A violent mob invades the U.S. Capitol leaving people dead and wounded. The House votes an historic second impeachment. A raucous, divisive presidency ends. Pandemic deaths reach 400,000 while vaccinations sputter. 27.5 million have no health insurance. 12.6 million are unemployed, with millions more bureaucratically excluded from this official count. Over half a million are homeless.
All this didn’t start with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 nor is it ending with his departure. Indeed Trump was elected precisely because workers didn’t see hope in the Democratic Party. Despite eight years under a reasonably “progressive” Obama presidency, workers were still struggling to make ends meet. Incomes were stagnant against inflation as they had been for decades. Millions lacked health insurance despite Obamacare. Unions were still under assault. Many worked two or even three jobs to meet their families’ needs.
The Democratic candidate seeking to replace Obama disparaged these workers as “Deplorables.” That’s like declaring at a job interview that your prospective employer sucks. Don’t be expecting a callback!
Republican Trump was elected over Democrat Clinton on a promise to “drain the swamp” and Make America Great Again. Despite his promise to represent the interests of working people, the signature legislative accomplishment of his presidency was a massive tax cut that mostly benefited workers’ bosses and put Social Security and Medicare at risk. He championed open displays of racism and anti-semitism, and cost millions their lives and livelihoods with a bungled response to this historic pandemic.
Workers need a party of our own, a labor party, that is forged through our struggles — that does everything to raise our fighting spirits, self-confidence and class consciousness; that teaches workers the root of the problems we face is the rule of the capitalist class; that uncompromisingly defends all those exploited and oppressed by the dog-eat-dog capitalist system.
The “Friends of Labor” Myth
Before retiring, I was a municipal employee and for over 25 years a member of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). The City’s mayors and Council members have nearly all been Democrats. The union was constantly butting heads with these Democratic officials, yet come election time our leadership always called upon us to support these officials or another rival Democrat.
Time and again I tried to explain the contraction. We formed a union to protect our interests as workers against the employer — yet we were supposed to rally behind the boss at election time?! This was not unique to my union. Labor leaders nationwide long ago proclaimed the Democratic Party as a ‘Friend of Labor.’ Each election we’re told to believe their warmed-over promises of past elections ad nauseum will be kept… this time.
Pictured above is a strike last month in Chicago by SEIU (Service Employees International Union). These healthcare workers were demanding hazard pay for risking their health and lives with COVID patients and adequate PPE supplies. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is a Democrat, as are 16 of the 18 members sitting on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. SEIU shouldn’t need to strike when the city and county governments are run by our Democratic “friends.” Their picket signs accentuate the irony. “Respect Us. Protect Us. Pay Us.”
Workers Under Attack
Democrats and Republicans have shared the presidency exactly 50/50 between Kennedy’s Inauguration in 1961 and Biden’s Inauguration last week — six decades. During this time conditions facing workers have declined steadily. Whatever these Democrats have been doing isn’t working for us!
The Pew Research Center reports that today’s average hourly wage has about the same purchasing power it did in 1978. Between 1970 and 2018, aggregate income to middle-class families and workers fell by 19%. Inversely, aggregate income to upper-class families increased by 19% — with the upper 5% doing best gaining over 3.2% annually.
A Long Violent History. The attack on workers goes deeper than merely income statistics. From the very beginning, the employers’ class has done whatever it can to beat down efforts by workers for better pay and working conditions. A few historic excerpts:
- In Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892 the “great philanthropist” Andrew Carnegie beat down the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, increasing hours and lowering wages.
- When Pullman sleeping car workers struck in 1894 against layoffs and wage cuts, 30 were killed when federal troops were dispatched to Chicago to crush the strike.
- In the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, the Colorado National Guard killed 25 during a strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The dead included strikers, their wives and 11 children.
- Ten people died in the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937 during the “Little Steel Strike” in Chicago. 1500 strikers and their families walked peacefully to the gates of Republic Steel where police opened fire shooting 50, most in the back, and killing 10. About 100 others were beaten with clubs. This attack was recorded on a newsreel at the time.
- More recently measures such as the Taft-Hartley Act have been used to break strikes by legal injunctions. In 1978 President Carter invoked this law to break a 91-day strike by the United Mine Workers (UMW).
- Today 28 states currently have so-called “Right-to-Work” laws, the purpose being to cripple union organizing.
It’s Time for a Labor Party
There is a bright side to all this apparent doom & gloom. Workers can fight back and win!
Perhaps most dramatically, this was illustrated by a 1934 campaign in Minneapolis to organize all truck drivers into a single industrial union capable of fighting for contracts with better pay and working conditions. The workers were up against the companies, the mayor, the governor, and a powerful Citizens Alliance. These “citizens” were the wealthiest and most powerful capitalists in the region, dedicated to brutal strikebreaking. Up until 1934 the workers were mislead by their leadership, poorly organized and ill-prepared to defend their interests.
What changed the game was a new class-conscious leadership with a new perspective. As depicted here, in May 1934 workers successfully beat back an assault by Minneapolis cops and company goons who thought they would have their way. As James P. Cannon described it, workers “fought the police and deputies to a standstill and chased them off the streets of the city.”
The gains growing out of 1934 ultimately led to the the first multi-state truck drivers’ contract and to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
More was won through the organizing started in Minneapolis than just the expanded union and contracts. The workers involved came to understand their capacity and their power when properly organized under a program totally independent of the employers — no longer subordinate to the interests to their bosses, nor to their bosses’ parties. This is the principle behind a Labor Party: workers organized together as a class working for their interests as a class.
For those interested, following below are a few recommendations for further reading.
“To combat layoffs, workers cannot wait for the government or bosses — who have thrown millions out of work — to provide us with jobs. We need to fight for a shorter workweek with no cut in pay to share the available work around. Our unions should mobilize workers to demand a government-funded public works program to put millions back to work at union-scale pay building schools, hospitals, day care and other things working people need.
“It will be by organizing as a class challenging the class that exploits us that working people will chart a road forward. As we do so we will counter bosses’ efforts to foster divisions among us and their attempts to get workers to look to the lesser evil among the Democratic and Republican parties.”
The Teamster Series by Farrell Dobbs
The struggle launched in Minneapolis in 1934 contains lessons that remain absolutely relevant and vital today. Less than 11% of workers in the United States today are unionized, down from a peak of 35% in 1954. Given the conditions facing workers described here, we need more organization and unionization, not less! Trust me, the employers are organized. Workers must be too.
Farrell Dobbs, a leader of the Minneapolis campaign, has written a compelling 4-book series on the Teamster struggle. He recounts the campaign step by step, describing everything the workers were facing and the process they went through to meet the challenge. He describes in detail how they won and why. He also explains what holds workers back to this day as top union leadership in the United States remains hitched to the bosses they supposedly fight.
The Author. Farrell Dobbs (1906-1983), a coal-yard worker in his twenties when the 1934 strikes began, emerged from the ranks as a Teamster leader and was the central organizer of the over-the-road organizing campaign beginning in 1937. He resigned from the Teamsters organizing staff in 1940 in order to become the labor secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. Dobbs was sentenced in 1941 to eighteen months in federal prison for militant trade union and communist antiwar activity. National secretary of the SWP from 1953 to 1972, he was the party’s presidential candidate four times.
“To the men and women who gave me unshakable confidence in the working class, the rank and file of General Drivers Local 574.”
– Farrell Dobbs
THIS IS THE STORY of the strikes and union organizing drive the men and women of Teamsters Local 574 carried out in Minnesota in 1934, paving the way for the continent-wide rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as a fighting social movement. Through hard-fought strike actions, which were in fact organized battles, they made Minneapolis a union town, defeating not only the trucking bosses but strikebreaking efforts of the big-business Citizens Alliance and city, state, and federal governments. They showed in life what workers and their allies on the farms and in the cities can achieve when they’re able to count on the leadership they deserve.
“The working class and the employing class confront each other on the industrial field. The drive for profit dominates the bosses’ life. Low wages, long hours, speed-up are weapons in the employers’ hands. A militant policy backed by united action must be opposed to the program of the boss.” – By-Laws, Teamsters Local 574
TEAMSTER POWER tells the story of how the men and women of Minneapolis Teamsters Local 574 and their class-struggle leadership used the power they had won through three hard fought strikes in 1934 to extend union power to cities throughout the Upper Midwest, help the unemployed organize and fight for jobs, combat employer frame-ups and assassinations, and launch an 11-state campaign that brought tens of thousands of over-the-road drivers into the union.
“Unionism and politics cannot be separated. Power generated at the trade-union level can be shattered by government blows. Workers must enter the political arena as an independent class force, with their own party.” – Farrell Dobbs
TEAMSTER POLITICS tells the story of how Minneapolis Teamster Local 544, guided by a class-struggle leadership in the 1930s . . . organized the unemployed and truck owner-operators into fighting union auxiliaries . . . deployed a Union Defense Guard to stop a membership drive by fascist Silver Shirts . . . combated FBI and “Justice” Department frame-ups . . . campaigned for workers to break politically from the bosses and organize a labor party based on the unions . . . and mobilized labor opposition to U.S. imperialism’s entry into World War II.
“The principal lesson of the Teamster experience is not that under an adverse relationship of forces, the workers can be overcome, but that with proper leadership, they can overcome.” – Farrell Dobbs
FARRELL DOBS TELLS THE STORY of the political campaign led by Minneapolis Teamsters to organize working-class and union opposition to the US rulers’ imperialist aims in World War II.
He explains how Washington, aided by the national Teamsters bureaucracy, deployed its political police, the FBI, to try to smash union power and silence antiwar militants, railroading to prison eighteen Teamster and Socialist Workers Party leaders.
Now with more than 130 photos and illustrations of the unfolding events, including the international campaign to free the framed-up workers.
Title image is in the Public Domain, depicting the labor battle in Minneapolis, May 1934.
The SEIU strike photo is embedded from Getty Images.
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