in Local 574’s picketing techniques – in fact, many of the picketers had little or no previous experience at all. Whenever they found a truck on the streets they escorted it to the strike headquarters. Soon the surrounding area was crowded with a motley assemblage of vehicles loaded with milk, coal, tobacco, team and coffee, pigs, cattle and diverse other things, including a few loads of hay.
Policy briefings of the green picketers soon corrected this and thereafter when doubt arose about what to do in a given situation they communicated with headquarters instead of bringing the rig in. Farmers caught in the dragnet were especially indignant, but with the help of the Farmers Holiday Association the union worked out a policy agreeable to them, except in the case of the market gardeners with whom we were to have some difficulties.
For a couple of days there was trouble with a few filling stations that tried to operate. They attempted to play a cat-and-mouse game with picketers, closing down and then re-opening, until the special cruising squads stepped in and definitively settled the matter.
While all this was going on, talk about joining Local 574 spread rapidly among fleet drivers at the Yellow Cab Company. When the employer got wind of it he tried to set up a company union and the drivers reacted angrily. On the second day of Local 574’s walkout they sent a delegation to the strike committee asking that they be allowed to take a hand in the fight being waged by truck drivers and other workers.
Despite the existence of a miniscule local union of individual cab owners and their relief drivers, the strike committee agreed to sign up the Yellow Cab drivers. Cruising squads were sent out to notify all taxi drivers of a meeting at strike headquarters that night. Upon coming together they voted to go on strike, and within hours not a cab was to be found in operation.
As this episode graphically demonstrated, Local 574 had become a power to be reckoned with. Its effective picketing activities had become stabilised. Nothing moved on wheels without the union’s permission.
The scope and power of the strike had taken the trucking bosses and the Citizens Alliance leaders by surprise. While figuring out what to do, they had simply kept their trucks off the streets and the union had held sway with little opposition. Now, however, the workers were about to get a taste of the measures the capitalists resort to in a showdown – repressive force and violence.
The capitalist press stepped up its attacks on the union, twisting and distorting the facts about the strike. Proclaiming their intention to “keep the streets open”, the bosses recruited scab drivers and thugs. At the command of the Citizens Alliance, the cops jumped into action against the union. The court records showed only 18 arrests during the first two days of the strike. On the third and fourth days, by contrast, 151 picketers were hauled into court. Fines of as much as fifty dollars were levied against them and 17 got workhouse sentences of from ten to 45 days.
On 18 May 1934, a “citizens rally” of the employing class was held at which a “law and order” committee was chosen. As reported in a Citizens Alliance bulletin obtained by the union, the committee was set up to organise special deputies, acting in consultation with the sheriff and police chief. A special headquarters for the deputies was rented and equipped with a commissary and hospital, emulating the arrangements at the union’s strike headquarters.
In their first attempt to break the picket lines, the Citizens Alliance strategists resorted to a flank attack, using a peculiarity about the city market which had not received sufficient attention from the union. Small produce farmers rented stalls in the market area where they put their veges and fruit on display and corner grocers came to buy them. Since chain stores were not yet crowding out the little grocers, trade of this kind was quite brisk.
These farmers belonged to the Market Gardeners Association which had no connection with the Farmers Holiday movement. The union had made no direct arrangement with them and, as a result, they were unintentionally hurt by the strike. Aware that the market gardeners were quite upset about it, the Citizens Alliance strategists sought to use them as a front for a strikebreaking attack on the union.
Reports were published in the capitalist press that the “market gardeners have organised against the strike”. A convoy of farmers’ trucks was started towards the market, escorted by about 70 sheriff’s deputies. They were soon intercepted by cruising picket squads and an hour-long running battle followed along the route toward the market. Caught in the middle of a fight between the picketers and deputies, most of the farmers turned around and went home. Only three trucks got through to the market.
After this experience the union assured the Market Gardeners Association safe conduct to peddle their produce directly to small grocers throughout the town. In this roundabout way they could do business without injuring the strike and the union could keep the market closed without hurting them. The produce farmers accepted the proposal and became neutral, some even friendly, toward the strike.
Having failed in their attempt to use the farmers against the strike, the bosses came out in the open in their attack on the union. Scabs were used on the morning of Saturday 19 May to load two trucks at the Bearman Fruit Company in the market under the protection of a big gang of cops and hired thugs wielding clubs and blackjacks.
Union cruising squads were sent to reinforce the picket line and in the ensuing battle the barehanded strikers used whatever means they could hastily find to defend themselves. A number of the picketers were badly injured, as were a few of the cops and thugs.
A written account of the fight was later given to me by one of the picket captains, Jack Maloney:
We had quite a beef, several of us were clubbed by the police. I, for one, was dragged into Bearman’s unconscious… I was bleeding quite heavily from the head and… the cops took me out and when they let go of me at the wagon I fell down. In the ensuing melee the picketers picked me up… I was taken to the General Hospital, as were some of the other picketers. After the doctors had patched up my head I was placed in a room, waiting to go to jail. The business agent of the steamfitters union came to where I was sitting and said to the woman at the desk, “I will take this man.” We walked out into the hallway and he said, “Get the hell out of here quick.”
Jack’s experience shows how hospitals are used against strikers. When an injured picketer is brought in they notify the police and co-operate in holding the victim for arrest. That is one reason why the union had its own hospital at strike headquarters. Whenever possible our wounded were brought there for medical care. They were taken to regular hospitals only when necessary for treatment of serious injuries. By the time Saturday’s events were over, every picketer understood the need for this policy and thereafter it was scrupulously followed.
In the evening of that day a deadly trap was sprung on the union. It had been set in what was called Newspaper Alley at the loading docks of the two main dailies which were housed in neighbouring buildings. Reports began to reach strike headquarters about preparations to deliver bundles of newspapers under strong police protection. As picket dispatchers, Ray and I were feeling out the situation, not wanting a repetition of the morning’s experience at Bearman Fruit.
Then an agent provocateur got on the loudspeaker and asked for two or three truckloads of picketers, calling for women to pile into the trucks with the men. Up to then he had worked hard and loyally in the strike, ingratiating himself to a point where he was fully trusted. Pretending to be relaying orders from the dispatchers he sent the picketers to Newspaper Alley. It was an ambush in which they were beaten viciously by police clubs and by saps in the hands of the hired thugs.
Soon the picket trucks were back, carrying bleeding victims who were rushed into the hospital at strike headquarters. Some with broken bones, five of them women, had to be sent to a regular hospital for more complete care. A search of the provocateur and his car produced membership cards in various unions and Farmer-Labour Party clubs along with a Burns Detective Agency badge and credentials.
As word of the vicious attack got around, sympathetic chemists donated medical supplies to the union. Shocked doctors and nurses in the regular hospitals began to help spirit picketers away after they had been treated so that the cops couldn’t grab them.
Shortly after the Newspaper Alley victims had been brought in, two city police barged into the strike headquarters claiming that the picketers had kidnapped a scab driver. If he wasn’t handed over, they threatened, the strike leaders would be arrested and, clubs at the ready, they started for the picket dispatcher’s office. All the pentup wrath against police brutality was vented on them. Within minutes they lay unconscious in front of the headquarters where they stayed until an ambulance came for them in response to a call put in by the union.
In its Saturday evening edition, the Minneapolis Journal said, “Fierce rioting broke out Saturday as 425 special officers went into action to break the Truck Drivers strike.” A common trick of the capitalist press is illustrated here. With a simple wiggle of the editor’s pencil, criminal police assaults on peaceful picketers are transformed into “fierce rioting” by the victims. Also to be noted is the flat statement of the intention “to break the Truck Drivers strike”.
The Sunday morning papers dealt with the strike in a similar vein, claiming that hundreds were volunteering as special police. All day long, late into the evening, radio broadcasts continued the scare campaign started by the newspapers. By the day’s end, over 2,000 deputies were reported mobilised.
In reality, according to official reports obtained later by the union, only 544 deputies were enrolled as of Monday, mainly among such types as businessmen, professionals and salesmen, with a few workers being suckered in. These facts, of course, did not deter the authors of the published reports, which were deliberately exaggerated in order to throw fright into the strikers by making them believe that the whole town was mobilising against them.
Contrary to the bosses’ hopes and expectations, the strikers were not exactly paralysed with fear at the prospect of facing an army of cops and deputies. Instead they began to show the positive side of the workers’ illusions about capitalist democracy.
The negative side of their beliefs lies in the assumption that they have inviolable democratic rights under capitalist rule. It is a mistaken assumption that can remain intact only until they try to exercise such rights in the class struggle. When that happens the workers learn that they have been the victims of an illusion. Yet they still feel entitled to the rights involved and they will fight all the harder to make them a reality. A negative misconception then becomes transformed into a positive aspiration, as was about to happen in Minneapolis.
Up to now the workers had gone about their activities bare-handed. But they found that attempts to exercise their right to peacefully picket were being repressed with police clubs and blackjacks. They decided to take steps to enforce their democratic right to prevent scabs from grabbing their jobs.
It would have been a tactical blunder for members of an isolated vanguard to attempt measures such as the strikers were about to take. They would only get themselves clobbered by the police. In this case, however, the means used in self-defence had their origin in a spontaneous mass mood that had been generated by capitalist repression. Since these measures were appropriately limited in the given situation to matching the police club for club, the tactics employed were completely valid.
All day Sunday the strikers equipped themselves for battle. Baseball bats appeared. Garden hoses were cut into short lengths, lead washers were tamped into the hollow and the ends closed with friction tape to make an improvised sap. Volunteers from the Carpenters Union sawed two-by-twos into club lengths. A sympathisers came to the strike headquarters pulling a child’s coaster wagon loaded with bannister posts taken from the stairway at home, his wife steadying the load.
To make improvised helmets, heavy cardboard was stuffed inside the sweatband of hats. A fellow striker would be asked to test it out with a club, and if the result was negative, more cardboard would be added.
In the fighting that was to follow a division of labour was made. Men did the picketing where combat was involved while the women helped the strike in a whole series of ways. Most of the headquarter’s functions were taken over by women. They picketed the newspaper buildings to denounce the boss press for its lies about the strike. Protest actions were conducted by them at City Hall. And they went to other unions soliciting support.
Before long, delegation after delegation from other unions began appearing at the strike headquarters asking what they could do to help. Jack Maloney gave a description that reflects the general mood in Local 574’s army:
To me at least (and I was very young, twenty-two), the employers were ready and determined to kill if needed to maintain their control. I was determined to make them prove it and so it was with so many men at that time. They knew what to expect on Monday or the next day and they were ready to “go for broke”. At Bearman’s the pickets had a sample of what to expect. The cops won that battle but on Monday the pickets gave their receipt for Saturday.
In the Monday confrontation, two organised and disciplined forces were to face each other, club against club, in a battle fought along military lines.
We didn’t know how many different attempts the bosses would make to begin moving trucks on Monday, but a major effort could be expected in the market district. Perishable foods were handled there, and this gave the Citizens Alliance propaganda cover for a strikebreaking attack. In fact, the union was receiving tips from friendly sources about plans to open the market houses on Monday. Since, from the union’s viewpoint, the market was a good battleground, we were not disturbed by the news. We simply concentrated on preparations for a fight there.
A coffee station for cruising pickets had been set up in the AFL building situated right at the edge of the market district. An unusual coming and going of picketers at this place began early Sunday evening. On the surface it seemed to reflect increased cruising squad activity, but of each carload of five or six who entered the building only two or three came back out. In this surreptitious manner about 600 men had been concentrated in the AFL hall before morning, all armed with clubs.
Around 4am Monday small picket lines appeared in front of the market houses. Larger numbers of picketers, their union buttons temporarily concealed, fanned out in strategic positions around the district. An example of their ingenuity was shown by Steve Glaser, a short, stocky warehouseman who walked on a stiff leg. He looked quite harmless before the fight started. Then he jerked a big club out of his pants leg and moved around with great agility.
In addition to these forces a reserve of some 900 was kept at the strike headquarters ready to move at a moment’s notice. All in all, the union had a strong army deployed for battle and it had been done in a way that would give the cops some surprises.
Several hundred uniformed cops were on hand in the market, along with comparable numbers of special deputies. The cops were on the prod, feeling cocky after their Saturday exploits. Among the deputies was a wealthy playboy garbed in a polo hat. Like the rest of his ilk, he anticipated having a bit of a lark as he went about the business of clubbing down working class sheep.
About 9am scab drivers backed six trucks up to the loading dock at the Gamble Robinson Company. Large numbers of picketers quickly gathered there and, as a loaded truck started to move out, a cop slugged a striker. The union men charged in and the fight was on.
With the cops deployed on the assumption that they knew the union’s strength, the 600 picketers waiting at the AFL hall were ordered into battle and they moved out in military formation. Fighting soon spread to three or four other market houses where preparations were being made to open for business. Cops and deputies alike were falling, amid cheers from among the many bystanders, some of whom pitched in to help the strikers.
With the workers challenging them, club against club, most of the deputies took to their heels, leaving the uniformed cops on their own. More police were rushed in from posts in the main business district. The union quickly countered this move by summoning hundreds of reserves from the strike headquarters.
In an act of desperation, the cops drew their guns, threatening to shoot. But they seemed hesitant to resort to such extreme measures, and that gave us a little time to do something about it. As matters stood they were pretty well bunched up with an open field of fire against the strikers. To solve the problem they had to be scattered among the picketers. The remaining reserves at strike headquarters were loaded into trucks, the lead truck driven by Bob Bell, a huge man and utterly fearless. He was told to rush to the markets, ignoring all traffic rules, and to drive right into the midst of the cops. Bob did just that. The picketers jumped out of the truck onto the cops who, being unable to shoot without hitting one another, had to continue fighting with clubs. After that, police chief Mike Johannes decided to call it a day.
No less than 30 uniformed cops and a number of deputies had to be hospitalised. Union wounded were taken to strike headquarters where all were taken care of, except for a few with broken bones who needed regular hospital treatment. Despite our casualties we were in a favourable position. In a three-hour slugfest the union had fought the trained police to a draw, and not a single truck had been moved.
As warfare raged in the market, 700 members of the women’s auxiliary marched on city hall. Crowds gathered on the sidewalks to watch them pass with their Local 574 banner at the head of the column and many onlookers joined the procession. When they got to city hall their way was barred by nervous cops with guns. Finally, a small delegation was allowed to go in to present their demands upon mayor A.G. Bainbridge. Meanwhile the rest of the women carried on a protest demonstration outside the building.
Bainbridge refused to see the delegation but the evening papers reported their demands: that the mayor fire police chief Johannes, withdraw all deputies and stop interfering with the pickets.
Trade unionists throughout the city were enraged about the police brutality and they were stimulated by Local 574’s heroic fight. This led to a highly unusual course of action in the building trades. Demands to call a strike arose in the ranks, this time not in their narrow craft interests, but in solidarity with the embattled truck drivers. The pressure became so great that officials of the Building Trades Councils recommended a sympathy strike. Craft by craft, the building trade unions voted to call a holiday for the duration of the drivers’ walkout.
One of these unions, the Electrical Workers, marched in a body to strike headquarters and put themselves at the disposal of Local 574’s strike committee. This action had been inspired by two members of the union, Oscar Coover and Chester Johnson, both of whom also belonged to the Communist League.
Although sympathy strikes were more or less limited to the building trades, financial and moral support for Local 574 was voted by the executive board of the AFL Central Labor Union.
Early Monday afternoon, police chief Johannes ordered the whole police force on 24-hour duty, and he asked the American Legion to provide 1,500 deputies.
The “Citizens Committee for Law & Order” rushed a request to businessmen for help in recruiting deputies “personally known to you for their integrity”. The written request stated: “Every citizen of this type possible must be deputised either as a special police officer or deputy sheriff.” Having been frustrated in its first major strikebreaking attempt, the Citizens Alliance was desperately looking for more police muscle, still confident that the union could be beaten into submission.
Tuesday morning the market district was filled with people. Spectators came by the thousands, packing the sidewalks and peering from the windows and roofs of buildings, hoping to see a repetition of Monday’s fighting. A local radio station had portable equipment on the scene with an announcer ready to broadcast a blow-by-blow account of the day’s happenings.
Local 574 was there in force, supported by many volunteer picketers from other unions. During the night the battleground had been studied to determine the best strategic placement of the union forces. Little more than that could be done, however, concerning overall guidance of the fighting because of the large numbers of people present. The union cause would have to rest entirely on the readiness of the strikers to give battle and the ability of their picket captains to lead them. There proved to be no cause for concern on either count.
Most of the city’s uniformed cops were present as well as several hundred deputies. Some of the deputies had got a bellyful on Monday and failed to show up again, but these were replaced by new ones who had been recruited overnight. Since the deputies had run away the day before, uniformed cops had now been put in charge of each contingent in an effort to make them stand and fight. All told, the repressive force numbered over 1,500.
The morning paper had announced that the produce houses were going to move perishables, and a few scabs surrounded by cops started to load a truck. Unlike Monday’s events, however, they didn’t get to the point of trying to move the rig. Tension was so thick that one could almost touch it in the air and anything could trigger the pending battle. Suddenly the sound of smashing glass was heard, as someone threw a produce crate through a window, and before the echo died away a free-for-all had started.
The picketers charged the deputies first and soon noticed that many uniformed cops were tending to hang back. Obviously these cops resented being deserted by the deputies on Monday, and they didn’t seem to relish another clubbing match.
Sensing this mood among some of the cops, the picketers continued to concentrate mainly on the deputies. Soon even the bystanders were getting in licks in support of the strikers. Finding themselves mousetrapped, many deputies dropped their clubs and ripped off their badges, trying with little success to seek anonymity in the hostile crowd.
By this time the picketers were also zeroing in on uniformed cops who had got into the thick of the fight. The scene of battle spread as cops and deputies alike were driven from the market. The deputies were chased back to their headquarters, the strikers mopping up stragglers along the way.
In less than an hour after the battle started there wasn’t a cop to be seen in the market, and picketers were directing traffic in the now peaceful district. For good measure all police were run out of the vicinity of the strike headquarters and they were kept away for the duration of the walkout.
Injuries in the fighting were heavy on both sides and two special deputies were killed, one of them a member of the board of directors of the Citizens Alliance.
While the struggle was going on in the market, a telegram came from Teamsters president Daniel Tobin ordering the union to seek arbitration on the dispute.
Considerable nervousness had developed in the upper echelons of the local AFL officialdom about the course the strike was taking. So they decided to make a bid for a truce in the fighting and try to bring the situation under governor Olson’s control. Toward noon on Tuesday a joint committee from the AFL Central Labor Union, Building Trades Council and Teamsters Joint Council called on police chief Johannes, asking him to call off the cops and stop trying to move trucks. He took the committee to see sheriff John Wall, and there it was agreed to call in the governor.
Olson soon arrived, bringing along general E.A. Walsh, commander of the National Guard. Representatives of Local 574 and the trucking employers were then brought into the discussion.
The meeting was told that the government’s Labor Board was readying a proposal for settlement of the strike, and after some argument a 24-hour truce was agreed upon. It provided for suspension of truck traffic and the complete closing of the market place. In return, Local 574 agreed to suspend picketing except for observers to see that the truce was carried out. Representatives of the bosses and Local 574 signed the truce.
Before the truce period had ended, Johannes announced that trucks would be moved under police protection. Local 574 quickly responded with a statement that picketing would be restarted. Mayor Bainbridge then called on Olson to mobilise the National Guard and the governor promptly did so, asking at the same time for a 24-hour extension of the truce. Local 574 denounced the calling up of the Guard as an act of intimidation and demanded that it be demobilised.
Olson was told that extension of the truce would be acceptable to the union only if there was a continued ban on all truck traffic by the struck firms. The governor decided to keep the troops off the streets, the initial terms of the truce were extended and a basis was established for some form of contract negotiations to begin.
Due to a regional peculiarity within a nation under firm capitalist rule, a local condition approximating dual power had temporarily arisen. The authorities could exercise control over the class struggle then raging only if they proceeded in a manner acceptable to Local 574 and its allies.
A combination of factors had brought about this situation. Being fearful about relying on Olson to get their strikebreaking done, the bosses had decided to depend on the local police apparatus, which was controlled by old-line capitalist politicians. However, the cops proved incapable of doing the dirty job so the mayor then tried to put Olson on the spot by demanding help from the National Guard.
This demand could not be met by the governor withour raising a danger to him from another quarter. If he ordered the troops into naked strikebreaking action, it would jeopardise vital political support that he enjoyed from the labour movement. Olson was sharply reminded of the political threat from this quarter when Local 574 promptly denounced his action in calling up the Guard and demanded that it be demobilised. He decided to back away from any idea of using the troops and this kept things at a standoff in local class relations.
If a comparable situation had existed nationally, what began as a simple trade union action could have broadened into a sweeping social conflict leading toward a revolutionary confrontation for state power. As matters stood, however, the conflict did not reach beyond the city limits. On that narrow scale nothing more could be accomplished than to fight to a finish in the battle for union recognition.
Considering the existing conditions, a victory on that issue alone would be a matter of no small consequence. The oppressive open shop rule of the Citizens Alliance would be definitively broken, and the way could be opened to make Minneapolis a union town.
This perspective was advanced to the workers at a massive labour rally held on Wednesday evening, 23 May. Over 5,000 were on hand before the scheduled starting time and people kept coming by the hundreds. Those present included women and men, young and old, employed and jobless, organised and unorganised. Together they made up a cross section of the working class. When the speaking programme began a hush fell over the throng, people straining to hear what the strike leaders had to say.
“If we don’t get full union recognition and an acceptable settlement,” branch president Bill Brown declared, “Local 574 will continue the strike and we will call upon all the workers to support us.” The huge audience roared its approval.