One Day In July

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July 19, 2004 // UPDATED 2:37 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Seventy years ago, truck drivers and business leaders waged an historic battle in the Warehouse District -- a battle that turned a strongly anti-union city into a union town. And a group of union activists are putting together a street festival Saturday, July 24, to make sure we don't forget it (for event details, see page 11).

During spring and summer 1934, truck drivers and pro-union forces clashed violently with police and business interests that had mounted what amounted to a private war. Several died on both sides, some beaten with clubs, others shot.

One of the most violent clashes, Bloody Friday, happened July 20, 1934 at North 3rd Street & 6th Avenue North, where police ambushed and shot strikers, killing two and injuring dozens.

Gov. Floyd B. Olson declared martial law in Minneapolis and sent in the National Guard. President Franklin Roosevelt eventually intervened, pressuring business leaders to recognize the union.

Labor historians Mary Lethert Wingerd of St. Cloud State University and Peter Rachleff of Macalester College said the 1934 strike has immense lasting significance for the city.

"Minneapolis billed itself as the open shop capital of the world," Wingerd said. "That was part of the marketing strategy for industry -- they didn't have unions."

Business leaders had created a group called the Citizens' Alliance to block union organizing, Rachleff said. Banking interests provided key leadership. From their perspective, cheap labor helped attract capital to Minneapolis.

The 1934 strike broke the Citizens' Alliance's dominance, Wingerd and Rachleff said.

The Minneapolis strike, and two other 1934 strikes -- one in Toledo, Ohio and one in Oakland, Calif. -- led Congress to pass the Labor Relations Act of 1935, which made it easier for unions to organize, Rachleff said.

History rekindled

Look at Downtown today and it is not hard to imagine a more industrial time. Building facades still stand, often bearing the original company name or long-neglected murals promoting what they once produced: farm implements, flour, etc. Yet mills and factories are giving way to restaurants, nightclubs and high-end housing.

Sixth Avenue North near the site of the "Bloody Friday" attack still has brick pavement. Falk Paper Company is on one corner. Across the street is Bookmen Lofts, 535 N. 3rd St., an in-progress condo conversion. On another corner is the 1910 Roach Tisdale building, 530 N. 3rd St., the building's multiple tenants include Indigo, an Asian and African art shop. The Montana Coffeehouse, 514 N. 3rd, is a half block away.

One reminder of the 1934 strike is found a half-mile away at the Warehouse District's lone light-rail transit (LRT) stop, on North 5th Street, west of Hennepin Avenue. The station's public art project displays 10 historic photos on five brick pillars.

Some pictures are slice-of-life shots, such as Bridge Square Employment Bureau circa 1908. Half the pictures tell the story of the Teamsters Strike. One shows the strikers' soup kitchen, another shows the police blocking the Market District entrance.

The most jarring photo shows a man on the ground with another man standing above him, finishing a bone-crushing swing of a club.

Many LRT passengers and passersby quizzed about the photos said they had not yet noticed them and did not know the strike history.

Nathaniel Kuster, a Minneapolis public school teacher and member of the teachers union, knew the history and called the LRT photo display "wonderful."

"President Roosevelt intervened personally," he said. "It defined collective bargaining for the whole United States."

Brian Ellstrom, who was on his way to a Downtown ad school, said he did not know the history. "It seems a little violent," he said of one photo, adding, "If it's Minnesota history, I'd just as soon know the good, the bad and the ugly."

Jon Posey, a self-described homeless man who was playing the harmonica and seeking spare change, said he didn't have anything against the display but said violence doesn't solve problems, it just makes them worse.

"I see someone on the ground, hurt," he said, looking at a picture. "That is not peaceful."

A tale of two cities

In the 1930s, St. Paul had been a union town for decades; Minneapolis was not, said Wingerd, who wrote "Claiming the City," a book about St. Paul's politics, labor and religion and why they evolved differently

from Minneapolis'.

As Minneapolis grew, it produced for a national market, she said. St. Paul produced for a regional and local market. The different economies created different employer-employee relationships. In St. Paul, workers were key consumers as well as employees, Wingerd said.

Management and labor had a tacit "live and let live" agreement.

"The big financial powerhouses in Minneapolis didn't care what their workers thought about them," Wingerd said. "They weren't milling of millions

of pounds of flour for Minneapolis; they were milling it for the world. It was a different kind of culture."

A private army

Minneapolis business leaders had fended off a number of strikes in the past three decades, said William Millikan, author of a book on the Citizens' Alliance called "A Union Against Unions."

Machinery companies successfully blocked a machinery workers' strike in 1901, he said. In 1902, the teamsters had a strike.

"This one is the one that got the attention of everybody -- because even at that early date they realized that this was the one way the city could become unionized," Millikan said. "If you unionize the trucking industry, you can essentially shut down every industry in the city. It was seen as a major danger."

In 1903, workers in the grain mills went on strike. That year, the Citizens' Alliance formed, he said. The milling industry signed on, including Washburn Crosby, which is now General Mills, and Pillsbury.

According to several historians, the Citizens' Alliance grew to 800 member businesses and used hardball tactics.

Millikan said during the 1917 streetcar strike the Citizens' Alliance used its private army. The Hennepin County Sheriff deputized them. "They had drilled and had weapons and uniforms," he said. "It was all very paramilitary and organized, and nobody wanted to mess with [them]."

New Deal for labor

Roosevelt's Depression-era policies gave Minneapolis labor extra clout. In his book "City of Lakes: An Illustrated History of Minneapolis," Joseph Stipanovich said the New Deal legislation included the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which allowed workers to form unions and collectively bargain.

Truck drivers struck the city coal yards in early 1934 -- and won, spurring a citywide organizing effort, Stipanovich said.

Millikan said the Citizens' Alliance again organized to oppose the strike and had an army of approximately 1,000 people, but it was not as well trained as its 1917 group.

The business leaders recruited cons out of jail, ex-policemen and clerks from Citizens' Alliance companies (because they couldn't refuse, he said.)

In the meantime, Olson encouraged the truckers to organize, wrote Geogre Mayer, author of "The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson. When they held an April mass rally at the Shubert Theater, then on 7th Street &

Hennepin Avenue South, Olson sent word that a worker who did not take advantage of the right to organize "was blind to his own welfare."

Mayer wrote that despite an economic recovery in 1934, nearly one-third of Hennepin County's working class remained unemployed. Many with jobs just eked by, and transportation workers had it worst, he said. Truck drivers earned $18 for an 84-hour week.

The union demanded shorter hours, $27.50 a week and overtime pay. The drivers went on strike on May 12, after the employers' refused to negotiate, Mayer wrote.

Strikers set up headquarters at a garage at 1900 Chicago Ave. The employers' group set up headquarters at 1328 Hennepin Ave. S., where Laurel Village stands today.

Stipanovich said violence began seven days later, when a group of picketers was attacked. Clashes became increasingly violent.

Death and martial law

According to Mayer:

The May 21 "Battle of Deputies Run" at the marketplace near Butler Square was the first major conflict. The Citizens' Alliance army broke rank, faced with 600 organized strikers and sympathizers. The strikers broke through a police blockade with a car, engaging in hand-to-hand combat that left 37 injured.

On May 22, the union supporters fought with Citizens' Alliance members with clubs and nightsticks -- a fight that left two Alliance backers dead, including C. Arthur Lyman, vice president of American Ball Co. and the Alliance's attorney.

The two sides reached an agreement, but their truce proved temporary. The union called another strike July 16.

On the eve of the July 16 strike, business leaders took out a full-page ad in the Minneapolis Journal charging the union -- strike leaders -- with a plot to set up a local Soviet republic communists.

Union members and sympathizers would routinely intercept truck traffic to enforce the strike. On July 20, police sent a decoy truck to North 3rd Street & 6th Avenue North. When strikers intercepted it, 50 heavily armed officers opened fire, killing two and wounding 67.

(An investigating committee said 25 were shot in the back trying to flee and four were hit while trying to help others.)

Wrote Stipanovich: "Because this marked the first use of firearms in the labor troubles, and, fearing open warfare in the streets of Minneapolis, Gov. Olson declared martial law in the city on July 26."

Arm twisting

President Roosevelt was in Minnesota attending a ceremony honoring the Mayo brothers and Olson "pleaded" with him to intervene in the strike, Stipanovich wrote.

Roosevelt didn't take a public position, but historians agree his behind-the-scenes threats ended the strike.

Banking interests -- key players in the Citizens' Alliance -- were very much beholden to the federal government, several historians said. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) kept the banks solvent during the Depression.

Through mediators, Roosevelt apparently sent word to Minneapolis bankers: The trucking companies needed to recognize the union or he would order the RFC to withhold money, Stipanovich wrote.

The strike was settled Aug. 21, 1934. The truckers' contract included a guarantee to reemploy strikers, a minimum wage of 50 cents an hour and an election procedure to ensure union recognition, Mayer said.