Sep 262017

  by Bill Onasch

The Opposite of Writer’s Block

It’s always been difficult choosing topics for the WIR. I post upwards of 100 articles a week, from both commercial and movement sources, on our companion Monday-Friday Labor Advocate news blog. That’s more a smorgasbord than a menu.

But sometimes without warning I choose to expand a single story to include some lessons from the past. Next time I’ll return to the normal assortment of issues but for now I ask your indulgence as I recall events from my youth that qualify as history for most readers.

A Pleasant Surprise

Unfortunately, I saw it only after publishing the last WIR. When I checked out the Workday Minnesota website last Tuesday there was this prominent photo of Vincent Raymond Dunne being “escorted” by a squad of very young and nervous National Guardsmen. It was a scene from the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes when the Farmer-Labor Party Governor declared martial law and interned strike leaders and activists in the fresh air venue of the State Fairgrounds. Known as Ray, or V.R., Dunne was a central leader of that strike and of the Trotskyist socialists who were the chief strategists in its ultimate victory.

An excellent film not only chronicling the Minneapolis strikes but also setting the world economic and political context in which it was waged–aptly titled Labor’s Turning Point–was produced by John De Graaf in 1981. Farrell Dobbs, a socialist strike leader who became the principal officer of the Teamsters Local wrote a definitive history, Teamster Rebellion. Bryan Palmer, a Canadian socialist historian and biographer of James P Cannon, published extracts from his Cannon research about the strikes, Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike of 1934 that is well worth reading.

It was my privilege as a young member of the Socialist Workers Party to spend some time with Ray after I transferred from Chicago to the Twin Cities in 1965 to help expand party efforts in building the rapidly growing anti-Vietnam War movement.

While Ray didn’t do much writing, his memory remained sharp to the end and he was an excellent source of “oral history.” But that had to be on his terms.

In the mid-Sixties Ray was ensconced in a comfortable chair in the kitchen of the party headquarters at 704 Hennepin just about every day. He was eager to talk to “the youth”—but mainly wanted details about the party’s current work. I pledged to keep him up to date on the antiwar movement that was his main interest. But I also requested, and often received, discussion about various questions from back in the day.

I wasn’t shocked to see this photo reprinted on a labor website. The ’34 strikes remain an honored part of labor’s heritage in Minneapolis and there are big celebrations of its victory every few years. Ray’s grandchildren—active in the IWW as their grandfather once was—are always participants.

But my curiosity was aroused by an accompanying headline One Actor Show Portrays Leader of 1934 Teamsters Strikes. I was downright surprised to see the lone actor was Howard Petrick. The lad I knew as Howie in the mid-Sixties in Minneapolis when we were both trying to learn something from Ray Dunne and other “old-timers,” later became a national antiwar hero as Pfc Howard Petrick.

There were many who resisted the draft, or moved to Canada during the Vietnam war. Rather than these individual solutions the SWP wanted to build mass collective action to secure a just end to the war.

Prior to the Second World War, the party adopted a Proletarian Military Policy. Basically, that meant that as long as the majority of working class youth accepted conscription it was our duty to join them–while continuing to exercise our democratic rights as citizen soldiers to oppose the unjust war. SWP members were killed and wounded in battle and at sea.

But that policy had to be adjusted after the Truman administration established a list of “subversive” organizations that included most left groups, among them the SWP. We didn’t ask to be removed from the list—we rejected its concept as an unconstitutional political witch-hunt.

Part of the paperwork of induction in to the Army was the infamous “Form 98” which required either affirming or denying membership in any group on the government’s enemies list. We wouldn’t agree to being “subversive” but denying our membership could lead to perjury charges. We chose instead to return it blank on the grounds that our political views were not relevant to our service as soldiers.

What usually happened at that point during the Vietnam era was the induction process was halted pending further investigation. The Army would check with the FBI and when their informers verified our politics we were told our service in the Army would not be in “the best interests of the United States.” We would be reclassified as 4-F, a designation that usually meant being physically or mentally unfit–not a good thing to put on a job application. That was how they dealt with me.

Pfc Petrick

But under pressure to continually replenish hundreds of thousands of conscripts for two-years of service every year some things fell through the cracks. Breach of paperwork protocol led to Petrick being inducted and sent to Ft Hood, Texas—named after a Confederate general–to become a soldier.

After completing the rigors of basic, Petrick was assigned to further training as a cook. That proved to be fortuitous because, as I can testify, he already had both interest and skills in food preparation. His C.O. was pleased with his work, gave him several commendations, and hoped to keep him as permanent party to help train future cooks.

But while becoming a model soldier Petrick did not neglect his mission as an antiwar socialist. Off duty, he discussed his views with fellow GIs and distributed antiwar and socialist literature. On weekend leaves, he started participating in civilian antiwar demonstrations in Killeen and Austin. That, at last, caught the attention of Army Intelligence.

In April, 1967, trained investigators searched Petrick’s personal belongings and discovered his stash—of literature. They assigned an Army lawyer who advised him to prepare for a court-martial on charges of making disloyal statements, subversion, and creating disaffection.

Those were serious charges that could have led to time in the stockade, loss of pay, and dishonorable discharge. Fortunately, Petrick didn’t have to rely on his Army attorney. He received powerful support from two sources.

First and foremost was SWP and Young Socialist Alliance efforts in organizing a Committee to Defend the Rights of Pfc Howard Petrick. The committee letterhead listed dozens of prominent sponsors including Julian Bond, Ruth Gage Colby, Noam Chomsky and Staughton Lynd. They also mobilized support from virtually every component of the growing antiwar movement.

Petrick also had a family connection to the biggest UE Local at the GE plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. That union had considerable experience in fighting witch-hunts and they helped in getting the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee to assign two top constitutional rights lawyers to represent Petrick. They also arranged for a labor reporter for the Wall Street Journal to write a substantial article that caused the Army some embarrassment.

The Army soon backed off their threat of court-martial saying they would instead discharge him—hinting it would be less than honorable. Petrick–citing his unblemished service record—replied he would accept nothing less than honorable discharge. Anxious to end the fight, after some haggling Petrick was able to return to civilian life with his veteran benefits intact.

Howard Petrick was neither the first nor last antiwar GI to run afoul of the Brass. But his model defense effort was an early victory for GI rights that had a lasting impact.

In the early Eighties a new generation of SWP leadership carried out a big transformation in the program, strategy, and internal democracy of the party. Dozens of members—including me–were expelled. But that’s a story for another time.

Like too many old comrades, I had lost track of Howard Petrick over the years and was pleased to learn he was not only alive and well but passing on the lessons he had learned from Ray Dunne to new generations.


One of the venues for Howard Petrick’s performances was the St Paul East Side Freedom Library. They are hosting another special performance event A Resisters Handbook October 21. It is written and performed by Javier Morillo, president of Service Employees International Union Local 26 in the Twin Cities. Details here.

That’s all for this week.

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