World Labor

A Letter from an Old Friend and Comrade
About an Historic Strike

By Joe Johnson

Chippewa Falls, WI

The recent republication by the University of Minnesota Press of Charles Rumford Walker’s award-winning book, American City, about the big truck-drivers’ strikes of 1934 reminded me of my boyhood in Minneapolis at the time. (My mother left me there because she like many mothers could not take care of her kid during the Depression.)

Yesterday, the newspaper here [in Chippewa Falls, WI] reported the temperature in Billings Montana was 112 degrees and that the little ponds that were put back in after the dust storms of the 1930s had all dried up; and that the old alkaline-laced dry winds were blowing again.

It reminded me of when I lived in Minneapolis in 1934 and the 100-degree temperatures there at the time. In that hot summer, even as a small child I could tell that something was happening; so great that it was more important than the heat. Everyone talked about it.

The truck drivers had gone out on strike again. They had organized themselves into an all-inclusive industrial union “led by strongly radical ‘Reds’”! Everyone was saying that if they won this one, it would mean more pay for them and better times for all working people.

This is what I heard, but understood only that I should remember it because it was important.

Now that I am old enough to fully understand its importance, I’m very happy to see the republication of Walker’s book, American City. In it, the author is able to break through his own middle-class educational background and go beyond sympathy with the need of workers for unions to get a deeper understanding of the vital importance of leaders: Leaders who know how to fight and are willing to lead their coworkers in struggle; leaders who know how important it is to involve the ranks in the leadership as well as in the fighting.

Walker also drives home the importance of a leadership that is honest, wise and militant; a leadership deeply schooled in the class struggle; a leadership who knows that the strike must not let trucks move; who understands the many tricks of the bosses, the cops, the Church, and dishonest and incompetent old-line union leaders. And finally, a leadership that understands the contradictory nature of Minnesota’s Farmer, Labor Party governor at the time, Floyd B. Olsen.

The author of American City was a gifted intellectual, who wrote a popular book on a very important chapter in labor history that is easy to read. So easy that I found myself turning pages fast—and even faster when the narration in each chapter of these long and bitter strikes began moving toward an exciting, victorious and happy ending.

Remembering V.R. Dunne

The picture on the cover of this new edition of Walker’s book shows Vincent Ray Dunne surrounded by Minnesota National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets, and guns to the ready, during one of the crucial Teamster strike battles of 1934—giving the reader a good indication of what the book is about. Ray Dunne, as I knew him, was one of the veteran socialist cadre that were the core leadership of those historic Teamster strikes; strikes that transformed this union from just another old-style craft union, not going anywhere, into an industrial union that was able to grow into one of the country’s largest and most powerful industrial unions.

Good as this book is because of who wrote it as well as its excellent content, there are errors in it, both big and small. So, to get a more complete and deeper understanding of the Teamster strike it’s necessary for serious students of labor history to go to Teamster Rebellion, by Farrell Dobbs, one of the principal leaders of Minneapolis Teamster Local 574 from 1934 until 1940.1

Dobbs wrote his books with extensive and detailed help from V.R. Dunne and other leaders of the Teamster strikes. I watched Ray go over the Dobbs manuscripts word by word, along with letter after letter to Farrell to fill in the holes in Farrell’s account of the various events in which Ray had played an important role.

Serious students of labor history will want to read both Walker’s and Dobbs’s accounts of Teamster history—the first from an impartial historian and the other from a key actor in Teamster history from 1934 through 1940. Farrell Dobbs’s being what I like to call, the “real McCoy.”

Walker’s major error comes from his lack of a sophisticated class-struggle political education. But while Dobbs had absorbed the lessons of the class struggle in action and could give a richer account of the 1934 strikes, though Walker had a first-class education and was editor of the Yale Literary Magazine, it doesn’t compare to the kind of education Dobbs got in the class struggle itself together with older and more experienced Teamster comrades and brothers. Ray, for example, who left school after completing the fourth grade to go to work was educated in the school of hard knocks while Walker’s understanding was limited by his class background.

Most of Dobbs’s co-leaders were older and some like Ray had been active participants in the Industrial Workers of the World. (The IWW was the American labor movement’s first attempt to build a national labor federation based on industrial organization.)

The strike leadership, for the most part, had gone through the strong educational program of the IWW. This educational program began with teaching reading and writing to the often illiterate workers; then went on to teach the great class struggle principles in words and song.

Ray Dunne, for example, liked to tell me about the IWW’s little red song book which he said was a kind of rank-and-file history of the class struggle. He learned these songs and listened to worker educators like Eugene V. Debs and even those by anarcho-syndicalist leaders of the IWW when he was working in Seattle.

Ray’s opinion of this little red book was so high that he always had a copy around to give to his younger comrades and friends—including me. Even so, Walker did understand that the Teamster strike leadership were made up of exceptional individuals, but he did not understand the depth of their education.

Later, Dunne told me, that he once was sent by the IWW to Mississippi to help organize workers in the “lumber swamp.” And how he ended up on a chain gang. While there, his mainly Black fellow prisoners, helped organize his escape. He continued his education by driving mules on a large English-owned corporate farm of that period in North Dakota.

• • •

I once talked to an older leader of the IWW who had participated in the 1919 Seattle General Strike who told me that in his opiniou, the downturn of the IWW did not come from the attacks of the government on it. That’s what Walker and most historians say. This old-time Wobbly, as IWWers were known, told me that their organization had weathered these attacks by bosses and government; but what really killed the IWW was it’s failure to understand the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the development of Lenin and Trotsky’s Third International

Because of this failure, a large number of the IWW’s best and most educated leaders joined the newly formed Communist Party, USA.

Ray continued his education by joining the Communist Party where he read and studied the writings of Lenin. Later, after the Russian Revolution was betrayed by Stalin and his gang of bureaucrats, he left the CP and joined the Trotskyist Communist League of America and continued his education by studying the writings of Leon Trotsky.

• • •

Today, it was 112-degrees in Billings, Montana. and the alkaline dust is blowing once again. The winds of the class struggle are also beginning to blow all over the United States and the world. A new leadership is already being forged in the heat of the fights that have and will continue erupting at a faster pace. This new leadership needs the fullest understanding of the lessons of the Minneapolis Teamster’s strikes. They can get a good beginning to their continuing education by reading American City by Charles Rumford Walker.


1 Teamster Rebellion, by Farrell Dobbs, Pathfinder, New York, 1972. (The Editors.)