1934 Teamsters Strike

How Can Labor Win Again?

In 1934, the Minneapolis Teamsters union went on one of the largest and most militant strikes in American history. For three months, these workers shut down virtually all commercial traffic into and out of the city and took over the downtown Market area.

They established links of solidarity with farmers and other workers in the area; for example, allowing local farmers through their picket lines to deliver directly to strike-friendly grocers in the city. In spite of brutal attacks by the employers and their state, including police massacres and the mobilization of the National Guard, the Teamsters held strong and eventually won union recognition and a contract.

It goes without saying that such a strike is beyond the wildest imagination of today’s labor leaders. Why is this? Have workers’ conditions improved so greatly that there is now no need to fight? One feels guilty even suggesting this. The news is full of reports that reveal the reality faced by millions of workers in the US. For example, meatpacking workers who have to wear adult diapers because their employers do not give them enough time off the line to use the bathroom. Or a recent article in Bloomberg News discussing the auto parts boom taking place in Alabama, citing “double the amputation risk nationally for the industry,” and detailing several horrific accidents, including a fall into a “vat of sulfuric and phosphoric acid four feet deep.”

Millions of American workers live in poverty, are drowning under medical bills, or are bound by inescapable debt. Recent movements like Occupy, Wisconsin Rising, Black Lives Matter, and the fightback against Trump show that workers are ready and willing to struggle. Nor has the state become any kinder. One need only to watch the police response to the Ferguson and later BLM protests to see that the state is better armed and more willing to use violence than ever.

So, what changed? In short, the relationship between the labor leadership, the bosses, and their system—capitalism. A concerted attack on the Left—for example, the Smith Act, which imprisoned many of the leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters strike—combined with the postwar boom, when massive profits made possible certain concessions to labor, led to blatant and open class collaboration between the labor leaders and capital. It did not happen all at once, but this has set the stage for a situation where the leader of the AFL-CIO can meet with Donald Trump and call it “very honest and productive.”

Of course, the labor movement is neither homogeneous nor dead. Many, including union activists and professional organizers, have been looking for a way back to class-struggle unionism, especially since the never-truly-ended Great Recession. In these conditions, Marxists must address a key question: How and in what form will militant class-struggle unionism reemerge, and what role can we play in this process?

In Minnesota and nationally we have witnessed a trend towards public pressure and lobbying as the means by which labor organizations attempt to improve workers’ conditions. The central focus is often the campaign rather than the workplace, activism rather than organizing or building for successful strikes. Informational picket lines—which scabs and customers cross with impunity—take the place of strikes with picket lines enforced by organized workers that shut down production. The professional union apparatus of policy “wonks,” lawyers, and lobbyists runs point, while workers are called upon to back them up by providing testimony to committees, showing up for press conferences, or contacting elected representatives.

This often involves a patronizing attitude towards workers, in which you are invited to a meeting, and it’s “all about you”—your experience, your feelings, your suffering. The leaders don’t present any concrete strategy or analysis for fear that they might offend you by suggesting what you might do or think. Meetings end up feeling more like support groups than decision-making or coordinating bodies.

Of course, the key strategic decisions have already been made elsewhere, by professional activists and bureaucrats. You are at the meeting to get prepped for playing your role: to “tell your story” and “bear witness” to your problems as part of the public pressure campaign. This is not to denigrate emotional support among workers or the value of sharing one’s experiences. But let’s not confuse support groups with dishonest organizing meetings and real organizing meetings with support groups.

Underlying this approach is a deep-seated pessimism about the workers’ ability to win organizing drives or struggles in particular workplaces. We are told that workers are “not ready” to unionize yet, and must first be “engaged” with general issue campaigns. These campaigns require relatively little from workers and rely much more on activists and a professional apparatus, which explains why every interest group from the Sierra Club to the NRA is capable of running such campaigns. In spite of union professionals’ assertions that these campaigns are engaging workers, these campaigns, in fact, leave workers without any sustainable structures through which to participate and without any sense of their unique role in the class struggle. And instead of raising the workers’ political horizons by calling for and laying the foundations for an independent labor party based on the unions, their sole political focus is to get out the vote for the Democrats. As a result of all of this, they are burning out a small layer of earnest and committed worker-activists while leaving the rest of the class unengaged.

As Marxists, we must be clear that the power of the working class does not come from our ability to apply public pressure in the abstract, but from our position in the process of production, i.e., our ability to withhold our labor, stop production, and strike directly at profit-making. We must organize workers at the point of production, wherever there are workers selling their labor power for a wage: factories, retail stores, farm fields, restaurants, hospitals, schools, and on and on.  

We must orient towards both particular workplace struggles and the more general political struggle, which in the final analysis means a confrontation with capitalism, its state, laws, and political parties. We must link workers across industries and areas and be willing to use our most powerful weapon—the strike. Instead, we are caught in a vicious cycle in which labor’s setbacks during a period of sustained capitalist offensive have led to demoralization, which in turn leads to the adoption of strategies that only further undermine the confidence and organization of the workers’ movement. We must break this cycle!

In 1933, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was considered a conservative union. Without the leadership of radical militants, many of whom belonged to the Trotskyist Communist League of America, Local 574 in Minneapolis would not have been oriented towards the struggle it was about to fight, nor would it have been able to achieve its victory. Whether today’s labor leaders like it or not, the labor movement was built by socialists, anarchists, and communists, including Trotskyists. Join the International Marxist Tendency and help us to build that kind of fighting force in the American workers’ movement today.

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