Crisis Organizing: Lessons from the 1934 Strike Wave
The Depression-era labor upsurge provides important lessons for organizing in the midst of crisis today.
National crises have a way of turning all of us into historians. We look back for analogies, comparative case studies, lessons to be learned, hoping the past might provide us the tools to work our way through the troubles of the present. The current crisis is no different, and we’ve seen a lot of serious and tongue-in-cheek historical allusions referencing other great years of upheaval to make sense of where we stand today both as a society and more narrowly as leftists: 1789, 1877, 1917-1918, 1968. This essay is my addition to that list.
Picture the following: the country is in the middle of the greatest economic and social crisis since the Civil War, national unemployment is over 25% and the federal responses up to this point have been either inadequate or counterproductive. Millions have been evicted and millions more are without work.Meanwhile, income inequality continues to worsen as a shrinking capitalist ruling class consolidates its wealth and power by taking advantage of legal structures overwhelmingly hostile to labor. The year is not 2020, but 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression. One year later, the compounding effects of mass unemployment, mass eviction, mass exploitation, and would help produce a wave of over 1,850 work stoppages involving nearly 1.5 million workers.
We find ourselves in the midst of a similar crisis today: millions jobless or underemployed, millions unhoused or threatened with imminent eviction, millions faced with the daily uncertainties of workplace safety during a pandemic, finding affordable or consistent childcare, sending kids back to school, even relying on the Postal Service to deliver prescription drugs on time. We are living in an unceasing sleep-deprived panic attack, trudging like zombies from one personal or professional dilemma to the next. There is no let up. But in these depths, there is hope and opportunity. By examining early 1930s labor organizing, in particular the steady leadership of leftist radicals across geographies and industries, we find instructive lessons in tactics and strategies to beat back the power of capital and the current crisis we face.
One critical difference between then and now, however, was having a federal government if not openly friendly to, then at minimum ambivalent towards, organized labor vis-a-vis the interests of capital. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Labor Secretary Fraces Perkins, and the New Deal Democrats who rode their coattails into Congress brought a new perspective on labor to the White House. The passage of both the Norris-Laguardia Act (1932) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA, 1933) with its explosive Section 7(a) (see appendix) provoked a wave of industrial labor organizing the country hadn’t seen since the 1870s-1880s and put capital on the defensive for the first time in half a century. As United Mine Workers of America President John L. Lewis would frequently tell unorganized workers, “President Roosevelt wants you to join the union!” Workers heard that call loud and clear.
The surge of militant organizing crescendoed in a nearly year-long strike wave in 1934. The strikes ranged from small and highly localized actions to general strikes spanning cities and entire regions. We will examine two of the most significant strikes from that year. They were significant not only for their size and results, but for the organizing that made them both possible and successful: the Electric Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio, and the Teamsters strike in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Coming on the heels of the NIRA, militant leftist organizers began agitating for unionization in many of the major industrial sectors of the US economy, and it wasn’t long before the critical mass of that agitation met the resistance of entrenched capitalist power.
Once a booming hub of industry, Toledo was decimated by the Depression. By 1934 the area’s largest employer, the automaker Willys-Overland (maker of the original Jeep), had declared bankruptcy. All but one of the city’s banks had collapsed, the city itself was nearly bankrupt, and unemployment was over 70%. Those who remained employed worked principally in the automobile industry, making parts for the major manufacturers in Detroit.
Chief among these parts companies was Electric Auto-Lite and its two local subsidiaries, Bingham Stamping and Tool Company and Logan Gear Company, which supplied the likes of Chrysler, Willys-Overland, Packard, and Studebaker with batteries, lighting, and ignition systems. Auto-Lite was owned by notorious robber baron Clement Miniger, who had amassed his estimated $84 million fortune as both head of Ohio Bond & Security Bank and by making auto parts at cheaper rates than the major car companies could make for themselves. He did this by paying his workers industry-low wages and ruthlessly suppressing organizing activity.
That changed when the NIRA passed in June 1933 and Toledo auto workers ran headlong into organizing. By August, workers at Auto-Lite, Bingham, Logan, and the smaller independent parts company, Spicer Manufacturing, had formed an AFL affiliated local, Federal Labor Union No. 18384. In early 1934 they issued demands for union recognition, a closed shop, a seniority system, and a 10 cent wage increase. The owners rejected all four out of hand. On February 23, union members walked off the job. The strike ended after 5 days, when federal mediators convinced members to agree to a 5 cent pay increase and a vaguely worded agreement to negotiate in early April. But when those negotiations failed to materialize and union representatives were kicked off Auto-Lite factory grounds, the union voted to strike again.
The strike began on April 12, but only a fourth of the workers participated. This left the door open for management to hire scabs and remain operational. Despite an attempt by the AFL Central Labor Council to support the strike with solidarity actions from other local unions, the strike began to collapse. Enter the radicals. By late April, organizers from the American Workers Party (AWP) – and, to a lesser extent, the Communist Party – had joined the striking workers and were coordinating not only strike strategy, but also organizing outside the union to build community support throughout Toledo.
Headed by A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born socialist preacher and pacifist, the eclectic AWP described itself as bringing a non-dogmatic “American Approach” to Marxism and had been quietly organizing alongside auto workers since December 1933. The party was the outgrowth of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), a radical trade union organization Muste established in 1929. Withroots in both Wobby-style anarcho-syndicalism and Debsian socialism, it promoted industrial unionism and agitated against AFL craft union elitism and conservatism. Many of the CPLA’s organizers were seasoned veterans of militant labor struggles. Significantly, both the CPLA and AWP organized not only among rank-and-file AFL union members, but actively worked to organize unorganized firms in critical sectors like mining, textiles, and the automotive industry. More importantly, the AWP went beyond organizing workers and organized laid off workers into its “Unemployed Leagues,” which simultaneously served as mutual aid networks, political education circles, and policy advocacy groups. Together, the AWP’s three-pronged strategy of organizing the rank-and-file, the unorganized, and the unemployed during the Depression would have enormous consequences for the development of industrial unionism during the 1930s.
It remains unclear whether they were invited or simply showed up to help the Auto-Lite strikers. But the “Musteites” arrived on the scene in late April and immediately got to work organizing pickets around the Auto-Lite plant and coordinating with their affiliated Lucas County Unemployed League to reinforce the pickets and rally unemployed workers against scabbing. Both efforts proved so effective the company had a court injunction filed against the strikers to thin out the pickets. Louis Budenz, Muste’s second-in-command and the strike committee’s de facto lead strategist, told organizers to ignore it. After organizers and strikers were arrested en masse for violating the restraining order, worker solidarity on the picket lines and inside the courtroom they deliberately packed during the May 7 trial hearing – a constant, disruptive barrage of catcalls, boos, and singing – convinced the same judge who ordered the injunction to release the arrestees. Upon release, the strikers marched from the courthouse straight back to the picket lines. Meanwhile, Communist Party women set up soup kitchens to feed the pickets and pass out organizing leaflets.
By now, local public opinion was firmly with the strike. Then it turned violent, and public support exploded into rage against the bosses and the state. Sparked by police beating an old man on the picket line, a crowd of 10,000 strikers and supporters laid siege to the Auto-Lite factory and the 1,500 scabs at work inside. It took two days and 1,300 Ohio National Guard reinforcements to repel the crowds. Two strike supporters were killed and 25 were wounded by gunfire. The siege of Auto-Lite kicked off a three-day series of running street battles. Guardsmen ran out of tear gas and had to be resupplied by airlift from a Cleveland munitions manufacturer. By week’s end, every window at the Auto-Lite plant was smashed. “Now you’ve got your open shop,” one striker quipped.
Not only the public, but local unions were also now firmly in Local 18384’s corner. On May 31, 85 out of 103 of Toledo’s AFL Central Labor Council-affiliated unions voted in favor of a general strike. Under this threat, federal mediators were finally able to push management into making concessions to the workers.On June 2, they reached an agreement that recognized the union and the closed shop, gave workers a 35 cent minimum wage and a 5 cent raise, established grievance and wage arbitration, and committed to fair rehiring of all strikers. A local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) also rode the success of the auto workers and won a 20 percent wage increase after threatening to walk off the job.
Although Muste, Budenz, and the radicals pushed for the union to hold out for more, AFL representatives effectively sidelined them through negotiations and were able to secure the workers’ approval. This was a recurring feature of the 1934 strike wave: radicals often took the lead organizing, strategizing, and mobilizing workers, while conservatives wrangled craft union leaders, local politicians, and federal officials to make reasonable concessions, cut out the radicals, and take the credit.
The Toledo Auto-Lite union victory galvanized the local labor movement and city-wide unionization campaigns took off. A year later, Local 18384 would successfully strike the Toledo Chevrolet plant and join the newly formed United Auto Workers (UAW) as Local 12. Toledo remains an island of heavy union density and labor movement militancy in Ohio, where organized labor losses mirror national trends.
Like Toledo, Minneapolis and St. Paul had seen better days when 1934 rolled around. Even before the Depression hit, the Twin Cities were on a slow downswing from being the major transportation hub of what was then known as the “Northwest.” Railroads and the Mississippi River enabled the cities to grow large and wealthy on agriculture, timber, and iron ore. But by 1934, a confluence of changes severely damaged the Twin Cities’ economy. The Panama Canal undercut the area’s position as a continental transportation linchpin. The center of American logging moved to the Pacific Northwest. Mining collapsed, agriculture dried up, and the displaced labor these industries left behind led to a surge of migration to the cities. As Irving Bernstein notes in his indispensable history The Turbulent Years, “in the spring of 1934 almost a third of the population of Hennepin County consisted of the unemployed and their dependents.” Twin Cities workers were desperate.
Undergirding this growing destitution and discontent was an area heavily segregated by class and ethnicity. Old “Yankee” industrialist families were on top, Scandinaivan, Irish, and Jewish workers were on the bottom. A nascent labor movement was brutally crushed in the 1910s-1920s by a reactionary cabal of employers and their hired thugs called the Citizen’s Alliance. These conditions made the Twin Cities ripe for organizing when, in 1930, Farmer-Labor Party radical Floyd Olson swept into the governorship fully intent on destroying the Alliance and rejuvenating the Minnesota labor movement. With 7(a) behind them after 1933, a local organization of Trotskyists stepped up to do the groundwork.
The Communist League of America, Left Opposition of the Communist Party (CLA) was formed in May 1929 by three former members of CPUSA. They Were expelled the previous year for siding with Trotsky in his conflict with Stalin over control of the Soviet party, and by extension, the Communist International (Comintern). In its brief 5 year existence the CLA never had more than 500 members, but many of them were veteran organizers, strategic thinkers, expert propagandizers, all deeply committed to class struggle. In practice, this produced a form of organizing helped to inspire what we now know as the “Rank and File Strategy.” Reflecting back on the Teamsters Strike, CLA leader James P. Cannon wrote, “Despite the great conservatism, the craft-mindedness and the corruption of the AFL leadership, we insisted…that the militants must not separate themselves from this main current of American unionism…The task of the revolutionary militants…was to plunge into the labor movement as it existed and try to influence it from within.”
In Minneapolis the Trotskyists planned to first organize the coal yards before going into trucking. Led by former IWW organizer Ray Dunne, his brothers Grant and Miles, and fellow coal yard workers Farrell Dobbs and Carl Skoglund, the CLA organizers joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters General Drivers Local 574 to begin building their ranks. On February 4 they struck the coal yards. 700 workers walked off the job at 65 of the city’s 67 yards and the owners didn’t see it coming. After three days they caved and recognized Local 574. After the yard workers, the organizers added the yards’ drivers and helpers. By April, the local grew from around 200 workers to well over 2,000 and the radicals determined the time right to strike the all city trucking and consolidate an industrial union. They demanded “the closed shop, shorter hours, an average wage of $27.50 a week, and premium pay for overtime.” Employers backed by the Citizens Alliance balked and on May 12 members of Local 574 voted overwhelmingly for a strike. It would begin May 16, just as the movement of spring harvest vegetables was at its peak.
Three months of tumult would follow, replete with police violence, National Guard deployment, martial law, and local newspapers decrying the communistic takeover of the union by outside agitators, culminating in a city-wide general strike. To get a sense of the kind of organizational strength the union built by May 1934, consider the deeply impressive organization of the strike headquarters. According to Bernstein:
The union rented an old garage at 1900 Chicago Avenue and converted it into a multipurpose strike headquarters. The office became a dispatching center. Four telephone lines brought messages on truck movements from picket captains stationed all over the city…They, in turn, ordered cars out over the loudspeaker by number and assigned men to them from a pool of hundreds of strikers who remained at headquarters…The dispatcher gave the car picket captain secret written orders and he reported back at the end of his mission…A low wave radio picked up police instructions. A union motorcycle squad of five cruised the streets 24 hours a day to report trouble spots..Pickets were posted on some 50 roads leading into the city with instructions to turn back trucks without union clearance papers. An internal guard was kept at headquarters to maintain order and watch for stool pigeons. Four sentries armed with tommy guns guarded the surrounding area from the roof. The main section of the garage became an auditorium in which about 2000 people assembled nightly for speeches and entertainment…The car-wash section was whitewashed and converted into a kitchen with a dozen stoves. Here two chefs from the cooks union directed 120 women in preparing and serving food around the clock. As many as 10,000 people – strikers and their families – ate here daily. Another wing of the garage became a hospital where two doctors and three nurses were in attendance. Finally, 15 mechanics in the shop kept about 100 trucks and squad cars in repair.
To sustain the strike, organizers needed both buy-in and cooperation from trucking workers in a super-majority of city businesses, which they got. The only trucks to move during the strike (excluding the weeks of martial law) were those in the already unionized sectors of ice, milk, and coal delivery, and local farmers who were allowed to bring their produce to an open market.
To further coordinate strike activity and ease some of the burden on the local, CLA leaders from New York moved to Minneapolis in June. James P. Cannon took on general strategy. Max Schachtman, the CLA’s lead propagandist and editor-in-chief of its newspaper The Militant, ran Local 574’s daily strike newspaper, The Organizer. CLA counsel Albert Goldman stepped in to manage the union’s legal affairs. And, taking their cues from the AWP’s success in Toledo, Otto Oehler went to work helping the local unions organize the unemployed. Leaders of the unemployed movement were given strike committee seats and treated as equal partners, while plans were drawn up to facilitate unemployment relief efforts during the strike and to build an unemployed workers caucus for Local 574.
Women also played a pivotal role in sustaining the strike. Clara Dunne and Marvel Scholl, wives of Grant Dunne and Farrell Dobbs respectively, formed the Local 574 Women’s Auxiliary in early May and began recruiting. The union wives, sisters, and daughters they brought in soon took over daily operations at the Chicago Avenue headquarters. Remembering this was 1934 in an almost rigidly chauvinistic union culture, much of the work done by the Women’s Auxiliary was gendered – administrative, staffing phones, cooking, cleaning, nursing, childcare. But as the strike dragged on, many women joined the pickets and some joined the street brawls against the police. As one Auxiliary member would later recall of fellow members who were injured and even hospitalized walking the picket line, a woman’s place during the strike was “into the Class Struggle!” The immediate proximity to worker struggle and the shared collective experience of building power enabled and implicitly encouraged women to transgress “orthodox understandings of women’s place.”
On August 19 Minneapolis trucking employers finally gave in, and conceded all the strikers’ major demands. An agreement ending the strike was ratified two days later. Between May and August, two strikers were murdered by police and nearly 70 critically injured by shotgun fire. Two Citizens Alliance thugs had been killed by strikers, the Farmer-Labor governor had called in the National Guard and instituted martial law, hundreds had been arrested, including many of the leaders at one point or another – yet the union won. Within two years Local 574 would represent workers in 500 Twin Cities firms and by the end of 1934, the CLA merged with the AWP to form the Workers Party of the United States.
It is important to begin an assessment of these events by noting that none of this organizing happened in a vacuum. It’s very likely none of it would have succeeded to the degree it did without a perfect storm of social, economic, and political conditions finding their confluence in 1933-34. If the Depression didn’t wreak the havoc it did, and bosses and politicians didn’t respond to it so short-sightedly, it’s possible radical labor militancy would not have found as many inroads or as broad an audience as it did. If Progressive Era IWW organizing, Socialist Party electoral campaigning, and formal Bolshevik education through the Comintern didn’t take place, the wealth of experience, knowledge, and training the organizers commanded would not have been available. And, perhaps most importantly, if Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, and the New Dealers didn’t sweep into office in 1932, pass the NIRA, and – crucially – stand repeatedly on the side of workers or on the sidelines altogether during subsequent labor disputes and strikes through their twelve-year administration, it is more than likely industrial unionism would have been strangled. Material conditions matter.
Second, sympathetic examinations of 1930s-era industrial unionism tend to both over-simplify the narrative and romanticize, even fetishize, the organizing and the organizers. While the movement to organize industries irrespective of firm or “skill” produced a lot of good it was invariably bounded by its socio-cultural contexts, and thus had some enormous blindspots on the issues of gender and race, among many others. Even by communist standards of the time, trade unionist culture was – and in some cases remains – reactionary, sexist, racist, chauvinistic, xenophobic, and exclusionary. Any honest account of the era needs to recognize these limitations before rushing to exalt the movement. While there is much worthy of emulation, there’s a whole lot more worth leaving behind.
Examining, albeit briefly, the Auto-Lite and Teamsters strikes and the organizing that propelled them to success, and considering the current political moment, we are faced with a number of questions that bear directly on DSA’s current structure, priorities, and programming. First and foremost among these concerns the role of organized labor within DSA and, consequently, the degree to which DSA members are embedded within organized labor.
Despite showing increasingly positive signs of life, the crisis of American organized labor continues. The COVID-19 pandemic has served only to highlight and exacerbate it. Union density in the United States hovers around 10% and edges lower every year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of dues-paying DSA members who belong to unions is also low, and DSA’s general effort toward organizing the rank-and-file and the unorganized has also mirrored those anemic numbers. The Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC), for example, did not exist prior to the 2017 Convention. It wasn’t until the 2019 Convention that resolutions to organize the rank-and-file and the unorganized passed (R32 and R67 respectively), both amid resistance. And outside major metropolitan chapters – New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, East Bay, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia – labor organizing remains something of a necessarily secondary priority given the membership-based distributive system of chapter funding. This is backwards.
A strong step in the right direction, however, is the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC). EWOC emerged from DSA’s recognition of the huge and immediate impact of the COVID-19 crisis, and has since become an engine intent on creating “sectoral networks of non-union workers who are ready to take workplace action.” In the last five months, EWOC has expanded its volunteer pool, systematized its organizing, formalized a robust training program, and partnered with one of the few remaining independent and militant national trade unions – the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) – to help further its mission. This is the kind of work DSA must expand and continue, shifting EWOC’s raison d’etre from reactive organizing against exploitative workplaces in a pandemic to proactive workplace organizing against an exploitative economic system.
Such a shift requires us to rethink our national priorities – among them, single issue advocacy campaigns. While single issue advocacy campaigns like the fights for Medicare of All (M4A) and the Green New Deal (GND) offer both longtime members fulfilling work and people new to DSA an easy entry point into leftist politics and organizing, they are limited by their narrow scope. These campaigns incorporate aspects of labor organizing – advocating nurses unions to support M4A and touting unionized green jobs as a central plank of the GND, for example – but their ultimate aim is to rally constituencies around legislative goals to lobby and put pressure on local, state, and federal legislators. These campaigns are important, but their narrow goals necessarily limit the degree to which they are able to organize and mobilize workers en masse.
The elephant in the room is, of course, DSA’s continued prioritization of electoral campaigning. Whether running candidates, supplying material and personnel support for outside campaigns, or simply endorsing candidates, the last four years have seen an explosion of electoral activity at every level. And while they bring significant public attention to DSA and its political program, and in some cases act as major recruiting tools, these electoral initiatives are at best mechanisms for shifting public opinion or, at worst, counterproductive dead ends. Winning seats in district attorney’s offices, on city councils, and in state legislatures may go some way toward easing the burdens of the working class, but these wins are unevenly distributed geographically, account for a fraction of local and state government seats, and often have no reliable mass base of support to secure the seats or hold the elected officials accountable. Further, while it is no small feat to have four card-carrying DSA members in the incoming Congress, that still makes only four card-carrying DSA members in a 535 member Congress. We will not legislate socialism into being any time soon.
This is not to say we should shun electoralism altogether, nor to suggest the work being done on local and state races is a waste of time, resources, and personnel. Rather, the emphasis placed on cyclical electoralism at the national level far outstrips the benefits we reap from our participation, and we should reprioritize accordingly. Electoralism can and should be a tool in the larger project of helping to rebuild a strong, vibrant mass movement of workers centered around organized labor.
Organized labor membership remains on the decline. Despite the last two years of increasing labor militancy and a rash of recent successful unionization drives across wildly different industries, union rolls continue netting more losses than gains. Remembering the successful organizing a well-trained and centrally directed 500-member CLA was capable of doing locally in the Twin Cities in 1933-34, what might a fully mobilized 70,000-member DSA be capable of nationally today?
The Collective Power Network and Bread & Roses caucuses, for example, each articulate compelling programs to ignite national interest in and support for increased DSA labor organizing efforts, but the discourse surrounding their positions tends to be unnecessarily adversarial. Advocates too often position their own caucus’ program in contradistinction to the other’s, mistakenly viewing the issue as an either/or choice when it is a both/and choice. We must organize the unorganized and we must organize the rank-and-file, both in strategically targeted sectors and where our members already are. As history shows, neither is a waste of time or resources so long as the time is used effectively and the resources are both adequate to the task and committed with consistency. We can do both if we rearrange and refocus DSA’s programmatic priorities.
Perhaps our greatest opportunity in these times of growing economic instability and hardship, however, lies in expanding efforts to organize the under-employed and unemployed. As the AWP did in Toledo and as the CLA did in the Twin Cities, we have an enormous opening to bridge the gap between community mutual aid programs and labor organizing. Two logical entry points for this kind of work are the national Restaurant Organizing Project (ROP) and the many local tenants union/housing rights initiatives. No industry has been hit harder and almost none is less unionized than service and hospitality. No group is more vulnerable in this crisis than the precariously housed and the unhoused. Together they represent an enormous multiracial and multigenerational segment of society that lives on a razor’s edge and intuitively, intimately understands the systemic injustices of capitalism. Organizing even a fraction of these people into unemployed workers unions, like the AWP and Communist Party did in the early 1930s, would not only provide material benefits and relieve some stress on America’s hardest hit workers, but also offer organized labor a potential backstop of solidarity against union-busting or strike-breaking bosses while enabling DSA to both exercise its organizing muscles and begin building significant working class power.
The last decade, perhaps more than any period in the last half-century, has stripped away the layers of neo-liberal platitudes and nationalist mythology to expose the rotten core of US society and the racist, elitist, imperialist, exploitative structure upon which it rests. The Great Recession, the “gig economy,” the forever war, the accelerating and deliberately ignored climate crisis, the housing crisis, the continued rampant racist police violence, and now the ravaging and unevenly distributed effects of COVID-19 show the United States for what it is: a capitalist meat grinder. The difference today, though, is that more people see it and recognize it for what it is. The question is no longer whether the United States is a failed state. The question is what is to be done about it, and how do we get there? While comrades of varying tendencies and strategic philosophies will differ on some of the finer points, the answers to these two questions must and will – as much as they did in 1934 – run through and for workers. As the largest socialist organization in almost a century, we have the opportunity to play an outsized role in that work. Let’s take it.
Appendix: National Industrial Recovery Act (1933)
SEC. 7. (a) Every code of fair competition, agreement, and license approved, prescribed, or issued under this title shall contain the following conditions: (1) That employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference restraint, or coercion of employers of labor, or their agents, in the designation of such representatives or in self-organization or in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection; (2) that no employee and no one seeking employment shall be required as a condition of employment to join any company union or to refrain from joining, organizing, or assisting a labor organization of his own choosing; and (3) that employers shall comply with the maximum hours of labor, minimum rates of pay, and other conditions of employment, approved or prescribed by the President.