1934: year of the fightback

Issue: 122

John Newsinger

There was a great strike wave in the US in the aftermath of the First World War. It was beaten back with the decisive defeat of a rank and file driven campaign to organise the steel industry.1 Brutal repression was compounded by, at best, only half-hearted support from the American Federation of Labour (AFL).

Once the unions had been contained the employers prepared for what has been described as “a war of extermination against organised labour”.2 An open shop drive was launched across the country to smash the unions once and for all. Taking advantage of the sharp recession of 1921-2, when US Gross National Product (GNP) fell by an astonishing 24 percent and unemployment shot up to five million (worse than in 1929-30), employers cleared out union members and destroyed union organisation. In 1920 union membership stood at 5,110,000; by 1923 it had fallen to 3,592,000. The defeat of the craft unions in the railroad shopmen’s strike of 19223 convinced the AFL leadership that the only hope for the survival of the trade union movement was for them to throw themselves on the mercy of the employers,4 to proclaim their conservatism, hail the virtues of the capitalist system, expel militants and “reds”, and embrace class collaboration. Symbolising all this was the expulsion of the veteran militant and socialist William Dunne from the 1923 AFL convention for his membership of the Workers Party (the then incarnation of American communism). The vote to expel him was carried by 27,837 to 198.5

But class collaboration required a collaborator and the American employers were not interested. Union membership continued to fall in the 1920s. In 1920 16.7 percent of American workers had been union members; by 1929 the figure was only 9.3 percent—less than one in ten. The unions had retreated into their craft strongholds, although even these were shaken. In 1920 the Machinists (metalworking and engineering workers) had 282,000 members, but this had fallen to only 148,000 in 1922 in the face of the employers’ offensive and was down to only 70,000 by 1929. And in the mass production industries trade unionism had been almost exterminated so that in 1929, in the car industry, the Carriage, Wagon and Automobile Workers Union had only 1,500 members out of a workforce of 450,000.6

Over four million workers had taken part in some 3,600 strikes in the United States in 1919. By 1929 the number of strikers had fallen to 289,000 and the number of strikes to 900. For many commentators, it seemed that the class war was over and that industrial peace and harmony were within reach.

Repression and secret police

The weakness of American unions was not due to any “exceptionalism” on the part of American workers, but rather the “exceptionalism” of the American capitalist class. “Unionisation rates did not differ substantially from those in Great Britain and Germany around 1900. The gap…widened between the early 1900s and the 1920s” because “American employers have opposed trade unions with a vehemence unequalled in other OECD nations”.7

On 23 March 1928 Richard Mellon, the brother of the Secretary of the Treasury, appeared before a congressional committee in Washington. He was questioned by the United Mine Workers’ attorney about his family’s extensive Pittsburgh mining interests and was asked about the use of machine guns. When the attorney asked, “Would you approve of that?”, he replied, “It is necessary. You could not do without them.”

This was not the testimony of some renegade backwoods employer, but of one of the pillars of the American establishment, the brother of the man widely regarded as the architect of the 1920s boom, talking about the family business.8 It testifies to a dimension of class conflict in the United States that is usually not given enough weight of class: repression was a vital factor in the defeat of the unions after the First World War and in the subsequent maintenance of the open shop.

Trade unions operated in conditions of “semi-outlawry”.9 The readiness of the courts to grant injunctions against the unions seriously curtailed the right to strike, on occasions removing it altogether. Instead of a strike involving a confrontation with an employer, who might well be armed to the teeth anyway, it often also involved a confrontation with the courts.10 Unions were also hobbled by the legal recognition given to “yellow dog” contracts. (The name supposedly derives from an employer saying he would rather employ a yellow dog than a union man.) In 1917 the Supreme Court had upheld the legality of contracts whereby workers agreed not to join a union. For a union organiser to ask a worker who had signed such a contract to join a union was illegal.

Among the organisers imprisoned for contempt in the 1917 trial was Fannie Sellins, whose career provides a useful case study on the role of repression. Later, in 1919, she was shot down in cold blood by company guards while picketing the Allegheny Coal and Coke Company mine, western Pennsylvania. Her skull was crushed with a blow from a club while she lay dead or dying. A coroner’s jury returned a verdict that her killing was “justifiable and in self-defence”, and went on to condemn “anarchy and Bolshevism”.11

Finally, trade unionists were the victims of a secret police regime. There were 230 private detective agencies engaged in spying on the unions, providing armed guards or strike-breakers, with an absolute minimum number of undercover agents at work in industry at some 40,000.12 Such, labour spies were part of everyday experience for union militants and activists. Abraham Muste, when looking back over his own time as a militant trade unionist, remembered that he “soon learned that on any strike committee or union executive board there would be one or more labour spies”. Indeed, when he was one of the leaders of the 1919 textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, he was taken aside by one of the other strike leaders, John Mach, the man in charge of relief operations, who revealed that he was a private detective.13 Another self-confessed spy was the president of the Philadelphia Central Labour Union, a key body in the struggles of the time, and yet another was the Machinists’ own district organiser.14

The decision to fight for the union was a much bigger decision for American workers than for those in Britain, a decision that often required an uncommon degree of anger and resolve. Once that decision was made they fought all the harder. In the 1920s, however, with wages rising, most workers were not prepared to make that decision. Then in 1929 came the Great Crash and the start of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression was a catastrophe. US GNP fell from $104.4 billion in 1929 to $94.4 billion in 1930, a less dramatic fall than in the depression of 1921-2, but on this occasion the collapse continued, reaching a low point of $72.7 billion early in 1933. For American workers the consequences were disastrous. The unemployment figures tell the story. They rose from 1,550,000 in 1929 to 12,830,000 in 1933.15 The real figures were certainly higher than these “official” figures with Sidney Lens, for example, arguing that in 1933 unemployment “was probably 16 or 17 million, with just about the same number working part-time”.16 By 1931 employers began cutting wages across the board and by 1933 some 87 percent of firms “had lowered wage rates at least once, and some several times for an average reduction of 18 percent”.17

The depression doomed the presidency of Herbert Hoover. His administration was swept away in the 1932 presidential election and the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was elected by a popular landslide (Roosevelt received 22,821,857 votes to Hoover’s 15,761,841). Roosevelt took office in March 1933.

While this is not the place to discuss the politics of Roosevelt’s New Deal in any detail, some points are worth making. Roosevelt had fought the election on a programme that was in many respects to the right of Hoover. He condemned Hoover’s “reckless and extravagant spending” and promised “to reduce the cost of the current federal government operations by 25 percent”. He was, as his Secretary of Labour, Frances Perkins, observed, “no political or economic radical” and took “the status quo in the economic system for granted”. As for his promised New Deal, in 1933 it “was not a plan with form and content. It was a happy phrase he had coined during the campaign, and its value was psychological. It made people feel better”.18

Roosevelt had been a New York State senator before the First World War. He had shown no enthusiasm for reform except insofar as it advanced his career. Most telling was his response, or lack of it, to the 1911 Triangle factory fire that cost the lives of 146 workers, overwhelmingly young women. The fire raised a storm of protest but Roosevelt’s “copious correspondence did not even mention the Triangle fire”. At this time Roosevelt showed no sympathy for the labour movement, supporting judicial decisions that were intended to cripple the union, “taking for granted the use of force to suppress disturbances during strikes”.19 By the time he became president his attitude towards the working class had not markedly changed. He was, as David Kennedy observes, “a rather diffident champion of labour, and especially of organised labour unions…his fundamental attitude toward labour was somewhat patronising”.20 It was his commitment to save American capitalism that drove him forward and saw him adopt policies never even entertained in 1933. This was to involve concessions to the unions, concessions that Roosevelt had little sympathy for and that had to be extracted by rank and file revolt.

“A virtual uprising of workers for union membership”

In June 1933 Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), a cornerstone of the so-called “First New Deal”. It provided state sponsorship for firms to form trade associations charged with the regulation of their particular industry, including common standards that included pay, hours and conditions for the workforce. As one contemporary critic observed, the administration had adopted a corporatist strategy “to restore industrial stability by guaranteeing the status quo of worker and employer, one in possession of little, the other in possession of much”.21

The NIRA included what Sidney Lens described as “a sop to the working class”—section 7(a).22 This gave employees the right “to organise and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing”.23 While Roosevelt did not intend this to do any more than prop up the AFL, it had an electrifying effect on the working class.

Years of defeat and hardship boiled up in anger and rage. Even with between 12 and 17 million unemployed, the working class seized the opportunity to fight back. Roosevelt, or so it seemed, had guaranteed workers’ right to join a union. Underpinning this explosion of militancy was the widespread belief in 1933 that the economic decline had actually bottomed out. Now was the time to fight. As the AFL reported, there was “a virtual uprising of workers for union membership”. In factory after factory workers were holding mass meetings that then “sent word they wanted to be organised”.24 The open shop was under attack.

In July 1933 there were nearly 300 strikes and in August 400, as workers demanded the right to organise. By the end of 1933 there had been more strikes than in any year since 1921. This rank and file revolt met with fierce resistance from employers, while the government paid only lip service to the protection of workers’ rights and the AFL leadership stood by helpless. Only the United Mine Workers and the handful of other industrial unions actually gave an official lead to the revolt. More typical was Teamsters president Daniel Tobin’s dismissal of the men and women now signing up to join the unions as “rubbish”.25 According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the months from July until the end of 1933 saw “widespread violations of workers” rights by injunctions, troops, private police, deputy sheriffs, labour spies and vigilantes”.26 By the end of the year at least 15 workers had been “killed by police, company guards or vigilantes”.27

General Hugh Johnson, the man Roosevelt put in charge of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), told delegates at the AFL convention in October 1933 that “unions were no longer needed and that strikes had become superfluous since the president had created new mediation machinery under the NRA”. The unions should “be under government supervision” anyway.28 Roosevelt himself warned the unions in October 1933 that “horses that kick over the traces will be have to put in the corral”.29

Employers completely ignored the NRA codes with respect to pay, conditions and union recognition. Johnson stood by while there was the wholesale victimisation of union members and sanctioned the formation of company unions into which a million workers found themselves enrolled. Johnson even provoked his own NRA staff to strike when he sacked one of them for union activity!

The AFL opposed workers taking industrial action to protect themselves and instead insisted that they should place their faith in Roosevelt and the NRA, even though William Green, the AFL president, was informed as early as August 1933 that as far as the textile industry was concerned there was not a single mill in the South “living up to the code as signed by the president”.30 William Collins, the man sent by Green to organise Detroit, assured some of the most ruthless employers in the country that “I never voted for a strike in my life. I have always opposed them”.31 Under such inspired leadership the outcome was predictable. By the start of 1934 it appeared that the working class revolt had either been contained or was actually being beaten back.

The role of the left

Looking back at the period Sidney Lens, then a young Trotskyist, remembered how “a radical mood replaced…the despair of the very early 1930s”. It was a time when “one leftist among a thousand workers was enough to give the group direction and stimulus”. On one occasion:

We hired a hall that seated 30 people and gave out leaflets inviting workers of a certain shop to a meeting. Of the 275 employees more than 200 turned up; we had to adjourn to a nearby parking lot, where all the workers present signed application cards.

It was, he remembered:

An exhilarating time for young radicals. When I got on the bus, strangers were talking freely about how the union drives were going in their shops. I have never seen anything like it before or since. “This must be”, I thought to myself, “how things are during a revolution”.

There were hundreds of strikes, most of them spontaneous. The ferocity of the strike wave was demonstrated by “the figures on casualties. From August through October 1933 15 strikers were killed on the picket line and another 40 were slain in 1934.” With the AFL leadership failing to give a lead, the American left, even though few in numbers, had a strategic role to play:

A group of workers enraged over wages or an unresolved grievance would be taken in hand by a leftist fellow worker who just knew what to do or, if not, where to get the best advice. The radicals brought to their task a number of a priori concepts, which were immensely helpful in organising the unorganised. They opposed in principle any collaboration with business. They considered the government an implacable enemy to be fought without restraint. And they were unequivocal about the “labour fakirs”—heads of the established unions—whom they thought of as the concubines of the employers and the state, to be opposed with equal vigor.

How did he explain the revolt? Workers he argued, “undergo a saturation process—they silently absorb one affront after another until the moment is finally reached when they are saturated with the abuses heaped upon them. That is what happened in the red decade”.32

The largest organisation on the left was the Communist Party. During this time it was following the Comintern’s Third Period line, having, as one historian has put it, “a final stab at insurrection”.33 The Third Period involved the belief that revolution was imminent. It committed the party to “dual unionism”, the establishment of revolutionary trade unions. And it involved the embrace of a crazed sectarianism that labelled the AFL as “fascist” and others on the left as “social fascists”. The only redeeming feature of the politics of the Third Period was that it involved Communists in actively combating racism and fighting for black workers’ rights in a way that had never been seen in the United States before.

At the start of 1930 the Communists had only 7,545 members, a figure that had risen to 19,000 by the start of 1934. Much of this recruitment came from the party’s work among the unemployed. The party organised unemployed councils that fought for relief, resisted evictions and established gas and electricity squads to switch these utilities back on when the companies cut them off. It organised occupations of relief offices and protest marches that frequently involved violent clashes with the police. Party members often showed incredible courage in the face of police brutality. On 6 March 1930 the Communists organised nationwide protest marches against unemployment, part of an international protest, which they claimed mobilised over a million people in the United States. One historian argues that 500,000 is a much more realistic figure, but this is still a remarkable achievement.34

The achievement is all the more impressive when one considers the routine repression that Communists suffered. In Chicago the police raided one neighbourhood meeting in the run-up to 6 March and arrested 14 activists. They were handed over to the city’s “Red Squad”. Steve Nelson, one of those arrested, was strapped to a chair, worked over with a blackjack and then kicked unconscious. When he rejoined the others, “Harold Williams was stretched out, his torn pants revealing an enormous rupture, and B D Amos had his front teeth knocked out. Joe Dallet was bleeding from his mouth and had a gash on his cheek.” Two of their number were untouched: “This, we figured, was done deliberately so as to throw suspicion on their integrity.” The reason for detailing this episode is that there are beatings and there are beatings—and in the United States at this time a systematic working over by professionals was the norm. The so-called “third degree”, to be blunt, the use of torture to extract information and confessions, was widespread and routine in many US police departments. This helps illustrate why Communists were often held in such high regard despite their sectarian politics. The party still managed to put out 200,000 leaflets and 50,000 stickers in Chicago. On 6 March 30,000 people, black and white, demonstrated in the city.35

On 31 August 1931, once again in Chicago, a large crowd of black workers, led by the Communists, assembled to protest against evictions. In a scuffle with the police two protesters were shot dead and later that day the body of another who had been “taken for a ride” by the police was found, having been tortured and shot in the head. The party organised a massive funeral for the three men with 60,000 people, including at least 20,000 white workers, following the coffins.36 On 7 March 1932 the Communists led a “hunger march” to the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Detroit. In the clashes with police and company guards four of the protesters were shot dead. Another died of his wounds later. Once again party members displayed tremendous courage. One of the dreadful ironies of Soviet state capitalism is that while American Communists were being shot down outside the plant, there were Russian Communist officials inside, at that very moment, “receiving instructions in Ford methods of production. This was part of a highly lucrative contract Ford had signed with the Communist regime”.37

Nevertheless, as Sidney Lens acknowledged, whatever one thought about their politics, individual Communist Party members “faced hardships, beatings and the threat of jail with great courage”. The other side of this coin was the routine violent disruption of the meetings of others on the left. This climaxed on 16 February 1934 when the Socialist Party held a broadly based rally at Madison Square Garden to protest against the military assault launched against workers in Austria by the Dolfuss regime. The rally was broken up by hundreds of Communists “armed with the usual bats and brass knuckles” who succeeded in making “a shambles of the affair”.38

A strike at the open shop Hormel packinghouse in Austin, Minnesota, in November 1933 demonstrates quite marvellously the coming together of working class unrest and strategically placed revolutionaries. One of the company foreman was Frank Ellis, an Industrial Workers of the World39 veteran, who “had been thrown into almost every jail from Texas to Minnesota”. As foremen he had employed every good union man he could find. The consequence was that when the workers’ discontent reached “saturation” point (over deductions for a compulsory insurance scheme), Ellis and his supporters held meetings and established an independent Wobbly_style union, the Independent Union of All Workers. Continual conflict with the company finally came to a head on 10 November with a strike vote. Pickets were put on the gates, but on 11 November some 400 workers stormed the plant and cleared out management, company guards and any scabs they found. One foreman made his escape by rowboat across the Red Cedar River accompanied by loud cheering when the boat sank halfway. When the sheriff arrived at the plant the strikers bodily picked up his car with him in it, turned it round and sent him away. The workers had effectively occupied the plant.

With the threat of the National Guard being sent in, the workers agreed to mediation on the assurance of the governor, Floyd Olson, that their interests would be looked after. Olson was the leader of the Minnesota Farmer-Labour Party, a reformist politician, whose electoral base included the labour movement.40 Although he often boasted of his radicalism, he told the strikers that they were putting him “on the spot because if I have to choose between my proper duty and my sympathy, I will be obliged to choose duty”—the excuse of the reformist politician throughout the ages. The strikers returned to work with only a partial victory, but the open shop had been busted. The union was entrenched in the plant and went from strength to strength.41

The tide turns

“Strikes continued to be broken, pickets continued to be imprisoned or slain, and the dreams and aspirations of union members continued to be shattered” despite the NRA, concludes Bernard Bellush. At best, “the door to labour’s rights was slightly opened”.42 It was to be rank and file action that kicked down the door. In 1934 over 1.5 million workers were to take part in nearly 2,000 strikes.

Three strikes in particular—the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, the Teamsters’ strike in Minneapolis and the longshoremen’s strike in San Francisco—were to completely change the strategic context for the American working class. All three were led by radicals or revolutionaries. All three defied the AFL leadership, confronted the state and were fought with fierce determination. They served notice on the Roosevelt administration that the working class could not be ignored.


The AFL had paid some lip service to organising workers in the mass production industries, recruiting them into Federal Labour Unions (FLUs). By and large, they were short-lived, deprived of help and assistance, regarded with suspicion and certainly never a central concern of the AFL leadership. This situation became critical as hundreds of thousands of workers demanded unionisation. By mid-1934 there were 350,000 workers in 1,700 FLUs. The only advice the AFL gave them for confronting the most anti-union employers was to trust the government.

FLU Local 18384 in Toledo, near Detroit, had organised throughout the city, recruiting members in all the car component firms. The employer the local had to organise to survive was Auto-Lite. On 23 February 1934 the local called a strike there, demanding a pay rise and union recognition. Only a minority of the workforce walked out, but enough to cause the company problems. After five days it conceded a 5 percent pay rise and promised negotiations on recognition. In reality Auto-Lite prepared for another strike, taking on extra workers, trying to undermine the union by intimidation and then reneging on the promised negotiations. On 12 April union members walked out again. With most workers crossing the picket line, the strike looked like ending in a crushing defeat, one of many such setbacks at the time. On this occasion, however, the strikers turned to the American Workers Party (AWP) for help.

The AWP, almost completely forgotten today, was largely the brainchild of one of the most remarkable men in the history of American radicalism, Abraham Muste.43 He was a Protestant clergyman, radicalised by his opposition to the First World War, who threw himself into the post-war workers’ struggles. He was one of the leaders of the 1919 textile workers’ strike in Lawrence and emerged from that conflict as the general secretary of the radical United Textile Workers. After the union was driven out of existence by the employers’ open shop offensive he became dean of Brookwood Labour College, making it a centre of radical opposition to the AFL leadership and training union organisers to build industrial unions committed to socialist politics. Muste’s radicalism led to determined efforts by the AFL president, William Green, to close the college down. In 1929 Muste and his supporters established the Conference for Progressive Labour Action (CPLA) to campaign for “progressive” trade unionism and to actively support workers in struggle. Its organisers in North Carolina were supporting striking mill workers when police in the town of Marion opened fire on pickets on 2 October 1929, shooting 36 men and women, most of them in the back as they ran for their lives. Six of the pickets were killed. One of them, 65 year old George Jonas, was shot dead when he was already under arrest and in handcuffs. When the workers came to bury their dead, none of the local preachers was prepared to defy the mill owners and officiate, so Muste “stepped forward”.44

The Depression transformed Muste from a radical into a revolutionary and a Marxist. In 1932 the CPLA began setting up Unemployed Leagues to fight for relief, to resist evictions and to support workers on strike. By the end of 1933 the Leagues had successfully established themselves in Ohio (100,000 members) and Pennsylvania (40,000 members).45 Encouraged by this, Muste and his supporters established the American Workers Party in December 1933. It proclaimed itself a revolutionary socialist party. It was anti-Stalinist in politics, but part of that stance involved a rejection of Bolshevism. It was one of a number of such organisations internationally trying to find a middle way between reformism and Stalinism in the 1930s. It attracted a number of Marxist intellectuals, such as Sidney Hook46 and James Burnham, but its orientation was very much on mass struggle.

In Toledo two of its members, Sam Pollock and Theodore Selander of the Lucas County Unemployed League, offered to reinforce the picket line with unemployed volunteers. The offer was accepted and the party secretary, Louis Budenz, quickly became a key adviser to the strike committee, the strategist directing the conflict.

The decisive moment came when the company secured a court injunction restricting picketing. Urged on by the American Workers Party, the strikers decided to defy the injunction. The police began making arrests, but this only led to the picket numbers growing as the strike came to be seen as a battle affecting the whole of the Toledo labour movement. Workers from other factories joined the strikers and the unemployed on the picket line and by the morning of 23 May there were 6,000, swelling to 10,000 as the day went on. That afternoon the police once again began making arrests and their brutality provoked resistance:

The fighting went on from mid-afternoon until midnight. In effect the great crowd outside imprisoned 1,500 strike breakers inside the factory. Auto-Lite barricaded its doors and turned off the lights. From the roof and upper-story windows deputies rained tear gas bombs on the people in the streets below… The crowd replied with a seven-hour barrage of stones and bricks…heaved through the factory windows. Fires broke out in the shipping room and the parking lot…cars were overturned, saturated with gasoline and set on fire. During the evening strikers broke into the factory at three points and there was hand to hand fighting before they were driven out. The area for blocks around was blanketed with tear gas.47

The strikers improvised catapults out of inner tubes and bombarded the factory through the night, breaking every window.48 The National Guard arrived the following day to rescue the besieged scabs. The workers were in no mood to submit and the fighting continued, driving the guardsmen back to the factory gates with a hail of bricks. They responded with bayonet charges and when this failed they opened fire, shooting two pickets dead, both unemployed. Still the fighting continued. At last, on 31 May with the Toledo Central Labour Union threatening a general strike, the company agreed to shut the plant. The troops were withdrawn and negotiations got under way. On 2 June Local 18384 won recognition. The strikers did not win all their demands but they had inflicted an unambiguous defeat on Auto-Lite.

The strike was, as Muste put it, “an expression of the pent-up suffering of many years”.49 How did William Green of the AFL respond to it? He wrote to the Toledo Central Labour Union condemning the strike as a mistake and making it clear that there should be no thought of a general strike. With the fighting raging in the streets, he wrote to one of his organisers that “I hardly know what to do in this situation at the present moment”.50 All that can be said in his favour is that his desertion to the other side was no great loss. Instead the strike was won by working class militancy given direction by revolutionary socialists.


Local 574 of the Teamsters union in Minneapolis had 75 members at the end of 1933. It had relied for its survival on sweetheart agreements with a handful of coal yards, but in November 1933 it was taken over by a remarkable group of militants. Carl Skogland, Ray Dunne and his brothers, Miles and Grant, and Farrell Dobbs were all members of the Trotskyist Communist League. Inspired by the success of the Hormel strike in nearby Austin (Skogland had actually assisted in the strike), they developed a strategy for organising the trucking industry in the city. They recruited not just the drivers but the indoor warehouse workers as well, transforming the Teamsters from a craft into an industrial union.

This was accomplished in defiance of the Citizen’s Alliance, one of the most powerful and ruthless open shop organisations in the United States, which ran a network of informers and spies, operated blacklists and broke strikes, boasting that “the open shop is more firmly established in private industry than any time in the history of the city”.51 In 1920 there had been 27,000 union members in Minneapolis; by 1928 the number had been driven down to 14,000, and under the impact of the Depression, fell to 7,000 in 1934.52 The Teamsters had not won a strike in the city since they had been crushed in the great strike of 1916.

The first step in building the union required a victory to show that the employers could actually be beaten. To this end Skogland set about organising the coal yards, recruiting enough drivers to be able to call a strike on 7 February 1934. Some 700 drivers struck across 67 yards. As Charles Walker admiringly observed:

Preparation had been surprisingly detailed and painstaking. A map of the coal yards of Minneapolis was prepared, and mimeographed instructions were issued to each picket captain before the strike. Within three hours 65 coal yards out of 67 were closed as tight as a bull’s eye in fly time.

The tactic that decided the strike was the brainchild of a “rank and file coal heaver”: “the militant use of cruising picket squads”.53 Instead of trying to maintain stationary pickets at 67 yards, the union put its men in cars and trucks and they patrolled the streets looking for scab trucks. They knew the routes, intercepted and stopped scab trucks, dumping their loads into the road. Sub-zero temperatures aided the strikes and, after three days, the employers surrendered. In the aftermath of the success thousands of drivers joined the union.

The next step was to organise the trucking industry across the city. This required closing the market district and the union prepared with military precision. Farrell Dobbs wrote in his Trotskyist classic, Teamster Rebellion, “Seldom anywhere…has there been such a well-prepared strike”. With the aid of advisers from the Cooks and Waiters Union volunteers were ready to serve food to 4,000 to 5,000 people daily. The union established its own medical centre to treat those injured in the struggle so they could not be arrested at the hospital. It was manned by sympathetic doctors, nurses and volunteers. As for the picketing:

We had a special staff at our disposal to handle the telephones and operate a shortwave radio used to monitor police calls. Teenage volunteers with motorcycles were organised into an efficient courier service… They served as the eyes and ears of the picket dispatchers and as a swift means of contact with picket captains.54

Once again they relied on “cruising picket squads”, operating their own repair shop to keep dozens of cars and trucks on the road. The union headquarters itself was guarded by men “equipped with tommy guns” to deter vigilante attacks.55 The pickets were unarmed and included members of the Women’s Auxiliary. Brutal beatings by police and deputised volunteers left many seriously injured on 19 May, including “20 blood covered women…several with broken legs or unconscious”.56 After this women were withdrawn from picket duty and pickets were armed with clubs. The union prepared for confrontation and hid 600 men in the AFL hall, unnoticed by the police. When fighting broke out between pickets and police on 21 May, instead of the pickets receiving a beating, 600 men armed with clubs marched to their assistance, taking the police completely by surprise. When the police brought in reinforcements the union motored in its reserve of 900 men from union headquarters and broke the police lines by the simple device of driving a truck through them. Over 30 police and deputies were hospitalised in hand to hand fighting.

The following day another battle took place for control of the market district. The police were reinforced by large numbers of deputies provided by the Citizens Alliance, the teamsters by hundreds of striking building workers. In the ensuing “Battle of Deputies Run” two deputies were killed, one of them a leading member of the Citizens Alliance. The forces of law and order were driven from the market district and the pickets were left in control, “directing the traffic”.57

The employers now agreed to negotiations under the auspices of the Farmer-Labour Party. Governor Floyd Olson, known to be a bitter enemy of the Citizens Alliance, had donated $500 to the strike fund. But he had no wish to strengthen the position of the Trotskyists in the Minneapolis labour movement and his concern was to end the strike as soon as possible, before it could become an electoral liability, rather than to ensure victory on the union’s terms. He led the union to believe that the employers had accepted their terms and it recommended acceptance on 25 May.

Local 574 had won a stunning victory over a feared opponent but quickly discovered the May agreement was only a truce. Both sides prepared for another confrontation. The second Teamsters’ strike began on 17 July. The union had immeasurably strengthened its organisation, recruiting more members and establishing an unemployed auxiliary with 5,000 members. It had started a weekly newspaper, The Organiser, edited by Max Shachtman. During the strike it became a daily. This was to prove absolutely vital in order to counter the “red scare” that the Citizens Association ran in the press, aided and abetted by Teamsters president Daniel Tobin.

Once the strike began, the union’s picketing operation swung into action. To begin with pickets were once again unarmed. This time, however, the police had orders not to allow a rerun of the May strike and staged an ambush on 20 July, opening fire with shotguns on a truckload of pickets as they tried to stop a scab truck. When other pickets on foot went to the rescue, they too were shot down. By the time the shooting stopped 69 pickets and bystanders had been shot, two pickets killed and many more seriously wounded.58

This deliberate, calculated attack was intended to put an end to picketing, break the strike and smash the union. The union took steps to prevent its members picketing with guns. Dobbs describes taking firearms off the pickets “as the hardest thing I ever did in my life”.59 A shoot-out with the police would give the authorities just the excuse they needed to destroy the union by open repression. But they continued picketing with “cars and trucks trailing scab vehicles, forcing the police to provide large escorts, up to 20 police cars for one scab truck, and therefore severely limited the number of scab trucks they could run”.60

Governor Olson sent 4,000 National Guardsmen into the city and declared martial law on 26 July, claiming this was necessary to prevent any further loss of life. But while he claimed he was being even-handed, in practice the troops set about breaking the strike and the employers had thousands of scab trucks running within days. The Local 574 leadership had to convince its membership to confront Olson, who was trusted as a man who was on the side of the workers and had opposed the Citizens Association in the past. Ray Dunne insisted to the strikers, “Submit to the governor and the strike is lost.” As Charles Walker points out, he did not use Marxist theory to explain the role of reformism; he simply pointed “to the 6,000 trucks moving in Minneapolis”.61

The union took the crucial decision to defy the martial law regime and reinstate the cruising picket squads as a guerrilla-style operation. Dobbs describes how it worked:

A series of control points was set up around the town, mainly in friendly filling stations, which cruising squads could enter and leave without attracting attention. Pay phones in the stations and couriers scouting the neighbourhood were used to report scab trucks to picket dispatchers. Cruising squads were then sent to the reported locations to do the necessary and get away in a hurry. Trucks operating with military permits were soon being put out of commission throughout the city… Troops in squad cars responded to the calls usually to find scabs who had been worked over, but no pickets.62

Olson responded with a raid on the union headquarters and the arrest of the union leadership, but then found the only way he could get the picketing called off was to release the people he had just arrested and force the Citizens Association to come to terms with them. Olson was, as the Trotskyist leader, James P Cannon pointed out, trapped in contradiction. He was “on the one hand supposedly a representative of the workers; on the other hand, he was the governor of a bourgeois state”.63 He had taken action to break the strike but there was a limit to how far he could go without losing the support of the working class on whom his electoral survival depended. Having failed to break the union he turned his attention to the Citizens Association. In a gesture of even-handedness he ordered their headquarters raided by troops. More to the point, on 8 August he met with Roosevelt, who agreed to put pressure on the banks that were financing the employers. The federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation threatened to withdraw its loans which were saving the banks from bankruptcy and the employers’ resistance collapsed.64

Against all the odds Local 574 had won a decisive victory in one of the best conducted strikes in the history of the American working class.65

San Francisco

San Francisco had been one of the best organised cities in the US. This changed after the First World War when the open shop drive, spearheaded by the Industrial Association, broke union power. On the docks the longshoremen (dockers) were defeated in 1919, with the employers establishing a company union, known as the Blue Union. Conditions on the docks inevitably worsened with the onset of the Depression. There were big wage cuts and speed-ups which produced a growing toll of accidents.

A group of left militants—mostly syndicalists (many of them former Wobblies) but open to Communist Party influence—had started a rank and file paper, the monthly Waterfront Worker, in December 1932. As one of its founders, Mitch Slobodek, put it, “There was an undercurrent of restlessness on the waterfront when we started putting out the paper but no direction. The paper gave one”.66 It urged its readers to form “small undercover groups of those whom we know on each dock”67 as a covert network of militants, the nucleus of a union, ready to come out in the open when the time was right. Later on in the year the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) appointed an organiser in San Francisco, Lee Holman, who began signing up members.

The Communist Party were committed to the formation of revolutionary trade unions in opposition to the supposedly “fascist” AFL. The failure of this policy was not brought home because the AFL unions were not growing either. But in 1933, with the rush of workers into the AFL, many Communist Party members began ignoring the party’s policy. This was the case in San Francisco where the rank and file group that had developed around the Waterfront Worker, with Communist support, resolved to take over the ILA, democratise it and turn it into a militant fighting organisation.68 In Seattle and Portland, Communist Party branches stuck to the party line, condemning the ILA as “social fascist”, and consequently they had no influence on events whatsoever.

As more and more dockers joined the ILA they increasingly came into conflict with the Blue Union and the employers. The official ILA position, argued by Holman, was that they should place their trust in the NRA and at all costs avoid trouble. But the militants around the Waterfront Worker, led by Harry Bridges, decided to act. In September 1933 on the Matson dock men refused to show their Blue Union cards and four of them were suspended for wearing ILA buttons. Holman refused to support them but the militants led a walkout that threatened to spread throughout the port and the employer backed down. The Blue Union was finished. As Bridges put it, that “was the end of the fear and intimidation”.69 A small tactical victory had been carefully calculated so as to have a decisive strategic result.

Rank and file dockers the length of the Pacific coast were taking control of their union. They endorsed a policy based on union controlled hiring halls that would effectively establish the closed shop and give the union control of the docks—voting at the end of March by 6,616 to 699 for strike action if their demands were not met. ILA president Joseph Ryan, the worst type of AFL bureaucrat, stepped in to suspend the strike when Roosevelt promised mediation. The employers refused to give any ground, and were preparing to break the threatened strike and smash the union. The militants succeeded in having Holman, by now completely discredited by his opposition to strike action, suspended from office, and elected a strike committee. Mass meetings across the Pacific coast voted on 8 May for immediate strike action. On 9 May 12,000 dockers stopped work.

The walkout was quickly joined by the seamen, coming out both in solidarity and to win their own demands. Crucial, however, was the decision by the San Francisco teamsters, defying their full-time officials, to boycott the docks. Even when the employers got scabs to load and unload ships they could not move goods off the docks because of the teamsters’ decision to respect picket lines. Every day there were clashes between pickets and police. The first fatalities occurred at San Pedro on 14 May when police and company guards shot two pickets dead during an attempt to storm a scab compound. The strike remained solid.

ILA president Joseph Ryan (on occasions he claimed the union initials stood for “I Love America”) intervened to try to bring the strike to an end. His support in the union rested on the New York docks, where the union worked in close collaboration with the employers and organised crime, and he was not accustomed to the idea of actually having to put agreements to the membership . He negotiated a deal over the heads of the west coast strikers, only to have it repudiated at mass meetings.70

When union leaders failed to deliver a sell-out the employers determined to open the San Francisco docks by force. The Industrial Association set up a trucking firm with scab drivers who would cross picket lines and carried goods off the docks with a massive police presence. There was fierce fighting between pickets and police on 3 July, with the police making free use of clubs and tear gas. On 5 July some 20,000 pickets (dockers, seamen, unemployed, teamsters and others) assembled to stop the trucks. Bridges and his picket captains marshalled their forces to fight a regular battle. By the end of the day two pickets had been shot dead and dozens more were seriously injured.71 The state governor, Roger Lapham, seized on the shootings as an excuse to send in the National Guard, although, just as in Minneapolis, the union disarmed pickets who turned up for duty with firearms.

It was by now clear to more and more workers that what was at stake was not just the longshoremen’s cause but the fate of the San Francisco labour movement. On 12 July the teamsters voted, once again in defiance of their officials, for an indefinite all-out strike. Workers across the city were walking out in sympathy in growing numbers in what one historian has described as “a creeping general strike”.72 The AFL officials on the Central Labour Union reluctantly bowed to the inevitable and called a general strike on 14 July, beating off attempts to establish a rank and file controlled strike committee. One official admitted that it “was an avalanche. I saw it coming so I ran ahead before it crushed me”.73 It was the only way they could keep the strike firmly under official control.

There was serious discussion at government level about whether or not to send in federal troops, with Governor Lapham arguing, “We can cure this thing best by bloodshed”.74 Roosevelt was on holiday, and both acting President Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State and Attorney General Cummings were in favour of the use of force. Secretary of Labour Perkins was strongly opposed, arguing it would mean “regular shooting and a lot of people will drop in the streets”. Bloodletting would cause “frightful resentment” and would do serious damage “politically and morally and for the basic labour-industry and labour-government relationship”.75 Roosevelt backed her judgement, a decision that, in effect, determined the direction of the New Deal. If the administration had sent in the troops, it would have alienated working class support. Instead the decision was made to rely on the union leaders to police their members, keeping them aboard as allies, even if it meant making concessions that Roosevelt had little sympathy with.

This did not preclude action against the left. On 17 July there was a well organised wave of vigilante attacks across California. With the police conveniently absent, gangs of armed vigilantes wrecked offices and meeting halls, and administered beatings, with the Communist Party the favourite target. Once the vigilantes had done their work the police arrived to arrest the victims. By the end of the day over 450 people had been arrested and charged with vagrancy, with bail set at $1,000 instead of the normal $10. This carefully organised assault was celebrated in the press as a popular uprising against the “reds”. Earlier a group of businessmen had got together to discuss having Bridges killed (he had already turned down a $50,000 bribe) but one of their number warned he would go public if they did.76

On 20 July the Central Labour Union called off the general strike on the grounds that acceptable mediation was now on offer. This effectively outmanoeuvred the longshoremen. The Teamsters voted to end their boycott of the docks and the now isolated dockers voted for mediation. Bridges was criticised by some on the left for this, but in retrospect it seems he accurately judged the balance of forces. On strike the balance of forces was against them; back at work it was in their favour. The final settlement gave the dockers a coast-wide contract with a six-hour day, time and a half for overtime and a union appointed dispatcher in joint union-employer hiring halls. On the job action soon cleared any scabs off the docks, ended the speed-ups and established the closed shop.77 It was a historic victory.


The victories in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco changed the strategic picture as far as the class struggle was concerned. Whereas the Roosevelt administration had once felt that it could ignore the working class, it had now been forcibly brought home that this was no longer the case. And as far as the working class itself was concerned, it had been demonstrated that militant action, amounting on occasions to virtual insurrection, could triumph. Even in conditions of mass unemployment militancy and solidarity could defeat the most ruthless employers. In all three strikes the formula for victory was rank and file militancy and radical or revolutionary socialist leadership confronting employers, the union leadership and the state. The year 1934 was to see another great strike that proved the importance of this formula in a negative sense.

On 1 September 1934 the United Textile Workers called a national strike, the largest stoppage in US history up to that point. Between 350,000 and 400,000 workers walked out. Three weeks later, on 21 September, it was called off by the leadership on the basis of “assurances” given by the president personally. The result was a crushing defeat.

Textile workers were among the hardest hit by the Depression, with wages driven down and work relentlessly intensified by the “stretch out”. The union had virtually collapsed with only 15,000 members in February 1933. Section 7(a) revolutionised the situation and union membership had increased to 40,000 by September that year and to 340,000 by August 1934. This explosion in membership was driven by rage, but the rage was regarded as a dangerous embarrassment by a union leadership looking to Roosevelt and the NRA for justice. It was only under intense rank and file pressure that the union leadership finally called a strike.

While the mills in New England and Maine were shut down, the region where the strike would be decided was acknowledged to be in the South, in the Carolina Piedmont. Here the workers formed “flying squadrons”, car and truck convoys of pickets that motored from mill to mill, closing them down. The tactic met with great success and the authorities responded by mobilising the National Guard. In Georgia governor George Talmadge, “a friend of the workers”, declared martial law and ordered the internment of strikers. There were violent clashes. On 6 September company guards opened fire on a group of about 70 strikers picketing the Chiquola mill in Honea Park and killed seven. Secretary of Labour Perkins described this as “an unfortunate situation”.78 Altogether 15 strikers were killed in the three weeks of the dispute. The union retreated in the face of this repression, suspending the flying squadrons and effectively abandoning any serious attempt to spread the strike. Having given up any attempt to win, they threw themselves on the tender mercies of the Roosevelt administration.

After the strike was called off on the basis of Roosevelt’s assurances one union leader, Francis Gorman, proclaimed it “one of the most amazing victories ever recorded in the annals of the AF of L”.79 In fact the union had surrendered. Roosevelt’s assurances were worthless and thousands of workers found themselves sacked, evicted from company housing and denied relief by agencies run by men appointed by the “millocracy”. The employers’ intention was to strike a blow that would deter attempts at unionisation for a generation. Union membership collapsed from 340,000 in August 1934 to only 79,000 in the summer of 1935. The importance of this defeat for the American labour movement was that it left the South an open shop stronghold.

Was defeat inevitable? Certainly the textile workers confronted ruthless employers, armed to the teeth and with the full support of the police and the National Guard. The union had few financial resources and it received no help from the AFL. Nevertheless, when the strike was called off, union members were still fighting and still believed they could win. Between the end of the strike and the end of July 1935 there were 94 textile strikes across the South as the workers tried to protect themselves with or without the union.80 Instead of even a fighting retreat the union leadership chose surrender and proclaimed the disaster a historic victory. The union leader who made this proclamation, Francis Gorman, belatedly recognised, two years after the strike, “Many of us did not understand fully the role of government in a struggle between labour and industry… Government protects the strong, not the weak, and…yields to that group which is strong enough to assert itself over the other”.81


1: For the 1919 steel strike see Brody, 1987. See also Foster, 1920.

2: Soule, 1947, p200.

3: For this strike see Davis, 1997.

4: According to Melvyn Dubofsky, from 1922 until his death in 1924 the AFL president, Samuel Gompers, “acted the beggar, beseeching employers to give the unions a break… His successor as president, William Green, proved even less militant and more deferential to employers”-Dubofsky, 1994, p97.

5: Foner, 1991, p167. Dunne had been one of the leaders of the insurgent labour movement in Butte, Montana. After the kidnapping and murder of the Industrial Workers of the World organiser Frank Little in the city in 1917, an attempt was made to lift Dunne. “I had a .32 Colt in my coat pocket-with my hand on it-and I shot twice. Two of the men dropped and the third ran.” The next day he searched the press for a report of the shootings but found instead “headlines announcing that W F Dunne had disappeared”-Howard, 1924, pp192-193. William Dunne was for most of the 1920s a close ally of James P Cannon in the Communist Party but he went on to become a hardline Stalinist. His younger brothers, Ray, Miles and Grant, were to follow Cannon out of the party and became stalwarts of the Trotskyist movement.

6: Down from a membership of 40,000 in 1920. Peterson, 1987, pp113, 126.

7: Robertson, 2000, p23.

8: Cannadine, 2006, p361.

9: The phrase is from Forbath, 1991, p98.

10: Montgomery, 1980, p160.

11: Accounts of Fannie Sellins’s death differ over detail, something which reflects the determination of the authorities not to inquire too deeply. See however Cassedy, 1992, and Meyerhuber, 1986, pp42-59.

12: Huberman, 1937, p6.

13: Muste, 1970, pp65, 66.

14: Brooks, 1978, pp51-52.

15: Chandler, 1970, p5; Watkins, 1999, p40.

16: Lens, 1949, p256.

17: Chandler, 1970, p34; Watkins, 1999, p44.

18: Martin, 1976, p259; Perkins, 1948, pp135, 256. The best account of Roosevelt as a politician is that offered by David Shannon who characterises him as “an extraordinarily gifted political broker… He did not design the New Deal; he ‘brokered’ it”-Shannon, 1979, p178.

19: Freidel, 1952, p121.

20: Kennedy, 1999, p297.

21: Lundberg, 1938, pp459-460.

22: Lens, 1949, p272. One aspect of Section 7(a) that is often ignored is its impact on black workers. Attempts by black organisations to have anti-discrimination written into the codes, banning unions from barring black workers from membership, were shamefully opposed by the AFL and eventually dropped. See Wolters, 1969.

23: Bernstein, 1970, p34.

24: Watkins, 1999, p218.

25: Zieger, 1994, p42.

26: Preis, 1972, p17.

27: Bellush, 1975, p56.

28: Ohl, 1985, p198; Bellush, 1975, p94.

29: Dubofsky, 1994, p118.

30: Bellush, 1975, pp55, 79-80.

31: Fine, 1963, p148.

32: Lens, 1974, pp286-287; Lens, 1980, pp56-57, 63-64.

33: The phrase is from Ryan, 2004.

34: Watkins, 1999, p119.

35: Folsom, 1994, pp246-257. For the Third Degree see Leo, 2008.

36: Storch, 2007, pp100-102.

37: Widick, 1989, pp49-50.

38: Lens, 1980, pp24, 54.

39: The Industrial Workers of the World, known as the “Wobblies”, was a large revolutionary syndicalist trade union organisation in the 1910s and 1920s.

40: For the Farmer-Labour Party, see Valelly, 1989.

41: Engelmann, 1974.

42: Bellush, 1975, p178.

43: For Muste see in particular Robinson, 1988.

44: Salmond, 2004, pp7-8, 22-23, 63-64.

45: Rosenzweig, 1975.

46: For a very interesting discussion of Sidney Hook’s involvement with the AWP see Phelps, 1997, pp109-123.

47: Bernstein, 1970, pp222-223.

48: Fine, 1963, p279.

49: Muste, 1970, p157.

50: Phelan, 1989, pp86-87.

51: Millikan, 2000, p219.

52: Faue, 1991, p56.

53: Walker, 2005, p90.

54: Dobbs, 1972, p103.

55: Walker, 2005, p272.

56: Millikan, 2000, p272.

57: Dobbs, 1972, p94.

58: In his biography of Floyd Olson, George Mayer writes of this incident that the Local 574 leadership “played an equally reprehensible role as the police”. He claims that “the strike leaders sought the shedding of blood to reinforce working class solidarity” and that they deliberately sent pickets into an ambush where they knew men would be killed-Mayer, 1987, pp209-210. Bernstein agrees, writing that Dunne and Dobbs deliberately sent “unsuspecting pickets into the rain of police gunfire”. He puts this down to the “Marxist doctrine of class warfare, with its inversion of ordinary ends and means”-Bernstein, 1970, p243. The problem with this is that the only evidence for it is the authors’ distaste for Trotskyism. The slander seems to have originated with people on Olson’s staff, who had their own reformist political agenda.

59: Dobbs, 1972, p156.

60: Dobbs, 1972, p157.

61: Walker, 2005, p198.

62: Dobbs, 1972, pp170-171.

63: Cannon, 1944, p161.

64: Mayer, 1987, p221.

65: The May and July strikes provoked the publication of a minor Stalinist classic: Permanent Counter-Revolution: The Role of the Trotzkyites in the Minneapolis Strikes by William Dunne and Morris Childs. They condemn the Trotskyists’ “defeatist strategy and tactics”, accuse them of “strike_breaking”, of writing “another miserable page in the history of class collaboration”, of being “spineless and unprincipled leaders”, and of following “a counter-revolutionary and, therefore, anti working class policy”-Dunne and Childs, 1934, pp3, 21, 22, 23, 47.

66: Larrowe, 1977, p13.

67: Selvin, 1996, p57. The best account of the strike along the whole Pacific coast is Markholt, 1988.

68: The party organiser in California, Sam Darcy, had little time for “dual unionism”. On one occasion, when he was being berated by an emissary from party general secretary Earl Browder for rightist deviations, he threw the man out of the window. See Kimeldorf, 1992, p8.

69: Larrowe, 1977, p21.

70: Ryan was a friend to employers, gangsters and politicians, including Roosevelt when he was Governor of New York State. Incredibly, his political friends made him head of the New York State Parole Board, which was very useful to his gangster friends. Many of the ILA’s New York officials were gang members, most notably the head of the union in Brooklyn, Albert Anastasia, whose brother, Tony, ran Murder Incorporated for the New York mob. In the aftermath of the Pacific strike, a rank and file opposition developed in New York, led by Peter Panto. He built up widespread support but then suddenly disappeared in 1939. His body was eventually found in a secret mob cemetery in 1947; he had been strangled. See Kimeldorf, 1992, p124.

71: For a graphic account see Bernstein, 1970, pp272-279.

72: Crook, 1960, p123.

73: Nelson, 1990, p149.

74: Selvin, 1996, p178.

75: Martin, 1976, p320.

76: Larrowe, 1977, pp99-100.

77: Nelson, 1990, pp156-162.

78: Irons, 2000, pp148-150. For a nationwide account of the strike see Salmond, 2002.

79: Hodges, 1986, p117.

80: Hodges, 1986, p146.

81: Irons, 2000, p163.


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