In Minnesota 80 years ago, Teamsters changed everything. The 1934 Teamster strike in Minneapolis was one of the main catalysts for the rise of unions in the 1930s. Teamsters recently celebrated that heritage, and remembered the fallen, at the site of the historic strike.
Tens of thousands of working people participated in the strike, which began May 16, 1934, and lasted throughout the summer.
There’s no one more qualified to talk about the 1934 Teamster strike than Tom Keegel, the former General Secretary-Treasury of the Teamsters Union. Keegel is a third-generation Teamster who joined the union in 1959 after he graduated from high school. He worked his way up from being a Teamster business agent in 1977, to taking office as General Secretary-Treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1999.
“People were hungry and looking for work,” Keegel said at the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the 1934 Teamsters strike. “We need to commemorate them and honor them because they had the guts to stand up and take on the fight. Without them, workers wouldn’t have health insurance, pensions, holidays or vacations.”
“It was a privilege for me to walk the strike path with Tom Keegel and hear the stories of the Teamsters who fought to bring us the rights and benefits we have today. As a new member I am proud to be a part of a union that has such a proud history and strong traditions. I hope that I would have the courage to fight as hard as they did for the things that matter most,” said new Super-Value Teamster Andrew McGuire.
A highlight of the event was when Sen. Al Franken spoke to those in attendance about the importance of the strike and the labor movement, but he and Keegel weren’t the only leaders in attendance, which included descendants of many original 1934 strikers.
The remembrance of the strike also included a march through Minneapolis, including to many strike sites, and a picnic. A marching band led the crowd in union songs as people lined the streets. A banner reading “Remember 1934” was carried by two descendents of the strikers, State Rep. Debra Hilstrom and retired Teamster Harry Villella, as well as two Teamster stewards, Marty Brinkman and Cecil Alston.
In 1934 Minneapolis was one of the major hauling centers of the United States, and the major distribution center in the Upper Midwest. Thousands of truck drivers were employed in the city’s trucking industry, but many were unorganized. A small group of organized drivers in the city made up General Drivers Local 574 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Local 574 had been trying for several years to organize drivers in Minneapolis.
Union recognition for workers was difficult to obtain in Minneapolis. Since the turn of the century, an employers’ organization known as the Citizens Alliance had been the major force active during labor disputes in the city. The group consisted of a council of prominent local property owners and various anti-worker elements active in local politics. The Alliance took a strongly anti-union line, and was often not averse to using violence to break up strikes.
But Local 574 finally got a break. In February 1934, the local won a difficult strike at a coal yard and the victory prompted thousands of workers to join the union en masse over the next few months. This gave Local 574 an unprecedented boost, both in terms of membership numbers and credibility among drivers and warehouse workers. By May, the number of organized drivers and warehouse workers in Minneapolis had grown to 5,000.
But many companies in the city refused to recognize the union. The only recourse left to the workers was to call a general drivers’ strike. The strike began on May 16. The workers demanded recognition of the union, wage increases and shorter working hours. The strike brought trucking in the city to a standstill.
The first major instance of violence was on May 19 when police attacked a group of strikers who were attempting to stop scabs unloading a truck in the city’s market area. The market area became a central location for strike action and violence. Police attacks occurred again on May 21 and 22 when officers and members of the Citizens Alliance advanced on a group of 20,000 workers and supporters trying to stop the opening of the market area.
On July 20, the most violent episode of the strike took place. A large group of unarmed workers were fired on by more than 100 police officers. They had been lured to a street corner by deputies in a scab truck. The incident became known as “Bloody Friday.” A public commission set up after the strike later testified that “Police took direct aim at the pickets and fired to kill. Physical safety of the police was at no time endangered. No weapons were in possession of the pickets.”
Two strikers, John Belor and Henry Ness, were killed in the hail of bullets. More than 65 other workers were injured. Many were shot in the back. The police violence left the working class of Minneapolis stunned, and offers of support and donations flooded in from other unions. A crowd of 100,000 people attended Henry Ness’ funeral.
The strike finally ended on August 21. Through mediation, the employers and Citizens Alliance accepted the union’s major demands. Elections were held in workplaces and many more workers joined the union. Many workers also later won major pay increases through arbitration.
The strike was instrumental in building a strong union tradition in Minneapolis and across the Midwest, with a writer of the Minneapolis Labour Review later noting that, “The winning of this strike marks the greatest victory in the annals of the local trade union movement…it has changed Minneapolis from being known as a scab’s paradise to being a city of hope for those who toil.”
The Minneapolis strike of 1934 is widely seen as a pivotal moment for the Teamsters and for the labor movement. The union also grew in stature, proving to be a powerful force in the labor movement. The outcome of the strike also led to the enactment of legislation acknowledging the rights of workers to organize and bargain, including the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“The Minneapolis Strike was truly a turning point for labor, bringing recognition to the union and dignity to workers. But history has a way of repeating itself,” said Joe Dwyer, Assistant Trustee of Local 120. “If we take the 1934 strikers’ victories for granted and forget their struggles, we will likely have to fight their battles all over again. The struggles workers face today are not so different from those dark days 80 years ago.”
“This event made me look differently at how we got our union rights even after more than 40 years as a Teamster,” said Bill Moore, Trustee for Minnesota’s Local 120. “If viewing the pictures from the strike and the event commemorating it does not change your heart and your commitment to your union, you need to pinch yourself to make sure you are awake.”