In 1934 three mighty strikes brought the bosses and bankers to their knees and ushered in a new era of labour-capital relations in the United States writes Sean Ledwith
Commemorations are taking place this summer in the US to recall the 80th anniversary of three remarkable outbreaks of proletarian resistance which remain as beacons of the militancy and innovation of that country's working class.
Three major US cities were brought to a standstill throughout the summer of 1934 in scenes that foreshadowed the massive Occupy demonstrations that would erupt in our own time. The strikes stand as inspirational responses by American workers in defiance of the austerity imposed on them by the ruling class through the privations of the Great Depression.
Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco became the cockpits of ferocious class struggles in which the brutality of bosses and police was met in kind by the uncompromising solidarity of unions, the unemployed and socialists. Not the least remarkable aspect of these battles was that they were all led by different elements of the American far left.
The organisers of the strikes came from various ideological traditions but they were united in their determination to win and their deployment of imaginative strategies and tactics that we can learn from today. The successes of these activists is a powerful reminder of the ability of small groups of socialists to have a big impact on sparking workers' resistance.
The red scare and after
The strike wave of 1934 was stimulated by a slight rise in confidence on the part of American workers over the previous couple of years . The Great Depression had started to carve into the working class at the beginning of the 1930s. Industrial production was slashed by almost 50% and by 1932 unemployment had affected virtually a quarter of the workforce.
Working class morale was already at a low ebb on the basis of the brutal ruling class offensive against the left in the previous decade, conducted under the pretext of the 'red scare' campaign. Union membership had slipped from about 20% at the beginning of the 1920s to less than half that by the time of the Wall Street Crash at the end of the decade.
The response of the AFL (the US equivalent of the TUC)was to focus on narrowly sectional issues, avoid confrontation with the bosses and make no attempt to agitate among the swelling ranks of the unskilled and unemployed.
As the 1930s opened, up to 300,000 agricultural workers and their families were on the move to California in a desperate bid to find work, amid the scenes of desolation depicted by novelist John Steinbeck and put to music by Woody Guthrie. The response of Republican President, Herbert Hoover, was the default position of austerity as practised before and after by capitalist politicians. Shrewder elements among the elite, however, realised a different approach was necessary in order to avoid economic and social disintegration.
The election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 represented the ascendancy of a more far - sighted corporate faction who perceived the importance of stimulus spending and the value of an alliance with the trade union bureaucracy. FDR's implementation of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 provided the small but significant morale - booster that would trigger the strike wave the following year. The act included a section that encouraged firms to recognise unions in return for exemption from federal anti-trust legislation.
The President obviously had no intention of unleashing a surge of workers' militancy but the slight crack in the wall of austerity was interpreted by union activists as the green light to launch an audacious sequence of mobilisations.
The most famous of the uprisings took place in Minneapolis and is recounted in the classic book, Teamster Rebellion, by Farrell Dobbs.
The account remains one of the most instructive and invigorating accounts of leftist participation in strike activity ever written. Dobbs was a young teamster (truck driver) who had been recruited into the Communist League by a remarkably talented group of Trotskyists in the city, consisting of Karl Skogland and three brothers; Vincent, Miles and Grant Dunne.
The League was one of numerous far left splinter groups which had ruptured from the American Communist Party in 1928 in protest at the growing influence of Stalin, both in Russia and in the direction of revolutionary activity in the US. The activist group had to operate against not just the anti-union employers, who organised themselves as the class conscious Citizens Alliance, but also against the conservatism of the national teamsters' union, which mirrored the AFL through its disinclination to fight.
The union President refused to authorise a strike when the the Minneapolis branch, known as Local 574, called for one in February 1934 in pursuit of its demand the truck companies provide greater job security for drivers. The Communist League, however, controlled the branch and ignored the national officials.
Despite only having 100 members at the onset of the dispute, the radicals understood the key to winning was to spread the action beyond the narrow confines of the teamsters and into the sectors of the local economy that depended on them. There were 30 000 unemployed in the city at that time and Local 574 audaciously reached out to them to provide support. The union formed an unemployed section and called on the jobless workers to form squads of flying pickets and to organise catering support for the strikers.
The wives and daughters of union members were recruited to form a women's auxiliary unit which also broadened support throughout the community. Above all, the Trotskyist militants ran the strike in an openly democratic manner, with a strike committee of 75 holding daily meetings and publishing its deliberations in a bulletin updated every day. These innovative tactics expanded the impact so that over the following months 3000 teamsters joined the union.
The social fabric of the city was penetrated so effectively by Dobbs and his associates that by May the dispute had morphed into a city-wide general strike, involving taxi drivers, building workers, tramcar drivers and others. The Citizens Alliance had formed its own paramilitary response, made up of police deputies and armed strikebreakers.
Small scale confrontations between the two sides of the dispute climaxed that month in what the strikers mockingly dubbed the Battle of Deputies Run, when 1,500 police and company men were overwhelmed in the city centre by 20,000 strikers. The latter triumphed not least because of the military precision with which Local 574 coordinated all aspects of their action. One of the strikers described the scene on that day:
"Phone rings at the concentration hall: ‘Send the reserves!’ Orderly, but almost as if by magic, the hall is emptied. The pickets are deployed by their leaders to surround the police and sluggers. The police raise their riot guns but the workers ignore and rush through them. ‘Chase out the hired sluggers’, is their battle cry. The cowardly sluggers take to their heels and run. The police and strikers use their clubs freely. Many casualties on both sides. The workers have captured the market!"
The Citizens Alliance felt its grip on Minneapolis loosening dramatically and then resorted to calling in the National Guard, and heightening tension in the city. In July, another clash between the combatants, known as Bloody Friday, left 60 strikers injured and two shot dead by the police. 40,000 people attended their funerals. The crisis ultimately forced Roosevelt's representatives to intervene and in August the employers accepted the union’s key demands It was a spectacular victory for the Minneapolis working class and the Trotskyist activists at the core of the resistance.
The far left also provided dynamic leadership in the strike wave that hit Toledo that year.
On that occasion, it was the American Workers Party led by the idiosyncratic figure of Abraham Muste. His politics were less clearly defined than those of the Minneapolis Trotskyists but also represented an attempt to find a rank and file - orientated path between the conservatism of the AFL and the sectarianism of the Stalinist - dominated Communist Party.
The city was a major centre of car construction, including huge corporations such as Electric Auto - Lite. Despite boasting huge profits, this company refused to recognise union representation or implement the NIRA's recommended minimum wage.
Like his counterparts in the Communist League, Muste understood mobilising the unemployed was the key to a breakthrough. One third of workers in the city were dependent on federal income support, thereby providing the Auto-Lite strikers with the potential for an additional 10,000 pickets! The strike began in February and over the following months expanded at an exponential rate until by May a situation of dual power had emerged, just as in Minneapolis.
Once again, a major American city witnessed scenes of semi - insurrection, as described by radical historian Art Preis:
'Then followed one of the most amazing battles in U. S. labor history. "The Marines had landed" in the form of the National Guard but the situation was not "well in hand." With their bare fists and rocks, the workers fought a six-day pitched battle with the National Guard. They fought from rooftops, from behind billboards and came through alleys to flank the guardsmen. "The men in the mob shouted vile epithets at the troopers," complained the Associated Press, and "the women jeered them with suggestions that they ‘go home to mama and their paper dolls'".'
Two strikers lost their lives in the confrontation, provoking the prospect of a general strike of 40,000 workers in response. In June Auto-Lite bosses caved in like their counterparts of the Citizens Alliance and recognised the AFL (even though the union's national leadership had played no role in the dispute!)
The outcome of class conflict on the West Coast in 1934 was a similar scenario of temporary dual power.
The battle there was centred on the iniquitous system of the hiring hall on the docks from which the longshoremen's union was barred. This was the process whereby foremen would select each morning those dockers they regarded as suitable for work. Inevitably, the system operated to the disadvantage of those workers who acquired a reputation for outspoken defence of pay and conditions and to the advantage of those who were willing to offer bribes or favours to the foremen.
Apart from union control of the hiring hall, the local branch of the International Longshoremen Association also demanded the reduction of the working work from a 48 hour week to 30 hours. In this case, it was members of the American Communist Party who were in the vanguard of the struggle. At national level, the party had been thoroughly Stalinised, but at the grassroots there were thousands of members who were still committed to the importance of rank and file activism and the possibility of taking on the bosses. The ILA leaders in San Francisco were fortunately part of this current.
In May, 14,000 dockers came out on strike, all along the West Coast. Just as in Minneapolis and Toledo, the dispute climaxed in a show of force between the two sides. Bloody Thursday, as it was known locally, came in July. On that day, four strikers were killed amid a pitched battle between 20 000 dockers, teamsters and their supporters versus the bulk of the San Francisco police force.
The AFL, as usual, had kept aloof from the struggle but, in response to the shootings and fearing they were losing credibility, they authorised official industrial action. The result was the biggest general strike in US history; 130,000 workers coming out on July 16. That was enough to break the resolve of the employers and the ILA were subsequently granted a reduction of the working work and access to the hiring hall.
Collectively, these three disputes involved a million and a half American workers being on strike at some point in 1934. They acted as a catalyst for even more dramatic struggles later in the decade, especially the great factory occupations at Akron and Flint in 1936-37.
There were also tangible benefits for the strikers of 1934. One year later, Roosevelt was forced to intensify the pro - union elements of the New Deal, including the Wagner Act which made it illegal for an employer to refuse negotiations with elected workers' representatives. A few years later, dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of the AFL led more militant elements in the US labour movement to form the Congress of Industrial Organisations, as a rival network founded on consolidating the strategy and tactics of the activists in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco.
80 years on, the great value of these struggles for us is as precursors of social movement trade unionism. Although each one had a different context, the activists at the centre were all alert to the necessity of spreading the dispute throughout their respective communities, especially among the unemployed, immigrants and unskilled workers hitherto regarded as non-organisable.