Few progressive people today who are interested in social change look to the leadership of the AFL-CIO for direction. Declining membership and subservience to the political program of the Democratic Party have left the labor federation crippled as it tries to survive in the face of ruthless corporate assaults on workers, both in and out of unions.
It hasn’t always been that way.
In 1934, three heroic strikes-in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis-put the labor movement front and center in the broad social struggles that followed the 1929-33 economic crisis, the worst in U.S. history. These victorious strikes, led by communists and socialists, changed the balance of class forces in the United States for the next decade.
For today’s labor militants and revolutionaries, it is worth considering the factors that made those tremendous victories possible.
The economic situation of mass unemployment and poverty was a dominant factor. The Great Depression signaled by the 1929 stock market collapse was caused by rampant overproduction in the wake of the industrial boom of the 1920s. Factories that had provided the livelihoods of whole cities and towns across the U.S. shut down. By 1933, up to 15 million people were unemployed-somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of the entire U.S working class.
While this economic misery gave millions of workers reason to struggle, it actually made labor struggles much more difficult. With so many unemployed, the workers in any strike that took place in a plant that was not closed down faced the threat of being replaced by scabs.
Factory owners took full advantage of the dire economy, whipping up racism by trying to use Black and immigrant workers as strikebreakers and backing up the scabs with police, private thugs and the National Guard. Textile workers across the South, in the Carolinas and Tennessee, walked off the job in 1929. Despite heroic determination, the workers were unable to win their wage demands. Dozens of strikers were killed and wounded in these battles.
Facing these desperate conditions, strikes in the immediate aftermath of the crisis were generally defeated. Yet the number of strikes grew. In 1932, 300,000 workers struck for union recognition or wage increases. In 1933, the number had tripled to 900,000.
Key to the growing number of strikes-as well as the growing experience and organization of the working class-was a development that took place outside the narrow confines of labor-management struggles in the fields and plants. In 1930, over 1,600 delegates gathered in Chicago to form the National Unemployed Council.
Unemployed Councils sprang up around the country, with “councils and branches in 46 states as well as in almost every town of the nation.” These groups organized pickets and demonstrations demanding relief for the unemployed. They organized to prevent evictions, bringing dozens or hundreds of members to face off against police who tried to throw an unemployed family on the streets. But most important for the labor movement, they rallied around workers with jobs, standing with them on picket lines and organizing against scab-herding.
These councils were genuine working-class organizations, although they were not part of the organized labor movement as such. At that time the American Federation of Labor, the largest labor federation at the time, was organized on a narrow craft basis-a relic of an earlier time in industrial development. It was politically conservative. AFL president William Green called unemployment insurance “a hindrance to progress”-it would “subsidize idleness.”
In 1932, tens of thousands of World War I veterans descended on Washington to demand that the war pay they had been promised due in 1945 be paid immediately. The famous Bonus March was brutally attacked and dispersed by U.S. Army troops commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Toledo: The limits of the ‘New Deal’
By 1933, class struggle was sweeping the United States. In this context, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act. Behind the “New Deal” rhetoric, the main goal of the NRA was to provide state support for big capital in the form of industrial subsidies and credit. But it also included one measure, Section 7(a), that recognized workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively.
The limits of Section 7(a) were soon to be tested in battle. Auto parts workers in Toledo’s Electric Auto-Lite plant had joined the AFL as Local 18384, but management refused to bargain for a contract. The new union went on strike in February to push for a contract. Under the terms of the NRA, the dispute was referred to a Regional Labor Board, and the union leaders called off the strike. But the company still refused to bargain, and the board stalled.
On April 13, the workers had had enough stalling and walked off the job again. The company called in scabs, and the courts issued an injunction against the union banning mass picketing. It looked like another defeat. But the workers fought back.
Local 18384 members turned to the local Unemployed League, which was led by members of the American Workers Party. Under socialist leadership, the Unemployed League had staged mass rallies on behalf of the one-third of Toledo workers who were out of work.
On May 5, AWP member Sam Pollack wrote to the judge who issued the injunction, on behalf of the Lucas County Unemployment League: “With full knowledge of the principles involved and possible consequences, we openly and publicly violate an injunction which, in our opinion, is a suppressive and oppressive act against all workers.”
Scabs were met by mass picketing involving up to 10,000 Auto-Lite workers and unemployed supporters. Strikers were arrested; other workers took their place on the line. Workers at two smaller Toledo auto parts plants joined the strike.
The state government called out the National Guard. Two workers died and over 200 were wounded in battles with the cops and Guard members who were protecting the scabs.
On June 1, 40,000 workers demonstrated against the cop attacks. Ninety-eight out of 99 AFL union locals had voted to strike in support of the Auto-Lite strikers. The company finally backed down, recognized the union and granted a raise.
San Francisco: General strike
As the Toledo struggle was gaining steam, San Francisco longshore workers were preparing for battle. The International Longshoremen’s Association had grown rapidly following the passage of Section 7(a), dropping out of a company union. In May 1934, the 12,000 ILA members overcame union officials’ hesitation and launched a strike for union recognition and for union control of the hiring halls.
The San Francisco ILA local was led by Harry Bridges, working closely with the Communist Party. Bridges faced the difficult task of building unity among the other key unions along the ports-mainly the seafarers and the teamsters. At the same time, the national ILA leadership was consistently opposed to the strike and pressured both the West Coast locals and the other unions to end the strike.
The strikers succeeded. A Joint Strike Committee ran the strike, which shut all the ports on the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego. As in Toledo, mass pickets blocked scabs. When police forces moved in to unload the ships on July 3, workers met bullets and tear gas with whatever they could find-bricks or railroad spikes. Battles resumed on July 5, when cops killed two strikers and wounded over 100 others.
The police action was the final straw for San Francisco’s working class. For three days beginning July 18, San Francisco unions staged a general strike-the second in U.S. history. Faced with the massive show of unity on the part of the workers, the Waterfront Employers agreed to arbitration. The longshore workers won their main wage and recognition demands and got a say in the hiring halls, although not total union control as they had demanded.
Minneapolis: Industrial organizing
Almost simultaneously with the San Francisco strike, Teamsters Local 574 in Minneapolis was waging a battle for union recognition for all workers employed by the city trucking companies. This was one of the first efforts to organize by industry instead of by craft, a tradition where many unions would represent different sectors with the same employer.
Led by members of the Communist League, the Minneapolis Teamsters succeeded in welding together a united strike, complete with a daily newspaper and “flying pickets”-cars patrolling the streets for scabs. Again, key support for the strikers came from unemployed workers. For weeks, the workers’ strike organization created a kind of dual power in the city. Trucks could only pass through the streets with permits from the strike committee.
As in Toledo and San Francisco, cops and National Guard intervened on the side of the trucking companies. Cops attacked a mass picket of 5,000 on July 21, wounding 67 people. When one of the strikers died from the wounds he received on “Bloody Friday,” 40,000 attended the funeral. A complete transportation shutdown following the shooting paralyzed the city.
The workers’ determination and unity paid off. Teamsters Local 574 won their key demands, including the right to represent all the workers of the major trucking companies in Minneapolis. This victory launched the Teamsters as a major national over-the-road truckers’ union.
Lessons of 1934
In 1934, 1.5 million workers took part in strikes-five times the number just two years earlier. There were still larger strikes than the Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis strikes, like the tremendous strike of Southern textile workers that involved at least 325,000 workers.
What made the three strikes significant, though, was the magnitude of the victories that they achieved through tremendous class unity and militancy. The victories laid the foundation for the birth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935 and the militant sit-down strikes in the latter part of the 1930s. These struggles won important concessions from the U.S. ruling class, including the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Minimum Wage Act of 1938.
While the circumstances were different than those of 2004, there are important lessons to be learned for those who aim to advance the working class struggle. First and foremost is the role of communists and socialists in leading the struggles against both the pressures of the companies and the government as well as against pressures imposed by compromising and class-collaborationist layers of labor officialdom. All three of these momentous battles were led by socialist and communist leaders who were able to provide leadership from within the working class upsurge.
In addition to the key role played by communists within the labor movement, the broader class organizations like the various unemployed movements was indispensable for the labor movement to pass from the defensive struggles of the 1920s to the mass labor offensive that began in 1934. These movements, organized on a class-wide basis instead of within the narrower employer-employee relationship, provided both tactical experience and strategic alliances for the development of the labor struggle.
These lessons are still relevant seventy years later.