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.
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