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Brian Palmer’s Revolutionary Teamsters shows the contemporary relevance of a major episode of revolutionary trade-unionism from the 1930s, argues Richard Allday

Revolutionary Teamsters

Brian D. Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934 (Haymarket Press 2014), Historical Materialism, volume 53, 352pp.

An informative and well-researched book,Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, by Bryan D Palmer, deserves to be read widely by anyone interested in the contemporary labour movement – in North America or anywhere else.

Insofar as it is a history of the labour movement and the associated upheavals in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St Paul in the 1930s, there is little to be said beyond that it is well researched. The story of the teamsters’ rebellion is widely documented, and has been told by its leading actors (notably Farrell Dobbs himself). Palmer adds little to our knowledge of events, although his rigorous use of primary sources, and interrogation of differing interpretations is admirable.

What makes this book stand out, and makes it of real value to activists in the labour and wider social movements is that it is clearly (and explicitly) intended not primarily as a work of history, but as a work of agitation and education for a generation of activists whose sole link with, or interest in, the 1930s may be that their grandparents were around then.

His creative application of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, intended by Trotsky as an argument that socialist revolution can occur in relatively underdeveloped economies, becomes in the hands of Palmer an exemplar of dialectical analysis applied to a specific social conflict in a defined period and locality. This allows a far clearer understanding of why 1930s Minnesota provided such fertile ground for a union drive among unorganized truck drivers, and why they were able to enjoy such wide support from industrial and agricultural workers in the area.

He also makes explicit the necessity of the subjective ‘will to act’ existing in the area. There was a core of Trotskyist activists with a conscious analysis of the potential for organizing, but facing definite limitations forced. This situation enabled this group to produce the most effective strategy to advance the interests of their class collectively, without which there would have been no teamster rebellion.

This is a crucial lesson of the book; that the objective circumstances for social revolt exist anywhere and everywhere, but that this means nothing unless there are persons with the will to act, and the will to analyse. His imaginative use of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is not intended to demonstrate the ‘exceptional’ nature of the Minneapolis truck strikes, but the exact opposite; that the ultimate determinant of the possibility for working-class progress is the existence of individuals acting collectively, analyzing the concrete circumstances, and acting on that analysis.  

This alone would make the book worth reading (and re-reading), but Palmer gives us the added bonus of a critical analysis of not only the gains of the teamsters’ rebellion, but of the missed opportunities and the pitfalls that eventually led to the demise of this current of class-conscious, revolutionary, working-class agitators.

On the plus side, he brings a welcome focus on the strike leadership’s ability to see the strike as an industrial struggle within a wider social context: this allowed them to appreciate the significance of welcoming and developing support from extra-industrial arenas. The development of an unemployed workers’ organization proved a valuable weapon in opposing the bosses’ (ideological and physical) defence of scabbing. Possibly even more significant in the long term was the understanding of the need to overcome social divisions within the working class; the formation of the Women’s’ Auxiliary finally, in this book, starts to get the historical respect it deserves.

He also points out the double-edged sword offered by the relationship between the strike leadership and the social democratic Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, and suggests the lack of a clear critique of the FLP (and its public figurehead, State Governor Floyd B. Olson) was the root cause of an otherwise inexplicable, naïve reliance on this tendency.

He also explains how the very success of the ‘over the road’ organizing campaign, with its rapid expansion of trade-union organization, produced problems for the revolutionaries. The revolutionary leadership of the Minneapolis teamsters had to work with, and through, existing union leaderships in the Northwest, who shared neither the political acuity, nor the political vision, of Farrell Dobbs or the Dunne brothers, and the other Minneapolis leaders. The consequence was that when the forces of the state, and the Teamster Union bureaucracy moved against the ‘Trotskyites’ of the Twin Cities, there was no rooted opposition to the attack outside the Trotskyist hometown.

This is not to criticize Farell Dobbs and company; they understood that timing is everything in politics, and that ‘there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries’. It is to the credit of the Minneapolis Trotskyists that they were not prepared to live their lives in the shallows, but as Palmer points out, their accommodation to the politics of their union collaborators, whilst making cooperation easier in the short term, laid the seeds of their isolation later.

Palmer quotes Trotsky’s explicit (and prescient) warning to Dobbs and the group, that accommodating to a purely trade-union consciousness, and failing to propose a ‘Bolshevik policy’ carries within it the seeds of its own defeat. Or as John L. Lewis of the Mineworkers put it, when criticized for employing ‘socialists’ as organisers in the new CIO, on the grounds that they fomented revolution, Lewis replied, “Who gets the rabbit, the hunter or the dog?” – a cautionary tale right up to today.

On so many fronts then, Palmer has written a thoroughly valuable book. By creatively applying a dialectical analysis of 1930s Midwest America, he offers lessons for organizing precarious and unorganized workers today. By analysing the strengths of the Minneapolis Teamsters’ struggles, he reiterates the valuable lessons drawn by Dobbs among others; by analysing the weaknesses and shortcomings of those struggles (always in a comradely and constructive way), he offers us the chance to avoid the mistakes in our future struggles. He makes clear the distinctions between a reformist, a syndicalist, and a Marxist strategy in relation to trade-union work. He emphasizes the necessity of understanding that trade-union battles take place within the wider context of civil society, and that social movements, and social divisions, can make or break successful workers’ resistance.

So whether you are a Corbyn supporter in the Labour Party; a trade-union activist in the workplace; a campaigner against austerity; or just someone who rejects the Mammon-worshipping society that the Tories are trying to construct, this book has something for you. If it is too expensive for you (and it is not cheap) then get your local library to order it for you, while they still exist.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.