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Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis…

Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934

by Bryan D. Palmer

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Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers' Strikes of 1934

By Bryan D. Palmer

A Review and Commentary by E. Tanner

(Part Two)

Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 1052 (19 September).

At the time of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) and its brand of agrarian populism largely dominated Minnesota politics. A proper appreciation of the capitalist loyalties of FLP governor Floyd B. Olson was essential to charting a course for workers struggle. In his 1937 book American City: A Rank-and-File History, Charles Rumford Walker noted that 56 percent of the state’s population was foreign-born, and he discussed at length the FLP’s Scandinavian-derived plebeian base. These working people were strongly influenced by the Social Democratic parties that had awakened the proletariat in their native countries.

The Scandinavian foreign-language federations had played a major role in the Minnesota Socialist Party (SP). Nationally, the reformist, social-democratic SP had been suffused from its founding with a strong dose of petty-bourgeois radicalism that derived from the Progressive and Populist movements. Among its members, the class line separating petty-bourgeois populism from unambiguously working-class political and social organizations was not widely understood.

This remained the case even after significant elements of the Scandinavian federations transferred their allegiance to the Communist movement. (The Finnish Federation, by far the largest, comprised roughly half of the national Communist membership in 1922). The confusion over the class nature of farmer-based populism was compounded by the fact that the Minnesota FLP allowed for bloc affiliation of trade unions, which gave it the appearance of a working-class organization. However, the FLP’s program clearly reflected its populist origins and its constitution carefully limited trade-union voting power to prevent labor from controlling the party.

The young American Communist movement, of which the CLA’s founding cadres were part, was almost shipwrecked on the shoals of farmer-laborism. In the 1924 presidential elections, the Communist Party (CP) came close to giving support to the Farmer-Labor candidacy of the former Republican governor of Wisconsin, Robert La Follette. Only the intervention of Leon Trotsky in Moscow pulled the party back from this opportunist course. But the Communist International, which was then at the beginning of its bureaucratic degeneration, muddied the waters by insisting that the American Communists continue to call for a two-class party and work within the Farmer-Labor movement. The story of this near-debacle is laid out in the introduction to the Prometheus Research Library’s book James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism, Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 [1992].
Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers' Strikes of 1934

by Bryan D. Palmer

A Review and Commentary by E. Tanner

(Part One)

“The most important of all prerequisites for the development of a militant labor movement is the leaven of principled communists.” So wrote James P. Cannon, a leader of the Communist League of America (CLA), toward the end of the second of three truckers strikes that convulsed the city of Minneapolis in 1934. Bryan Palmer’s Revolutionary Teamsters, an in-depth study of those strikes—which were led by CLA members—brings this lesson home.

That spring and summer, the Minneapolis Teamster strikes overlapped with a similarly hard-fought 83-day strike by West Coast longshoremen and maritime unions, a battle that culminated in a four-day general strike in San Francisco. Both strikes were part of a wave of labor struggle that swept the country as the working class, shaking off the paralysis that had accompanied the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, began to fight. What distinguished these two strikes, along with one by auto parts workers in Toledo, from other 1934 labor battles is that they won big, establishing union representation for masses of previously unorganized workers and opening the road to the upsurge later in the decade that forged the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Key to the victory of all three strikes was the leadership provided by “reds”—labor militants who considered themselves socialist or communist.
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