The 80th Anniversary of the Strike that Freed Minnesota from Tyranny

By William K. Black

Teaching makes one feel very old, very quickly.  You make a movie or literary allusion and your students stare at you blankly because A Man for All Seasons won all those Oscars decades before they were born.  University students know only a world in which women are the majority and make up half the students in law schools and many other professional schools.  The idea that women were treated as less than second class citizens is inconceivable to our students.

Tom Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, (who has a doctorate in history) writes about how most Democratic Party leaders turned their back decades ago on organized labor.  Frank routinely asks progressives what they think about labor unions – and he tells me that the answers are overwhelmingly negative in terms of immediate responses.  Eventually, the progressives mention the vital role that unions once played, but that is an intellectual response about a bygone era.

Our students have the same immediate, personal response, but rarely add the intellectual response that comes from studying history.  They don’t like unions, they are appalled by strikes, and they don’t want to be members of a union.  The response of union leaders and older non-union progressives is typically to point out the things that we now take for granted that make life as a worker livable – a limited work week, overtime, safety rules, and vacations.  But university and law students do not expect to work in jobs where such rules are relevant and they cannot comprehend a world in which the workers have no protections or rights.

The usual story about the value of unions vastly understates their historical value and courage.  The U.S. is sliding rapidly back into crony capitalism, a highly effective system for making the elite exceptionally wealthy at the expense of most people.  It also creates dominant political power for the elite.  It is, however, a modern version that relies on corrupt and covert campaign contributions blessed by a dogmatic Supreme Court eager to serve and praise the elite’s interests rather than on direct force.

Of course, as the violent suppression of the Occupy movement demonstrated they are willing to resort to force if the legitimacy of their rule is challenged.  Eighty years ago, however, violence, paid informers, blacklisting, private militias, injunctions, and murderous violence were the norm.  Firms and government were simply different branches of a seamless means for destroying unions and suppressing the economic and political power of workers.

The 80th Anniversary of the Minneapolis Truck Drivers’ Strike

Most Americans consider Minnesota to be a liberal State. In 1934 Minnesota and many other States were controlled by the “Citizens Alliance.”  The Alliance was that era’s business party, but it also had a network of paid informers who were (or posed as) workers, and a militia that the State would deputize and give law enforcement powers to so that they could attack union strikers with impunity.  Workers who sought to organize unions were identified by the paid informers, fired, and banned from employment by any Alliance members.  When strikes occurred the Alliance would use its network of informers to identify workers who could be bribed or coerced into breaking the strike.  Minnesota was an organized police state dedicated to preventing unions and reserving exclusive political power to businessmen.  “Free press” was a fiction – the Alliance organized advertising boycotts of papers that were even mildly sympathetic to workers.  The Alliance boycotted firms that made concessions to workers.  The Alliance also made it easier to create and maintain the cartels that Adam Smith warned about.  The Alliance was so extreme that when Minnesota’s Governor Floyd Olson proposed a State program of unemployment insurance the Alliance denounced it as the “ultimate socialistic control of life and industry.”  The Alliance feared that the program would reduce its stranglehold on workers.

The Alliance created trade schools not simply to have a supply of trained craftsmen, but also to indoctrinate workers and form a ready pool of strike breakers.  In the modern era we hear constantly about the superiority of “job creators” and the claim that the CEOs are billionaires because we increasingly live in a “hyper-meritocracy.”  In the 1920s and 1930s the students in trade schools were told:  “Your employer is your superior, and more entitled to your respect than you are to his.”

William Millikan, A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947 (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001).

It was in these seemingly impossible circumstances that union organizers decided to break the Alliance’s police state by organizing a successful strike in Minneapolis, the Alliance’s fiefdom. It was 1934, during the Great Depression when the idea of the unions successfully taking on the Alliance seemed fanciful, that experienced union organizers who had been planning the truckers’ strike for several years began their strike.

The union organizers of Teamsters Local 574 proved to be brilliant in enlisting and maintaining the support of the striking workers, in securing the support of other workers and the general public, and in their planning for the strike.  They organized a huge commissary staffed by a women’s auxiliary, a medical facility staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses, a newsletter that countered the propaganda of the corporate-dominated “free press,” and hundreds of motorcycles and cars to serve both as scouts to spot strikebreakers and to rapidly deploy reserves of the most dedicated strikers to wherever they were needed.

The police tried to break the strike by arresting over 100 strikers.  The police were overwhelmed by the number of strikers and their organization and mobility so they made American Legion and Alliance members “deputies” with police powers to violently suppress the strike with impunity.

“Deputies Run”

American workers were accustomed to being beaten by the police, the Alliance militias, and private groups like the Pinkertons employed by businesses.  In May 1934, however, these violent tactics were trumped by Local 574’s superior organization and dedication.  The deputized Alliance members were routed and fled in panic in a confrontation that became known as “Deputies Run.”

The union workers that triumphed at Deputies Run had been enraged by an Alliance ambush of unarmed workers, including women supporting them, arranged by one of the Alliance’s paid informers.  Scores of workers, including the women supporting their cause, were severely beaten by Alliance members armed with clubs.  Local 574 members armed themselves with similar weapons and instead of being intimidated by the mass of armed Alliance deputies that sought to break the strike the workers charged the Alliance deputies and caused them to flee.  The workers victory over the Alliance electrified workers all over America.  The Alliance would never recover its power in Minnesota.

Why Isn’t the Teamsters Freeing of Minnesota from a Police State Celebrated Today?

Unions did not simply bring us weekends, vacations, safer working conditions, and higher wages – they saved a very large section of the Nation from tyranny.  The Alliance ran a police state in many States.  Why then do we not celebrate “Deputies Run” as a national, or at least Minnesota, holiday?

Deputies Run is toxic in today’s world.  First, the key organizers of the Teamsters Local 574 strike were Trotskyites.  Second, they were denounced, not supported, by the head of the International Teamsters union, so they are not attractive heroes from the standpoint of union hierarchies.  Third, Deputies Run was a violent event in which an Alliance “deputy” and two strikers were killed in the fighting.  Alliance deputies also killed Local 574 strikers in other clashes.  Imagine the “scandal” that Fox News would raise if one taught students about the strike and did not denounce the strikers.  The Tea Party is the ideological successor to the Alliance in many ways, but the Tea Party likes to defend the right to use force in defense of “liberty.”  How can one take on a police state like the Alliance ran in Minnesota that uses violence under the color of law as one of its many core tactics?  If Local 574 had not responded in kind to the Alliance’s attack on unarmed workers the strike would have been broken and the Alliance’s police state would have persisted.

In the modern era the heroic Local 574 workers who rescued Minnesota and much of the Nation from the Alliance’s tyranny cannot be celebrated.  United States politicians would rather be tortured at Gitmo than admit that the radical left saved America from the radical right.  Such an admission is all the more impossible because  while the workers overwhelmingly used peaceful means and were typically the victims of violence and coercion, they also did so through the violent overthrow of tyranny at Deputies Run.

It is telling that the Hennepin County deputies association now celebrates the service of the Alliance member who died at Deputies Run.  The official write-up reinvents history.  The Alliance becomes the heroic protectors of society against the violent unions.

“During the summer of 1934 there were a series of deadly union riots in Minneapolis. Teamster truck drivers (Minneapolis General Drivers and Helpers Union) went on strike in early May and staged a series of progressively violent demonstrations. During this time the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office swore in additional special deputies and the Minneapolis Police Department also swore in additional special policeman to assist with strike control. Minneapolis businesses also created their own ‘special deputies of the citizens alliance’ to protect their livelihood’s [sic].”

Treating the Alliance’s totalitarian goon squad members who “assist[ed] with strike control” (i.e., violently suppressing a lawful strike) as if they were real deputies is an insult to the professional deputies of Hennepin County who died in the line of service.  Treating the workers who suffered so much and risked their lives to break the Alliance’s police state as evil is a vile lie.  If the people of Minnesota were taught the real history of the Alliance and Teamsters Local 574 these lies would exposed and ridiculed.

We know, even with the Alliance’s almost total control over the “free press” in 1934; that the people of Minneapolis overwhelmingly viewed the workers as the heroes of the confrontation as their mass public displays of support for the strikers brought about the collapse of the Alliance’s efforts to destroy the strike, the strikers, and the unions.  Our media today are as unwilling as they were in 1934 to admit that radicals might be good human being that rescued much of our Nation from tyranny.  A majority of the people of Minneapolis, however, recognized that truth in 1934.  So please join me in celebrating the 80th anniversary of Deputies Run.  We should mourn the victims, including the Alliance “deputy,” but celebrate the victory over tyranny.

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