Sunday, 2 August 2009

Review – Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs

I have to say, that when I recently read this book it was not for the first time, rather this book is one that I hold in great regard and wished to re-read it to clarify in my mind some of the issues that the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strikes raises.
These strikes which the book covers marked the beginning of an upsurge in union activity in the United States that eventually led to the formation of the industrially based CIO. Moreover it was really the first serious labour dispute that the Communist League of America, part of the International Left Opposition, became involved in. The book depicts these strikes in a very easily readable format whilst pointing out the steps taken, tactics chosen that the union local took and why they were taken. To my mind this is a book that all militant trade unionists should read.
But one thing I want to focus on is the way that the defence of the pickets from police attacks and brutality during the strike was organised. Unlike some on the left who seem to cry for workers to be given arms at any occasion as if the main issue is some desire to beat up the police (or at least this is the impression that can often be given), Dobbs is rather more sane as he explains why the strike committee deemed it necessary to arm pickets against attacks from the police as well as from the employer-organised special deputies.

“Up to now the workers had gone about their activities bare-handed; but they found that attempts to exercise their right to peacefully picket were being repressed with police clubs and blackjacks. They decided to take steps to enforce their democratic right to prevent scabs from grabbing their jobs. It would have been a tactical blunder for members of an isolated vanguard to attempt measures such as the strikers were about to take; they would only get themselves clobbered by the police. In this case, however, the means used in self-defence had their origin in a spontaneous mass mood that had been generated by capitalist repression. Since these means were appropriately limited in the given situation to matching the police club for club, the tactics employed were completely valid.”(pg.81)

Later on in the book he deals with the run-up into the third strike, when workers were making preparations for this and the question was raised again.

“At the first strike committee meeting, chaired by Kelly Postal, the question of ‘picketing equipment’ was put on the agenda. For the first time since the truce at the end of the May strike, the bosses would be trying to operate trucks in defiance of the pickets. The last attempt had been stopped when the pickets won a pitched battle with the cops, fought club against club. At this new juncture many pickets were inclined to start where they left off in May, again arming themselves with clubs. In the changed circumstances, however, this would have been tactically inadvisable. It would have given the cops a pretext for immediate violence against strikers who were trying to peacefully picket; and the union would have lost the tactical advantage of reacting to police violence under defensive slogans.”

And finally he discusses the question again in the aftermath of the police shooting at the strikers and killing two whilst injuring several others.

“In the meantime Local 574’s pickets were reacting to the police assault in full keeping with their magnificent fighting spirit. After the shooting, many who had escaped injury dropped from sight briefly, only to return soon armed with various kinds of weapons. They now had shotguns, deer rifles, revolvers, hunting knives, and various types of souvenirs from World War I, which the veterans among them had brought back from France. Having bested the cops club-against-club in May, the strikers were now prepared to face them gun-against-gun. Although their cause was just and their courage admirable, it would have been a grave tactical mistake to attempt to go through with such an undertaking.
“The situation was now qualitatively different from what it had been during the earlier battle with clubs. Despite the fact that a club can kill, it is not usually classified as a deadly weapon. By virtue of that fact, self-defence of the kind used in May could be sustained tactically for several reasons: it was carried out by a massive body of pickets who had widespread sympathy within the city as a whole; for reasons described previously, Governor Olson found it difficult to use the state militia against the union; and due to the insular nature of the conflict and the local politics involved, President Roosevelt had little inclination and no ready pretext to intervene with federal troops. Consequently the fighting in May remained confined to a showdown between pickets and the local cops.
“As matters stood after Bloody Friday, however, the situation was entirely different. Being so deadly, their use in self-defence against the gun-toting cops could have been twisted around by capitalist propaganda into the appearance of an ‘insurrectionary offensive’ by the strikers. The bosses would have screamed bloody murder, claiming proof of their contention that our aim was not to build a union but to make a revolution. At the first armed skirmish between strikers and police a clamour would have been raised for Olson and Roosevelt to send in troops against the union…
“Local 574, against which such military repression would have been directed, was engaged in an isolated local action. Nationally, our struggle was paralleled only by two other similarly isolated conflicts… Hence, it could not have withstood the heavy military pressure; the strike would have been broken and the union crushed.
“This was a situation in which the central strike leadership had to act swiftly and decisively. Otherwise impulsive pickets, looking for a showdown with the cops, could have done irreparable damage to the union’s cause while the policy question was being debated. The pickets had to be disarmed forthwith, and the central leaders had to do it on their own responsibility…
“…Once again, Local 574’s incomparable soldiers went out barehanded to face cops with riot guns.
“Our action was promptly reported to a meeting of the strike committee, and the reasons were given for the policy we had followed. After considerable debate the committee approved the course taken, issuing picketing orders accordingly. The orders, which were published in The Organizer, contained a deliberately obscure formulation: “All pickets are hitherto instructed to continue tactics of peaceful picketing as hitherto. They are, however, to defend themselves against any attacks.” Since we hadn’t troubled to let the cops know whether or not the pickets were armed, they weren’t sure what permission to ‘defend themselves’ meant and being aware of the strikers’ anger, the cops weren’t in a hurry to find out.”

As these quotes amply demonstrate, at each stage the strike committee measured the objective situation facing the workers and prepared themselves accordingly. The task was not to repeat demands for arming of the workers but to act in a manner that sought to defend the interests of the workers at each stage in response to the course the struggle took. It is a lesson that some ultra-lefts who repeat demands blindly should do well to note.

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