by Bill Onasch
The editor may take a break but the news doesn’t. Without even getting in to the atrocity of the Israeli invasion of Gaza, or the shooting down of an airliner by as yet unidentified bad guys in Ukraine–well covered by the mass media–I posted about three dozen stories in the resumption of the news updates this morning on our companion Labor Advocate blog.
A Moving Tribute to the Past Inspires Today’s Fighters
My road trip to Minnesota was not a vacation but, despite the physical challenges shared with most of my age group, it was nevertheless exhilarating. I was there to attend the observance of the eightieth anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes. I was also there for the seventieth and seventy-fifth celebrations and I hope I’m available for the eighty-fifth.
A couple of useful brief overviews of the pivotal strikes were written for the occasion, by an old friend Peter Rachleff, On strike! 80 years ago Minneapolis goes union, and a series of articles in Socialist Action by a newer and younger friend, Lisa Luinenburg. There was also a good effort made by a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter.
There’s been plenty of good appreciations of this historic victory written over the years. It was a focus of Charles Rumford Walker’s 1937 excellent class history of Minneapolis, American City. The chapters devoted to it in James P Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism give valuable insight of how the strategy and tactics were developed. The most widely read and highly respected book by a central strike leader is Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs.
I was privileged in my youth to make the acquittance of Dobbs and Harry DeBoer, who was wounded in the same police massacre that killed two and wounded dozens of others. I was also able to spend many hours of discussion about 1934 and much more with Vincent R Dunne–who liked to be called Ray–one of three brothers who played a crucial role in building Teamster Power that transformed Minneapolis from an open shop town in to a bastion of militant unionism. Ray was one of the old-timers who helped me to decide once and for all to sign up for the duration on the just side of the class war.
I am very pleased that an important book about 1934 with much new information and analysis is now available, ‘Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike of 1934,’ by Bryan D. Palmer. I first ran across Palmer’s prolific historical writing through the first volume of his biography, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 and I later heard him speak about that book and briefly met him at a conference in Toronto a few years ago. He took a break in preparing the second volume about Cannon to get his latest out in time for the anniversary.
As C Wright Mills professed to do, Palmer, who is a professor at Trent University in Ontario, is objective without claiming to be detached. Like Peter Rachleff, Palmer is a diligent, respected scholar who is also immersed in the living working class movement. I heard him speak at four different events in Minneapolis and he did a splendid job, including responding to questions. Every WIR reader should read this book. I got my copy at MayDay Books in Minneapolis and it’s available from Powells online if you can’t find it at your local bookstore.
There were five events scheduled over four days of celebration. I was able to attend four.
* On Thursday evening there was an SRO audience in a big meeting room at the Minneapolis Central Library for a panel discussion “A Fresh Look at the Minneapolis Teamster Strikes After 80 Years.” Moderated by Peter Rachleff, panelists included Minnesota historian Mary Wingerd, who wrote the introduction to a new reprinted edition of American City; William Millikan, author of Union Against Unions, a history of the bosses’ nefarious Citizens Alliance; David Thorstad, who became a close associate of Ray Dunne during his final years; and Bryan Palmer. A lively discussion after the presentations was concluded only by the closing of the building.
* Time got a little tight on Friday as many Remember 1934 activists joined in a 4PM emergency protest against the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Perhaps as many as a thousand turned out on short notice from the Palestinian community and the peace movement. We had to leave before the end to hustle to the University campus for a special addition to AFSCME Local 3800’s regular labor film series that presented footage from not only the Minneapolis strikes but other victories around the same time in San Francisco and Toledo–and a huge, but ultimately defeated national textile strike the same year. There were comments after the films by Joe Burns, author of two excellent books, Reviving the Strike and Strike Back, as well as Bryan Palmer.
* In past commemorations local Teamsters leadership stayed at arm’s length. Not this year. Teamsters Local 120, now a mega-local that absorbed the Local that had won in 1934, gave substantial support to the Remember 1934 Committee. On Saturday, they held a picnic for their members and then later marched from the Star-Tribune printing plant to the site of the Bloody Friday police massacre–which was also the venue for the Remember Street Fair, running from 4-10PM. The Local 120 contingent was escorted by a brass marching band and a fifty-foot semi-rig and upon arrival gave their greetings. As with two previous Street Fairs at that location in 2004 and 2009, the stage was a revolving mixture of history lessons, remembrances of specific strike participants, poetry, and music ranging from hip-hop to Aztec dance. It was a family friendly affair with games and balloons for the kids. Tables offered literature and a truck offered food to the several hundred coming and going.
* The Sunday Family Picnic Gathering, in a lovely setting in Minnehaha Park, appropriately began with a lunch–donated and served by the UFCW. During the informal milling around it was learned that there were several ATU members present–so, of course, we had to have some group photos. As the chow line thinned out, the Picnic MC, Randy Furst invited us to sit for some professional quality music. A couple of cats closer to my age range–Pete Watercott and Neil Gelvin–did a lively fiddle and guitar warm-up for social justice troubadour Larry Long. There was more music later from the Twin Cities Labor Chorus and the Wisconsin Sing Along Group–who especially like to sing in their state’s Capitol.
There were a number of brief speakers who surprisingly obeyed the timekeeper when she held up her STOP sign. Some were involved in current class battles such as the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha (CTUL) who just won an important breakthrough in bargaining rights for Target’s contract janitorial service. A sister from SEIU’s home health care workers organizing committee spoke optimistically about a representation election covering thousands of these low wage, no benefit workers next month. Peter Rachleff talked about the project for a East Side Freedom Library targeting immigrant workers in St Paul–which I will say more about in the next WIR. There were remarks by Bryan Palmer and Dave Riehle on the relevance of the lessons of 1934 to such struggles today.
But the centerpiece of the program was Respecting the Descendants. There are no known living 1934 Teamsters strikers. But most of those six thousand strikers left behind some progeny. Most may not know of their family connection with this historic struggle but patient hard work located dozens who did and more than fifty were present at the Picnic. Each were introduced and some made brief remarks. They were all given a framed design for a memorial marker to be placed at the site of Bloody Friday. Even the most cynical among the audience could not avoid being deeply moved with the honoring of these descendants who were proud of their connection.
I was unable to make the final event Sunday evening–a meeting at MayDay Books for Bryan Palmer to speak more extensively about his book. From what I hear it was well attended, with serious discussion. Some books were sold and signed by the author.
I can’t do more than this superficial report of the events within the confines of a single WIR. I want to stress that this was no ritual observance. No body got paid for the countless hours of work that went in to this successful celebration. No body’s career was advanced by recalling the days when workers, at least briefly, chased the cops off the streets of Minneapolis. The folks I know who helped pull it together did so out of a deeply held conviction that the lessons of our 1934 ancestors can help us to revive a fighting working class movement. And that is a precondition for tackling all the overarching threats we face today. In future editions I will raise some of my thoughts about how components of the 1934 heritage can be intelligently applied in action.
I can’t close without expressing gratitude to my long-time friends Gladys McKenzie and Dave Riehle who, despite being up to their ears in time sensitive responsibilities, graciously put me up in their home and made my duty a pleasure.
That’s all for this week.
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