July 21, 2009: At the height of the Great Depression, Minneapolis Teamsters led a historic strike that laid the foundation for national Teamster Power.
The 1934 Strike
In 1934, Minneapolis wasn’t a union town. Employers and the anti-union Citizen’s Alliance used violence and intimidation to keep unions out.
But a strike by members of Teamsters Local 574 changed that.
At the beginning of 1934, the truck drivers of Minneapolis were almost entirely unorganized.
Local 574 started with the coal drivers. In 1933, they built a volunteer organizing committee by talking worker-to-worker about the union. In February, in the middle of a freezing winter, they were ready to call a strike.
Workers developed a new tactic to stop scab coal trucks: cruising pickets. Strikers followed coal trucks out of the gates. A few blocks down the road, they’d stop the truck, explain why they were striking to the driver, and then dump the load of coal onto the road. Thousands of drivers joined their campaign and the union, and the employers quickly agreed to union recognition in the coal yards.
Next the union moved on to the rest of Minneapolis’ truck drivers. In May, the union went on strike against all trucking employers in the city, demanding union recognition, the right to represent inside workers, and a pay increase.
The union set up massive picket lines to stop scab trucks.
For two days on May 21 and May 22, members of the anti-union Citizen’s Alliance attempted to break through picket lines to let trucks through. They were confronted by thousands of strikers and supporters. No trucks got through the picket lines, and a few days later, the second strike was over with all the union’s demands met.
Their fight wasn’t over. Many employers started firing union supporters. In July, the union called a third strike, and shut down all trucking in the city.
On July 20, police opened fire on a large group of unarmed picketers, injuring 60. Two strikers, John Belor and Henry Ness, died. Over 100,000 people crowded into the streets for Ness’ funeral.
The governor declared martial law. National Guard troops arrested strike leaders. But strikers held strong, and on Aug. 21, the employers agreed to a first contract with significant improvements in wages and benefits.
A Democratic Union
The strikers made Local 574 a democratic union, where members had a say in every crucial decision.
Strikers elected a Committee of 100 to oversee the strike in between union meetings—with members from many different trucking companies.
To keep members informed, they published a daily newspaper, The Organizer.
Strike leaders knew that the Citizen’s Alliance would violently attack picket lines, so they set up a field hospital at strike headquarters.
A commissary fed strikers, and a garage kept the cruising pickets up and running. The strikers’ welfare committee met with bill collectors and landlords to ask them to hold off.
Spouses were organized and joined strikers on the picket lines.
Local 574 built alliances with other unions and unorganized workers. They made their fight a fight for all of working Minneapolis.
Minneapolis Teamsters kept organizing after their victory. Strike leaders, led by organizer Farrell Dobbs, fanned out across the Midwest to organize over-the-road truckers.
They eventually won union recognition in eleven states, making the Teamsters a truck drivers’ union and setting the stage for the eventual creation of the National Master Freight Agreement. Jimmy Hoffa worked as an organizer under Dobbs on the over-the-road campaign.
Many years later, two organizers of the strike, Harry DeBoer and Jack Maloney, joined Teamsters for a Democratic Union as retirees. DeBoer, a member of the Local 574 executive board after the strike, told Teamster members that TDU was keeping alive the tradition of the strike. Maloney was a featured speaker at the 1983 TDU Convention.
Our union has changed a lot since 1934. But the strikers showed that working Teamsters can rebuild our union’s power.