Remembering "Bloody Friday"

We are living in a tumultuous period of class struggle, characterized by the political reawakening of previously “apathetic” layers of society, and revolutionary upheaval around the world. In just the past year we’ve seen the Arab Revolution, the Occupy movement, the strikes of public sector workers in Wisconsin, the courageous struggle of the Greek working class, the movement of students in Quebec, and much more.  

Dialectically, however, as revolution grows, so does its antithesis: counterrevolution. Along with the political polarization of society come repressive laws and actions by the bourgeois state. This is reflected in reactionary policies such as Quebec Premier Charest’s Bill 78 which was intended to limit the scope of the student movement in Quebec.

1934battle1Class struggle inevitably leads at a certain stage to open conflict. The role of the police force and the military are to protect private property and profits no matter what the cost, even if the cost is human lives. From the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Golden Dawn in Greece, the bourgeoisie has layers in society it leans on to act as a reserve force to their state apparatus. This is nothing new, and we need to look no further than the 1934 strike of Teamsters Local 574 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.     

The 1934 rebellion of the Teamsters union in that city began as a strike against a number of key companies that operated in Minneapolis, but the strike quickly grew to something much larger. At first limited to the truck drivers and warehouse workers who were seeking union recognition, the strike came to involve all layers of the working class in Minneapolis. In this struggle, the bosses used not only the state—the police, the national guard, judges, and government mediators—they also used a reactionary organization called the “Citizens Alliance.”

The name of the organization is quite ironic because its motives were designed not to form an alliance with the working majority of Minneapolis, but to stifle the workers’ fight for better wages, working conditions, union representation, and basically everything that constitutes a respectable work environment. The Citizens Alliance consisted of employers, property owners, and other backward elements who were adamantly anti-union. The Alliance had managed, through intimidation, to keep Minneapolis an open shop before the 1934 strike.   

Throughout the strike there were many violent clashes between the strikers and the police, along with the Citizens Alliance’s thugs. Tension between the picketers and the police were extremely high on the morning of July 20, when strikebreakers were making a small delivery of groceries by truck to a market. The delivery truck was escorted by approximately one hundred police officers armed with shotguns, but it was also being followed by a truck of approximately nine or ten unarmed picketers.

The police force had become particularly bloodthirsty since the strike had escalated and questioned the authority of the business owners and the police. One figure who stood out was Chief of Police Michael Johannes, who was nicknamed “Bloody Mike” by the strikers. After a short period of being followed by the unarmed strikers, the police suddenly opened fire on the picket truck.

As soon as other strikers saw this, they rushed to aid their fellow workers by picking them up and carrying them away from the gunfire. At this point, the police opened fire on any picketer they saw, even if they were simply trying to help those who were seriously injured or dying.

The police had been tirelessly looking for an excuse to assert their dominance over the strikers, and they had finally found it. Using the excuse that workers were rushing towards the police—when they were actually rushing to aid their fallen friends and brothers—the police unleashed a seemingly endless rain of gunfire.

More than 65 strikers were wounded (most shot in the back) and two, Henry Ness and John Belor, died of their wounds. The day came to be nicknamed in the U.S. labor movement as “Bloody Friday,” a reference to Bloody Sunday—the Russian Imperial Guard’s heinous gunning down of peaceful demonstrators on January 22, 1905.  Bloody Friday was only one of many confrontations that Local 574 had with the military and the police force, but it was by far the most brutal.

In order for a strike to be successful, organized workers must use every development of the strike to their advantage, even if that development seems like a huge defeat to the strikers. Local 574’s Trotskyist leadership was completely aware of this. Even though the workers and organizers of the union were dealt a massive blow by all of the injuries and the two deaths, they knew that Bloody Friday was the perfect opportunity to expose the cynical role of the police and politicians in defending the interests of the bosses in their efforts to break the strike.

To this end, the union used its newspaper, The Organizer, to get the word out to the people about the horrid circumstances they were facing in their fight for their rights, and how the authorities had been reduced to tactics of vicious violence in order to suppress the strike.

Due to the actions of the state, public opinion began to shift strongly in support of Local 574.  Most people who looked at the strike with an apathetic or disapproving eye soon became supportive of it, or at least sympathetic toward the strikers. Many workers who were “on the fence” soon became open supporters. Despite the subsequent intervention of the National Guard and the arrest of the leaders of the strike, Local 574 wasn’t defeated and went on to transform Minneapolis into a union town.

Marx once said that revolution sometimes needs the whip of counterrevolution to push it forward. Bloody Sunday acted as a catalyst for the Russian Revolution of 1905—the Russian working class had learned through experience who the tsarist state defended. The severe police and legislative repression that the Quebec student movement and the repression that Occupy faced, particularly in NYC and Oakland, are also important “teachable moments” for the working class and the youth.

Friday, July 20, 2012 will be the 78th anniversary of Bloody Friday. On this day, we should be sure to commemorate those who put their lives at risk for their fellow workers and for the struggle for unionized labor.

Bloody Friday, and the Teamster strike of 1934 in general, are not events that we learn about in high school or in college because it shows the capitalist system and the capitalist state apparatus for what it truly is—a system dependent upon the exploitation of the masses for the accumulation of wealth for the few, and a system that will go to any length to maintain this exploitation.

The Teamster Local 574 strike was a heroic example of class-struggle trade unionism, and it should be studied by all workers and youth who have come to the realization that the capitalist system has become outdated and must be replaced by a system in which the working class majority democratically controls society.

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