Some thoughts on Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs

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By JOMO

I just read the labor classic, “Teamster Rebellion” by Farrell Dobbs. It is a very exciting book because Dobbs goes into the nitty gritty of organizing 3 major strikes that faced retaliation not only from management, Minneapolis cops, but also from the National Guard. These strikes happened in 1934, a crucial time for the labor movement during the Depression Era. The spirit of resistance and struggle spread like wildfire and in that year alone, 3 major strikes took place in the US — in San Francisco, in Toledo, and in Minneapolis, reminding the world over and over, that the US is a majority working class country. And these workers had a bone to pick with their bosses.

There are of course, some problems with learning about organizing through the narratives of grand strikes. One major one is that not all endeavors taken on by the working class are victories. The Minneapolis strike came in 1934, five years after the Great Depression began, arguably after people lived through the worst of their economic ordeals, and after many less successful attempts. The courage of countless workers who stuck their heads out first, their unrelenting resilience that kept them organizing despite the real threat of retaliation are easily forgotten in light of the grand victories. In reality, how people persevered though their losses, continuing to build organizations and infrastructure to keep resisting are often times more realistic for movement builders who have to live through the highs and lows of struggles.

Nonetheless, there are many precious lessons to be taken from “Teamster Rebellion.” For one, it brings alive what “class struggle” is. Class struggle, as one finds through the pages of the book, is nothing short of class warfare. There are friends, there are enemies and there is a battle that needs to be won. Today, the euphemism for class oppression is “classism,” and a popular way of addressing it is through richer people recognizing their class privilege. What this translates into is rich people being nice to their poorer brethren. Great, but not quite enough. Reading “Teamster Rebellion,” following Dobbs’s recollection of Bloody Friday in Minneapolis, where workers armed themselves to defend the picket line against police-escorted scabs, reminds one that the way to change the dire economic oppression that workers encounter is through workers coming together, ready to fight and take risks. It is only through these collective actions that workers have a shot at winning. The bosses, capitalists and union bureaucracies don’t give, and even though some are smarter than others in deciding when to cut their losses, its never out of benevolence. Working people have had to FIGHT for their gains, through warfare, wading through tear gas, no less.

“Teamster Rebellion” also reminds us that class struggle is not a form of social service. This is important for our times because today, the non-profit industrial complex and its model of treating everyone like a “client” who needs to be taken care of, is overwhelming. These social service models assume that through them, workers should deal with their bread and butter issues with no risk, through the tender kindness and patience of social service workers. This perspective seeps into what people think union bureaucracies should be. Union officials pat themselves on the back that they didn’t organize their workers to get contracts, that everything was done through their cunning negotiations behind closed doors. No. Assuming that everyone needs to be cajoled into abandoning their rage and coaxed into receiving a handout is insulting and degrading. Workers’ struggle for dignity on the job and democratic decision making about the conditions they are willing to accept is part of what it means when we say that the working class need to lead its own liberation. In Dobb’s account, the truck drivers of Local 574 organized to deliberately curtail the power of union officials to negotiate away their demands they wanted to win through their collective action. Instead of a negotiation team, they sent a 2-person committee who did not have decision making power, and whose sole purpose is to report back what the bosses were willing to offer, for the mass assembly of workers to vote on together.

The ways that “Teamster Rebellion” describes how the workers pushed the union bureaucracy to the left through their own independent rank and file organizing is insightful. Dobbs recalls the infamous Daniel Tobin, the head of the Teamsters at the time. Tobin engaged in the same rhetoric of red baiting as management, toward the organizers. Also, he presented bureaucratic obstacles to the militancy of the rank and file, trying to prevent them from striking by dumping on them the bylaws and constitution of the union. The truck drivers overcame these obstacles by absorbing the executive board structure, traditionally the power-making body in the Local, into the 100-person strike committee, whom they elected. They incorporated the conservative union leaders into a bigger formation where they would have to treat rank and file like equals. Rather than waiting around for the bureaucracy, the workers took independent action, set up alternative structures and through their power, forced the union leadership to support them. They didnt wait around to go through bureaucratic procedures and red tape. This was crucial for keeping going the momentum of the organizing and instilling in folks a sense of strength and power. I think the fierce stubbornness and sense of power that the picketers exuded despite police repression cannot be separated from this bypassing of bureaucratic red tape. I dont think such a brave army could have been formed if workers didn’t feel like they themselves could control their own fate.

Workers power also means workers know how to run society.This ingenuity, and capabilities of the working class is seldom ever recognized. In this book, Dobbs’s descripton of how the strike hall was organized is very inspiring. He says:

When the sun rose on May 16 1934, the headquarters of Chicago Avenue was a beehive of activity. Union caprnters and plumbers were installing gas stives, sinks, and serving counters. The Cooks and Waiters union sent experts on mass cooking […] Working in two twelve-hour shifts, over 100 volunteers served 4000 to 5000 people daily […] Committees were set up to promote material aid. They solicited friendly grocers for staples to be served in the comissary and to help out the needy families of strikers […] The union’s medical staff included Dr. McCrimmon and two interns from the University if Minnesotta hospital who volunteered their services during off hours. Three trained nurses headed up a larger volunteer stafff that provided efficient care […] About a score of skilled auto mechanics had turned to, bringing their tools with them, to keep the strkers cars in working order…” (pg72)

From cooks to hospital services, carpenters to auto mechanics, the workers were able to rely on one another’s skills to keep a massive strike going. They had the skills to be self-sufficient. They were the experts! Dobb’s detailed description of how the strike hall was run, its division of labor, its ability to respond to crises rapidly, is a glimpse of how workers solidarity can replace management.

How the workers organized to bring in women and unemployed workers into their struggle was also key to their success. The Teamsters involved unemployed workers and included as their demands, the need for more public welfare. They didnt leave unemployed workers out to dry, and they got in exchange, thousands of workers who were not scabs but allies, The Teamsters also organized the Women’s Auxillary, involving the family members of the striking workers in the everyday life of sustaining the strike. They forged community and a powerful fighting force of women who would also go into the streets to demand higher wages and unionization. The struggle was a community’s struggle. In a battle of will between management and the workers, the mobilization and support of a community is power.

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6 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs”

  1. Great notes, Jomo. Makes me wanna check this one out.

    One question I had was the relationship of organized revolutionaries to these struggles, if any. I have the impression they were involved in the Toledo and Minneapolis struggles of this time, though not sure about the San Francisco stuff. Does the book go into this much, and if so, what is the relationship?

    I also notice that this is one of four books on the Teamsters. I wonder if Dobbs takes this issue up in the others, if not here, or if he’s simply not interested in these issues, if they don’t appear anywhere. That would be odd though, since he was involved with the Trot groups I always understood were involved in the Teamsters and these rebellions.

  2. thx, JOMO.

    how are you and the other folks in Democracy Insurgent thinking about the big strikes, and the sky-high level and complexity of worker self-activity described in the excerpt on the behind-the-scenes work at the union hall?

    in Austin, we’re reading “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom” by Charles Payne on the day-to-day work of SNCC organizers in the south, which Payne describes as “slow and respectful” work.

    i think many times organizers only see the big demos and strikes that serve as excuses for an analysis of movement building, but are really nothing more than a tabloid history. i think this accounts for much of the demo-hopping that characterized the anti-war and anti-globalization movements.

    SNCC workers would knock on hundreds of doors, meet with people 2, 3 maybe 4 times before they even sat down to talk to them, let alone came to a meeting or registered to vote.

    similarly, the workers’ movement in Egypt is telling of the need for workers’ self-activity, as opposed to the Left calling meetings without any social connection to the day-to-day lives of the workers. Payne argued that movement building was relationship building.

    but at what point are leaps made in terms of worker self-activity in terms of committedness, organizational complexity and militancy in regards to both the bosses and the union bureaucracy? how have y’all seen these 3 things related?

  3. In response to ibn jubayr’s last question about leaps in self-activity…

    In Democracy Insurgent’s campaign with the custodians at the University of Washington, i would say we have seen rises in worker self-activity when two things happen:
    a. When there is a sense of desperation – for example when the entire night shift was going to be cut. Right now, we see it to a lesser extent with the massive expansions of work areas.
    b. However, there have also been examples of desperate situations when workers failed to organize amongst themselves. So, the other necessary ingredient is confidence. With the large rallies in opposition to the night shift cuts last spring, we saw hundreds come out and militantly confront managers and University of Washington administrators. But, the more important component of confidence is the sense of leadership workers have inside the workplace. It is the time in between rallies and actions; the one on one meetings with other workers; the facilitation of impromptu, emergency meetings; the phone calls; the circulation of flyers – these are the best indicators of confidence. Of course, this confidence and self-activity can only go so far if there is not a sense of wider community support. At the University of Washington, students, for the most part, have not come out to fight alongside the custodians; neither have other staff or faculty. Without this broader support and sense of struggle on campus, the custodians and trades feel isolated and too exposed to managerial retaliation.

  4. Hey Mikey,
    What I know about the involvement of organized revolutionaries in the Minneapolis strike is drawn mainly from the book itself. Dobbs, the Dunne brothers and Carl Skogund were members of the Trotskyist group the Communist League, which seems to be the precursor to the SWP in the US. They had recently just split from the CP when they were involved in organizing in Minneapolis and it was through being on the frontlines of the battle fields with rank and file workers that the membership of the CL also grew. Dobbs references how other party members such as Max Shachtman and James Cannon also came to Minneapolis to support the actions, by putting out the strike weekly.
    One significant thing that Dobbs mentions in the book, is how the hostile union bureaucracy and the Citizens League, which is the capitalist consortium in Minneapolis, red baited the CL members in Local 574, calling them radical ideologues, outside agitators who were trying to lead workers down the wrong path, being anti-US and what not. What Dobbs describes is that the majority of the workers did not join in the hatefest because they saw that the organized revolutionaries were on their side and fighting for demands that had been decided democratically. They also appear from the book (and of course this may be biased) to be non-sectarian, working closely with Bill Brown who was not a party member, and actually more of a left wing union bureaucrat who was at least willing to side with the rank and file.

    I have read critiques that instead challenge the Trotskyist organizers for being too popular frontish in its relationship both toward the union bureaucracy — seeking to incorporate the radical leadership into the bureaucracy rather than challenging its existence at all — as well as its relationship with the Governor of Minnesota at the time, Olson. Rather than denouncing Olson right from the beginning as a collaborator with the Citizens League, instead the revolutionaries sought to hold him accountable to the labor constituency that had elected him into power. Of course it was all games because Olson was the one who later calls in the National Guard to pressure the strikers to get back to work.

    I think this is a common situation revolutionaries will find themselves in. When we are working with broader formations, how can we make clear where we stand and at the same time, be responsive to where people are? How do we not just become armchair ideologues who piss on anything and everything that isnt radical enough, be consistent builders of a movement, and yet, also be honest and upfront about our proposals, and try to draw the more militant crowd that is ready to move? If we play by the status quo all the time, then what is the need for revolutionaries?

    Some responses to ibn jubayr’s questions.

    I agree with the points that gila has laid out. The more militant steps people are willing to take is a combination of the situation we face, as well as our level of confidence. I would lean more toward the level of confidence — seeing other people move, and seeing other people win, generally make people want even more. The amiseration theory doesn’t always cut it from my experience. I think one of the things that an organization of workers can do is to gauge peoples sense of militancy. When workers are on their shift, they are also organizing, gauging where other people are at. This relationship building is precious because they can get fed back into the organization’s actions. Organizations can offer a framework for mobilizing large numbers of people if the mood in the air is charged. Not to say these things dont happen spontaneously. They often do, but organizations that are responsive are able to continue and follow through from these spontaneous movements/actions so they go on to demands more, bring in more people, and fight for a longer period of time.

    For a fighting organization, relationship building is important for pulling together a sense of community, but it will mean nothing if the group isnt also a fighting one that is also based around a particular vision and method of organizing. This is not to say relationships dont have independent validity, or are not important. But one thing I can’t stand are “scenes” or “cliques” that call themselves activist groups when they are really just a group of friends hanging out. One of the key characteristics of a fighting group is that it breaks new ground, creates new ways of looking at the same problem, shifts the paradigms. I would say incorporating this sentiment into our organizational culture is key for us to continue to be flexible and responsive toward whats on the ground.

    I hope this gets at what you are asking.

  5. “One of the key characteristics of a fighting group is that it breaks new ground, creates new ways of looking at the same problem, shifts the paradigms.”

    could you explain this a little?

  6. Jomo,

    I dug your post and your comments were very, very helpful. I’ve been reading James P. Cannon’s “A History of American Trotskyism” as part of an ongoing study of Trotskyism. This book was initially a series of lectures that Cannon gave to the SWP in early 1942. Definitely a good read, despite Cannon’s theoretical and methodological problems.

    Anyhow, the chapter I’m reading now deals in pretty good detail (presumably not as much as Dobbs’ books) with the Minneapolis strikes of 1934. What’s clear is that, yes, the Communist League of America (the Trotskyist opposition in the CP that became the SWP) did accept the union structure and logic and not simply as a site wherein workers can struggle for their own independent organization. As a matter of fact, I think they would have called independent organization ultra-left, which is how they characterized the Comintern’s Third Period phase. (The CP’s “Red Union” approach certainly may have been ultra-left, but Cannon seemed to think that posing an alternative to the AFL or the “mainstream of the labor movement” was ultraleft in itself.) I’m not 100% clear if Cannon would have argued against independent organization in this context.

    But it seems they did play a very valuable part in the general strike, coming out of their years-long propaganda phase into important mass work. I need to think about more about what part they played concretely. I know they mobilized all their forces, participated in the informal organizing committee, but yet seemed to appeal to the left-wing of the union bureaucracy (Bill Brown), as Jomo says.

    As a tangential question, I wonder how much of the SWP’s perspective on unionism can be attributed to their Trotskyism and yet how much is related to the particular historical conjuncture where the unions (I am assuming) had not been drawn as much into the process and discipline of production as it had by the time the Johnson-Forest Tendency began making sense of it in the 1940s. I don’t know how this leap could have been made without the material basis for it and if industrial unionism in the 1930s wasn’t it, then what was it?

    One of the most impressing things about the truck drivers and helpers strike then was the amount of preparation that went into it. They created their own ad-hoc hospitals, developed communication systems to mobilize flying squads where scab trucks attempted to move, and countless other aspects which Jomo laid out above. They organized to win and risked everything to do it. This is a feature of struggle we just don’t see these days.

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