Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lessons of Three Strikes From 1934 Needed Now

Lessons of three strikes from 1934 needed now

By Bryan G. Pfeifer
Published Sep 23, 2009 6:09 PM

The spring and summer of 2009 was the 75th anniversary of three mighty strikes either led or directly influenced by class-conscious union militants, socialists and communists that brought the bosses and bankers to their knees and ushered in a new era of labor-capital relations in the United States.

Longshore strike on West Coast

In the midst of the Great Depression the International Longshore Association (ILA), beginning on May 9, 1934, led an 83-day strike followed by a four-day general strike in San Francisco from July 2 to 5. African-American workers were decisive in winning the strike as was the anti-racist union leader, Harry Bridges. The courage, steadfastness and unity of the strikers won their main goal of an independent, union-controlled hiring hall, which put an end to the hated “shape-up” system and led to the unionization of all West Coast ports among other advances.

The West Coast locals later voted to create the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The ILWU continues to recognize “Bloody Thursday” by shutting down all West Coast ports every July 5. This is the day in 1934 when two strikers, Nicholas Bordois and Howard Sperry, were shot dead by the cops. Longshore workers have a history of shutting down West Coast ports for political protests, including during Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, the fascist intervention in Spain’s civil war, to protest South Africa under the racist apartheid system and against the U.S. war on Iraq.

Toledo, Ohio: Auto-Lite

The successful Toledo Auto-Lite strike from April 12 to June 2, 1934, to win recognition of the Federal Labor Union 18384 of the American Federation of Labor, is known for a five-day running battle between approximately 6,000 strikers and 1,300 members of the Ohio National Guard, and a 20,000-strong march in support of the strikers. The American Workers Party, a socialist-oriented party, led the strike.

The workers struck the Electric Auto-Lite Company mainly to win recognition over the company union but ended up also winning wage increases, a minimum wage and provisions for arbitration and wage demands. As in Minneapolis and San Francisco, the successful Auto-Lite strike laid the basis for the widespread unionization of the city and ultimately the autoworkers in Toledo helped to build what eventually became known as the United Auto Workers.

Minneapolis Teamster’s strike

The citywide Minneapolis Teamster’s Local 574 strike began on May 16, 1934. The fundamental issue in the strike was over the open or closed shop with regard to transportation and warehouse unionization in this Midwestern city.

After facing off against cops, bosses’ goons, business union misleaders, two-faced politicians, the Citizen’s Alliance and the National Guard, the Teamsters broke the back of the formerly open-shop citadel, Minneapolis, ushering in what became a union city.

Four workers died by cops’ and goons’ guns and/or other weapons during this strike. Illuminating features of this strike were the willingness of the strikers to independently fight on their own terms, many times physically, and also form military formations, drawing on the experience of many of the strikers who were WWI veterans.

Thus, the strike leaders, anticipating that they would be facing naked state oppression eventually, led the strikers to set up and run infirmaries, soup kitchens, flying squadrons and the like.

Furthermore, a critical aspect of this strike was the formation of the Minneapolis Organization of the Unemployed. The Minneapolis Teamster’s leadership made it a priority to include the unemployed organization as a formal part of their union. Thus the unemployed as well as sympathetic farmers were life-and-death allies of the strikers and played valuable tactical and strategic roles in the strike and thereafter.

The successful conclusion of this strike by Local 574 led to the unionization of over-the-road truckers and other workers throughout the Midwest and nationally.

Commemorations for these three epic strikes and our working class heroes who led them have been and are being held in California, Minnesota and Ohio.

These strikes’ histories included deep sacrifices, including workers being shot dead and beaten. But they were successful strikes that increased the quality of life for workers—both organized and unorganized—throughout the country. These and numerous other upsurges won concessions such as the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.

During all three strikes, union members and their supporters brought forth their strength in the tens of thousands and created or refined many tactics and strategies both offensive and defensive, such as flying squadrons, setting up and implementing worker-run soup kitchens, infirmaries and the like. These strikes were run by militant rank-and-file unionists and supported by their unorganized and unemployed allies. And African Americans, women, foreign-born workers and immigrants played decisive roles in all these strikes.

The strikers clearly proved that establishment politicians, class-collaborating union heads and business unionism were drawbacks to winning strikes or advancing the cause of the working class and oppressed. The workers relied on their own strength in the streets and other battlefronts.

Workers today should take their cue from these historic experiences in fighting present-day battles such as winning the Employee Free Choice Act and a federal jobs program with union wages. We don’t win by begging politicians, we win by fighting with everything we’ve got on every front for what is rightfully ours.

Other illuminating political, social and economic lessons are embedded in the 1934 strikes.

In San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo the strikers fought not only for themselves but also solidarized themselves with the struggles for unemployment relief, social security insurance, welfare entitlements and other New Deal concessions such as various jobs programs funded by the federal government.

The American Workers Party, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party during this period organized the unemployed in the thousands to support the 1934 strikes and numerous others during the Great Depression. In fact the unemployed played critical roles in many strikes to assist their employed sisters and brothers.

The 1934 strikes also helped to usher in a new era of industrial unionism as all three unions won union recognition in the critical basic industries of shipping, transportation and auto. This gave impetus to the formation in 1935 of the Committees for Industrial Organization that formed within the American Federation of Labor.

After the racist and craft-based AFL continued to refuse to seriously organize on an industrial basis in the basic industries of auto, glass, steel, rubber, mining and the like, the Congress of Industrial Organizations formed its separate organization apart from the AFL in 1938 and began to organize basic industry en masse. The United Electrical Workers union was the first member of the CIO in 1938 and its militant legacy continues most recently in their six-day plant occupation in December 2008 in Chicago.

The 1934 strikes took place in the midst of massive upsurges all across the U.S.

Every gain, every concession, every advance won by the working class and oppressed during the 1930s was won in mighty battles in the streets, plants, stores and neighborhoods, often block-by-block. Although many poor and working people were injured, killed and imprisoned by the state, the workers kept fighting.

Actions such as that of the Unemployed Councils moving furniture back into apartments and homes won moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions in over two dozen states. The Sharecroppers union in the South was engaged in pitched battles on many fronts; Midwestern and Plains farmers directly challenged the bankers by physically shutting down farm auctions and blockading roads; the miners in Appalachia were fighting back against the war on them by the bankers and bosses and their goons; the Communist Party waged a fierce international battle to save the lives of the Scottsboro defendants and fought tenaciously against lynching.

It is this agitation and direct action by the masses that forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt and others of the ruling class to move to the degree they did in granting concessions such as the New Deal programs.

In the applied practice of historical materialism, examples from the past are not necessarily blueprints for the future, but they can be instructive about what is possible and point in a general direction. We look towards previous upsurges not only for inspiration but also to learn lessons that can be applied today with the ultimate goal being to win socialism, a political, economic and social system where workers and the oppressed dump the bankers and bosses in the dust bin of history where they belong and where we—the workers and oppressed—run society in our own interests.

The summer of 1934 and the Great Depression generally hold many lessons for us today. From coast to coast. The slogan of the Unemployed Councils, “Organize and fight! Don’t Starve!” became the battle cry of large sections of the working class and oppressed in the 1930s.

As the capitalist depression sets in deeper, creating ever widening misery for our class internationally, the spirit, militant actions and lessons of our forebears is needed today more than ever.

United we eat!

Moratorium NOW!

State of Emergency NOW!

Organize and fight! Don’t starve!

Source authors and books for this article: Michael Honey, “Black Workers Remember;” Robert Rodgers Korstad, “Civil Rights Unionism;” Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, “Defying Dixie;” Robin D.G. Kelley, “Hammer and Hoe;” Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, “Labor’s Untold Story;” Fred Goldstein, “Low-Wage Capitalism;” Farrell Dobbs, “Teamster’s Rebellion;” David Wellman, “The Union Makes Us Strong: Radical Unionism on the SanFrancisco Waterfront.” This report is adapted from the talk, “The Lessons of the Great Depression as it Relates to the Current Capitalist Economic Crisis,” that Bryan G. Pfeifer gave at a Detroit Workers World Forum on Aug. 8.

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