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Closing the Shop

By Robert O’Connor.

[This is part five in a series on the grittier history of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Part one detailed the rise and fall of Doc Ames, part two told of Prohibition in St. Paul and the rise of the O’Connor system, part three chronicled St. Paul’s gangster era and part four chronicled Minneapolis’ gangster era and the landmark freedom of the press case that came out of that time]

In the fall of 1903, workers at Minneapolis flour mills went on strike, demanding union representation. The flour mills were the largest industry in the city and they resisted. The mills, which included the Washburn-Crosby Company (now General Mills) and the Pillsbury Company, along with the Minneapolis Commercial Club found common cause in keeping unions out – keeping Minneapolis an “open-shop” town.

David M. Parry, the President of the National Association of Manufacturers, who assisted in breaking the strike, spoke at the Commercial Club that November. According to William Millikan in his detailed history of the Citizens Alliance “A Union Against Unions“, Parry told the club “law and order must be enforced,” and that the closed shop was a “theory of government to which those who understand and appreciate American liberty and American civilization will never give their willing consent.”

For the next three decades, the CA would successfully break every strike in Minneapolis. They had created their own craft schools so workers didn’t get their training from unions – many of them surviving to this day like Dunwoody Institute. They also had a legion of industrial spies.

In 1918 the CA helped defeat two pro-labor candidates for political office – Thomas Van Lear for another term as Mayor of Minneapolis and Charles Lindbergh Sr. (father of the famous aviator) for Governor of Minnesota.

Workers found allies in the Non-Partisan League – which was suppressed during World War I because many of its members – including Lindbergh – opposed the war. After the war, allies of Labor formed the Farmer-Labor Party. In 1923, the party gained both of Minnesota’s senate seats. Henrik Shipstead had won in the general election the previous year and Magnus Johnson won after a special election to replace Knute Nelson, who died in office.

And in 1931, they gained the Governor’s office. The man who won was named Floyd B. Olson, who had made his name as Hennepin County Attorney. He combatted the Citizens Alliance in several cases and was considered a champion of organized labor.

olsonGovernor Floyd B. Olson’s official state portrait by Carl Bohnen (1937)

Olson won his first term during the Great Depression, but before the New Deal. While in office, he strongly advocated for labor rights, and helped pressure the Legislature through his radio speeches. Support among labor for Olson was strong – so strong that he was easily re-elected in 1932 even as support among other groups fell as his agenda became more and more radical.

In 1933, President Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act in an attempt to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression. Section 7(a) of the act protected collective bargaining rights for unions. Around the country, membership in unions soared and began challenging businesses to recognize them. To solve labor disputes, the National Labor Relations Board was set up by Roosevelt, along with regional boards.

These new tools gave union organizers hope, and they worked around the country to organize workers using them. In 1934, the Teamsters Union organized truck drivers in a strike that would break the hold of the Citizens Alliance and put Minneapolis in the labor history books.


BE066249The Dunne Brothers during the strike (Corbis)

The organizers had been planning the strike for months. The people who organized it were the members of the Teamsters Union Local 574. It was a small local – no more than 75 members. One of the people instrumental in the organizing of 574 was Carl Skoglund, one of the founders of the American Communist Party.  He had worked as a railroad worker for many years but was blacklisted in 1922 and made his living as a truck driver. During that time he met the Dunne Brothers – Ray, Miles and Grant.

The four of them, along with as Farrell Dobbs, organized truckers who delivered coal as well as workers in the coal yards. Unlike the national Teamsters Union, they tried recruiting as many drivers they could find rather than focusing on skilled ones. Their demands were a pay increase for the drivers to 60 cents an hour and a recognition of the unions.

On February 7th, 1934, with temperatures well below freezing, truck drivers stopped delivering coal. Strikers also blocked entrances to the city so rats couldn’t bring in coal. If they tried, the trucks were seized and their cargo was dumped. The police were dispatched, but were stretched and could barely maintain order. As coal supplies dwindled, employers relented. The victory gave Local 574 respect among truckers and it began organizing as many drivers as they could. By the end of April, they had signed up 2-3,000 drivers.

The Citizens Alliance was preparing too. They formed a competing organization named the Minneapolis Employers of Drivers and Helpers. Businesses who employed truck drivers formed the Employers’ Advisory Committee. The CA told the Local that it had stopped the drivers from striking in 1916 for $25,000 and could do it again for much less.

Local 574 presented its demands on April 30: a closed-shop, a wage of $27.50/week, shorter hours and overtime pay. The Regional Labor Board mediated negotiations between the MEDH and the Local. The MEDH held firm even as the Local withdrew demands for a closed shop. Charles Walker wrote in his book “American City” that the MEDH had no intention of granting any of the Local’s demands. Negotiations collapsed and on May 12th, Local 574 voted to strike.

Nine Days in May

It began on Wednesday, May 16th. The Dunne brothers and Skoglund set up their base in a parking garage at 1900 Chicago Avenue in the market district (now the warehouse district). The leader of the Communist Leadership Alliance, James P. Cannon flew in from New York to assist them. Cannon would later found the Socialist Workers Party. Farrell Dobbs, who would replace Cannon as head of the SWP, helped coordinate the strike.

As before, truckers walked off work and blocked trucks from entering or leaving the city.  Trucks that tried to leave would have their cargo confiscated and dumped. Gas stations continued to fuel trucks despite threats from picketers that they would be targeted if they did.

The parking garage was used to coordinate activities during the day, and at night people would gather and hear speeches and entertainment. The local was able to pay the rent of the garage thanks to donations – including one of $500 from Governor Olson. Eric Sevareid, who was sent to cover the strikes by the Minneapolis Star, endorsed the strikes. Eccentric Congressman Francis Shoemaker participated in solidarity with the drivers and was arrested.

On Saturday, The two sides had achieved a stalemate in negotiations, effectively shutting the city down. Governor Olson published a statement to the MEDH that threatened bringing in the National Guard if the two sides didn’t reach an agreement.The CA loudly agreed at a meeting that afternoon that “law and order” must prevail. Police Chief Mike Johannes had asked the city council for 50 special police officers and the CA volunteered to help.

From a headquarters at 1328 Hennepin Avenue, The CA recruited members of the public to break the strike, giving them badges and nightsticks telling them they would be “restoring law and order.” The CA had done this before during a 1917 streetcar strike.

Saturday evening, a CA plant named James O’Hara took the microphone at strike headquarters and called for several trucks to be filled with men and women. The trucks were taken to an alley along the Minneapolis Tribune building. Police and deputies were waiting and beat the people with night sticks. In retaliation, the union armed its members with lead pipes and baseball bats.

At that moment, the standstill gave way to civil war.

On May 21st, two trucks were loaded but were met with armed strikers. The police met them with clubs and drew their guns. One union leader had arranged for another to drive a truck filled with reinforcements straight at the policemen. 37 people were injured in what later became known as the “Battle of Deputies Run.”

battledeputiesrunDuring the “battle of the deputies run” (St. Paul Daily News)

The number of injured caused the Building Trades Council to vote on a sympathy strike, and thousands of construction workers walked off the job. the police and the strikers faced off again on May 22nd. 3/4 of the police force and a thousand special deputies converged on the market district. But the police held back and the special deputies charged toward the armed strikers. Arthur Lyman, Vice-President of the American Ball Company was caught in the battle and was severely injured. A famous photograph of him was taken just before he was hit again. He died later at the hospital. And just after he was hit, word got out that the RLB had reached a 24-hour truce.

arthurlymanArthur Lyman, just before being fatally struck by a union supporter

Governor Olson assembled the National Guard as negotiations looked like they were about to fail. But at the last minute, he hammered out a compromise and promised the unions representation. Union representatives were skeptical, but they accepted.

On May 25th, Local 574 voted to accept the agreement and trucking services resumed the following day. In all, the nine-day strike had cost the city $1.9 million. The Citizens Alliance had spent most of that money and tried asking the city for it back.

By mid-June it appeared to the CA that the truce was breaking down. Anticipating a strike, the CA sent out press releases and ads trying to make any anticipated violence be the union’s fault. Chief Johannes asked the city council for more officers and more money for weapons like machine guns and armor.

Nine Days in July

On July 16th, the union struck again. The National Labor Relations Board sent two negotiators, Reverend Francis Haas and Eugene Dunnigan. On July 20th, Johannes ordered a truck be moved with guard protection. 50 officers protected the truck. When its way was blocked by a union car, officers opened fire on strikers. The leaders of the Local had decided to not arm strikers at the beginning of the strike – any violence would be the fault of the police. 67 strikers were hit – 40 in the back as they tried to flee. Two would later die of their injuries. In response, cleaners joined the strike.

policefirePolice fire at fleeing crowd (Minneapolis Tribune)

On July 25th, Haas and Dunnigan released their compromise: Full reinstatement of striking workers, elections at all trucking firms and establishment of minimum wage as basis for arbitration. Governor Olson threatened to deploy the National Guard if both sides did not agree.

Immediately after the announcement, the union unanimously approved the plan. The Employers Advisory Committee didn’t agree to any of it, saying they wouldn’t make a deal with communists. The EAC accused the leaders of the strike of taking their orders from Moscow (for the record the leaders were Trotskyists and opposed the Stalinist regime in Moscow).

Leading the National Guard was General Ellard Walsh and Brigadier General Frank Reed, a Hennepin County District Court judge. On July 26th, with no agreement, Governor Olson made good on his promise. He established martial law.

Military Rule

nationalguardNational Guard on duty in the market district (MNHS)

Governor Olson declared martial law in Minneapolis on July 26th and 4,000 National Guardsmen were sent in. The Chicago Tribune called Olson a dictator and called his actions “pure Nazi doctrine.” The New York Times on its front page declared that a military dictatorship had been established in Minneapolis. Even the Sydney Morning Herald had a story on it.

Brig. General Reed resigned in protest. Strikers tried stopping trucks, this time escorted by National Guard, but they were arrested, put in a stockade set up at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and tried in a military court. On August 1st, the parking garage was raided and the Dunne brothers, Skoglund and Dobbs were arrested. James P. Cannon was ordered to leave the city. To show he was still on labor’s side, Olson ordered a raid on the CA’s headquarters the following day.

On August 6th, Olson revoked almost all trucking permits for everything except basic services. The EAC applied for an injunction against this, claiming that non-essential businesses like department stores had their rights violated, but the Hennepin County Court disagreed, saying “military rule is preferable under almost any circumstance to mob rule.”

By August 21st, the Haas-Dunnigan compromise was signed by all parties after a few modifications. Martial law came to an end.

Happy Days Are Here Again

The Citizens Alliance had lost. They had been formed to keep unions out of Minneapolis, and here they were. they adopted a new constitution in 1936 and changed their name to Association Industries of Minneapolis.

Local 574 was expelled from the Teamsters Union in 1935, but the following year, they were given a new charter as Local 544, which still exists today.

Floyd B. Olson was up for re-election in November, 1934. Despite the strike, he won a third term as Governor. He ran for Senate in 1936 rather than seek a fourth term. He ran for the seat Thomas Schall had occupied until his death the previous year of a car crash. But Olson himself died of cancer on August 22. The Senate seat and the Governor’s office were won by Farmer-Labor’s candidates that year (Ernest Lundeen and Elmer Benson, respectively). President Franklin Roosevelt ran on a populist message that year and was re-elected in one of the largest landslides in U. S. History (despite a famously inaccurate poll by Literary Digest).

The Farmer-Labor Party, however, was not well organized. As the 1930s came to an end, its candidates lost more and more, and those that won switched parties (Henrik Shipstead became a Republican in 1941). Eventually, thanks to the efforts of Hubert Humphrey and a few others, it merged with the Democratic Party in 1944 and to this day, the full title of the party is the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Similarly, the Non-Partisan League, while it largely dissolved in Minnesota after World War One, continued in North Dakota, eventually merging with the Democratic Party there in 1956, and to this day the full name of the party is the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party.

Farrell Dobbs worked to organize truckers nationwide. Carl Skoglund and James Cannon founded the Socialist Workers Party in 1938. Skoglund, Dobbs and the Dunne brothers stayed members of the Teamsters union until they were expelled in 1940. They were all convicted in 1941 of violating the Smith Act, the first convictions found by the law. The Smith Act was used to prosecute many political activists, both communists and Nazi sympathizers. All convictions under the act were thrown out by the US Supreme Court in 1957, but the law remains on the books.

The Citizens’ Alliance had kept unions out of Minneapolis for three decades. In three months, the Teamsters Union had defeated them. Other strikes that year like the West Coast Longshore strike and the Toledo Auto-Lite strike led to a rise in unionism across the country and put popular support behind the New Deal.


Robert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 4th, 2011.