Nick Driedger looks back at three storied examples of worker militancy from the 1930s, noting the often overlooked years of underground organizing that made that possible. Image via.
What gets a lot of attention from the rise of the mass industrial unions of the 1930’s is the practice of plant gating: flyering a plant en masse in order to gauge and draw out union support. The other thing that gets a lot of attention are the mass strikes: the titanic struggles between thousands of pickets and the police.
I like to call these images “Norma Rae” moments because they make for a better story than the truth. They also give people looking to repeat that historical high-water mark a warped idea of what it takes to get there.
People overlook the careful, underground work it takes to build big struggles. That gets a few sentences, and then there are long, involved books on the efforts that were aboveground. It’s partly because a lot of people don’t see unions as political in themselves, but rather they see unions as a vehicle for their politics. People who think like that tend to pay less attention to the nuts and bolts of organizing, and sometimes they outright see labor struggles as a matter of surges beyond anyone’s control.
I want to talk about three mass worker uprisings from those the early days, looking at accounts that actually include interviews with the key organizers. I picked these three for political reasons. All were started by radicals, and all were flagship projects of the labor movement, not just for the left but for mainstream society. To this day, they are referred to as examples of the kind of militancy we need to get back to.
The first story is about an independent radical union called the Independent Union of All Workers that was founded by a former IWW member. The second is about the early days of the United Electrical Workers; this union eventually consolidated into a union with 600,000 members and was targeted by the government and business interests because of the strong influence the Communist Party USA. The third example is from the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, widely considered a watershed moment in American labor history, which led to the Teamsters’ explosive growth. The Teamsters were widely considered the most powerful union in the USA well in the 1970s.
These are three different unions with different political influences. But while the radicals that started these fights may have had a different set of political commitments, the basic approach was largely the same. What the cases all have in common is not just that they involve big fights that then subsided; they also all involved unions that had quiet and humble beginnings for an extended period.
Independent Union of All Workers
Many unions sprang up in the 1930s as independent outfits. Often they were spin-off efforts from various other unions or radical organizations. One such example was the Independent Union of All Workers, an IWW-influenced group centred around an ex-IWW member named Frank Ellis. Based out of Austin, Minnesota, the union carried on a militant tradition in the packing plants for decades. How did it start, though? As one historian puts it:
Ellis had kept a low profile since being hired in 1928, but he helped other experienced (even blacklisted) labor activists get jobs at Hormel. He later told an interviewer:
“I’d send out and get rebels that I knew from other towns to come in and go to work, and I’d work them during the rush season, see. Then, when it came to lay off time, instead of laying them off, I’d go to some other boss and say, ‘Here, I’ve got a good man. And I hate like hell to lay him off. Can you use him? And I’ll take him back as soon as business starts up.’ And I’d place him in the plant and scatter him out. Well, he was an old union man. He knew what to do. I didn’t have to tell him. He knew the ideas was to get in there with the gang and to get them emotionally moved so they’d be ready to organize when the time came.”
Whether Ellis deserves credit for having brought them into the plant or not, a diverse group of militant activists did find employment there. Together they promoted a strategy that rested, first and foremost, on workplace direct action. “You worked with a group of people who have never belonged to a union, who have never spoken back to a foreman, and a company that didn’t want to recognize you,” one activist recalled. They saw the shopfloor as holding the key to dispelling the atmosphere of fear that had held the rank and file back.
The IUAW eventually organized thousands of workers across the entire packing industry in the region, but the campaign never had any public actions until 1933. That’s five years of building after Ellis had landed in the plant and started bringing his co-organizers in. These were not people who were new to the workplace but seasoned, skilled packinghouse workers. This organizing culminated in some mass strikes at the end of the 1930s but the militant unionism lived on for decades.
The union was eventually swallowed up by other unions and became a part of the United Food and Commercial Workers, and played a significant role in the labor showdown of the 1980s at the Hormel plant in Minnesota, one of the IUAW’s old strongholds. While the strike pretty much broke the union — UFCW national put the local in receivership and signed a contract with the company over the heads of the workers — the militancy at that plant from the 1930s to the 1980s is a pretty good run by any measure.
United Electrical Workers
The United Electrical Workers grew from a few scattered organizing committees in the early thirties to over 600,000 members at their height. They were a major target by the government because of the influence the Communist Party USA had inside their organization, but a lot of the stories of the growth of the unions in the 1930s focus on the drama and mass strikes over the smaller moves made — the initial organizing efforts that cemented the union in some plants. This story from a PhD thesis written in 2002 (Field Organizers and The United Electrical Workers: A Labor of Love, Struggle and Commitment 1935-1960, by Michael Bonislawski) is the kind of story we don’t hear enough about:
Many Industrial Workers could and did meet in what could be described as informal quasi organizing activities. It was out of these groups that some of the first UE locals were born.
“Do you like fishing?” was a question asked with the wink of an eye or the doff of a cap. “The fishing is pretty good if you’ve got a boat. That’s why we need a good boat.” The club members paid a dollar a week into Philrod: a workers’ fishing club. Workers in the Philco Storage Battery Company in Philadelphia formed Philrod in 1932. The funds, once they had collected enough money, were earmarked for the purchase of materials to build their own boat. At least that was the story circulated in the shop. Slowly, as more fishing enthusiasts joined Philrod, more funds accumulated. Philrod members elected a Steering Committee and began issuing leaflets. Eventually Philrod became UE local 101.
Slow and patient organizing, often for years and years, does not make for a great story, and for every union drive that succeeded there were doubtlessly many more that simply ended with the project being abandoned until someone else picked it up. Often the lessons we need to learn from organizing are not the lessons we want to learn.
The Minneapolis Teamsters’ revolt
Three strikes are often given credit for the passage of the Wagner Act: the Longshore strike in 1934, the Toledo Autolite strike of the same year, and the struggles of the Minneapolis Teamsters of 1933-1934. These strikes burst into the history books and everyone talks about them like they fell from the sky — often even the participants.
But looking into the history around these strikes again shows slow and patient work going on. The organizers in the Teamsters were also part of a Trotskyist group called the Communist League, and set up social events around work to lay the foundation for organizing years before they ever had any public attempts with the union.
[A political opponent inside their communist group asserted that]… Ray Dunne and Carl Skoglund had seemingly misdirected work in the coal-yards in the winter of 1932, placing the organisational accent on bringing the truck-drivers into Local 574 rather than concentrating their efforts on ‘the more exploited’ coal-yard helpers. Furthermore, Glotzer chastised Dunne and Skoglund for “fraternization” with the bosses, claiming that when the drivers celebrated the formation of a grievance committee with a “stag party” or “beer bust” they invited the employers to attend and allowed them the floor to speak while suppressing political work by comrades. Skoglund answered these allegations, noting that Glotzer seemed unaware of the complexities of trucking work in the coal-yards, where drivers responsible for providing and outfitting their own trucks also hired helpers, both of these working contingents drawing their earnings in a 75/25 percent split of the monetary intake. In addition, men were hired by the hour in the yards. Through organising the drivers, Skoglund and Dunne had as their purpose the “demand that these workers be employed more steadily and also that the drivers refuse to load their trucks without more help”. Workers’ meetings, Skoglund insisted, were never attended by bosses, and it was only at the amusement ‘stag’ that they were present… If…a CLA comrade had insisted on being “mechanically forced on the platform to advertise” Left Opposition politics, the result would have been “discharge of some of our comrade”. Skoglund and Dunne stressed, instead, that their work in the coal-yards was of a protracted nature. They were building contacts ‘for future work’, introducing the drivers and helpers to The Militant, and preparing for the seasonal layoffs that beset those working in the coal-yards every spring. “What work was done this year will… be borne in mind by these workers, thereby making it easier to talk organization next year”, Skoglund concluded presciently.
This strike led to crowds as big as 40,000 marching in defiance of the government, a union local that grew from a few hundred to 7,000 members over a year and launched the explosive growth of the Teamsters union as an ambitious industrial union whose political power became legendary. The idea that a small group of workers who gathered to try and settle issues of shared concern over beers is where it all started seems almost unbelievable today.
One of the most common mistakes a new organizer makes is thinking everything will get easier when you “go public.” These three examples show that putting yourself out there as a union is not something you do early or take lightly. It’s also not something to do just because you want to move on to something else. These workers were not salts, they were not tourists, they worked where they did because those were the jobs they could get. This wasn’t gap year organizing and it wasn’t a way to just build an audience for their radical politics (though in all three examples the workers involved had radical affiliations).
We also see how effective this slow and steady approach was. Any one of these struggles escalated to a point that seems impossible today: a union moving from a few hundred members to 7,000 and beating the city police in a fight in the streets; another union organizing packing plants for 50 miles in every direction and drawing workers into an independent radical union that carried on a legacy of militancy for decades; and a smattering of plant committees across the US all coming together to form a union with well over half a million members in 15 years’ time. It all seems impossible because it almost is.
Ambition is important for an organizer to have and the labor movement needs to learn how to build unions in a way where they take in thousands of members a year. But that kind of organizing doesn’t happen with a quick certification in a single plant, or a really great social media presence, or by clobbering the employer in the press to leverage voluntary recognition. It also doesn’t happen when organizers are expected to show quick and easy results to an executive board. If you want labor to think bigger they need to look smaller and be more patient. Big things grow from small things, with time. But the real lesson of the 1930s is that you need to work with the workers on the job to find their own power where they are, and helping them find their own voice takes time.
Nick Driedger is a former member, shop steward, Local Organizing Officer and National Organizing Coordinator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. He is currently the Executive Director of the Athabasca University Faculty Association and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.