Lessons from Labor History can Inform our Labor Movement During COVID-19 CrisisRoundup
tags: unions, strikes, labor history, COVID-19, working class history
Peter Rachleff is the co-director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minn.
COVID-19 is the biggest crisis of our lives, and workers are on the front lines. Large, profitable employers expect workers deemed “essential” — those in healthcare, grocery stores, food production, and shipping, among others — to risk their health and safety and that of their families, many for meager pay and benefits. Portions of the economy have shut down, leaving millions jobless with a threadbare social safety net. Where do we look for ideas about how to respond?
At the East Side Freedom Library, we believe that studying our past offers valuable lessons for the present. We collect resources and host programs which help us understand how workers developed organizations and strategies to confront the key challenges of their lives. The current situation has led us to reconsider the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of 1934. Their dramatic story shows that the labor movement is strongest when unions boldly organize workers on the job and in the community around a shared vision of fairness and justice.
These strikes changed the course of history, transforming Minneapolis from a notorious anti-labor bastion into a “union town.” In the depths of the Depression and the depths of winter, a group of dedicated activists in the city’s coal yards bypassed the traditional strategy of organizing workers into separate unions depending on the work they did. They organized coal heavers, warehouse workers, truck drivers, and helpers into a single union. With the support of working people and families throughout the city, they won a brief strike in February 1934.
Their success inspired other Minneapolis workers to believe that if they organized together, if they practiced solidarity, and if they involved their families, they, too, could change their lives. Over the spring, activists and organizers built one industrial union of all workers involved in trucking. Five thousand joined. The union built a “Committee of 100,” a network of stewards and rank-and-filers to link workplaces. They organized an Unemployed Committee to advocate for those without work. They started a daily newspaper, The Organizer, to tell their story to the wider community. And they organized a Women’s Auxiliary, which ran a commissary and a soup kitchen.
These steps became critical in May, when, challenged by employers and the fiercely anti-union Citizens’ Alliance, the union struck. They needed all of these innovations to strengthen internal solidarity and gain the solidarity of the community. Their roving pickets challenged scab-driven trucks, and they engaged in physical battles with the local police. In two weeks, they had won many of their demands. When employers tried to undercut their agreements, the union called its members — now 10,000 — back on strike. They held firm for several weeks, and finally won secure contracts, significant raises, and work rules and working conditions that became the model for the industry nationwide.