On July 6, 1934, the talk on the streets of Minneapolis and St Paul was all about the day’s massive labor parade. Some twelve thousand trade unionists, activists in local unemployed councils, and Women’s Auxiliary labor supporters made up the vibrant throng, which was cheered on by six thousand people lining the eighteen-block parade route.
Eventually, much of the crowd filed into the packed Municipal Auditorium; thousands more milled about outside, listening to loudspeakers broadcasting militant speeches from the podium.
The language of class in 1934 was anything but resigned. Local bosses were denounced, as was an elite vigilante outfit, the Citizen’s Alliance. The message pervading the proceedings was one of anticapitalism:
When a system of society exists that allows employers in Minneapolis to wax fat on the misery and starvation and degradation of the many, it is time that system is changed . . . time that the workers . . . take for themselves at least a fair share of all the wealth they produce.
The enormous meeting closed with wild applause, endorsing the notion that “an injury to one is an injury to all workers from now on!”
More than eight decades later, on July 6, 2016, there was again much to talk about in the Twin Cities. But in the hot summer of a new century, labor’s militant stand was not the topic of conversation. Instead, the subject of the hour was yet another police murder of a black male: thirty-two-year-old Philando Castile, a school cook from St Paul, gunned down in front of his fiancé, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter Dae’Anna in the suburb of Falcon Heights.
Castile’s car had been pulled over by two St Anthony, Minnesota police officers, under contract to patrol Falcon Heights. He experienced this kind of thing routinely. Stopped over fifty-two times in recent years, Castile had been assessed $6,588 in fines and fees for minor traffic infractions, including speeding, failing to engage his seatbelt, and driving a vehicle that lacked a properly functioning muffler. Of the eighty-six violations, fully half had been dismissed.
His June 6 stop was another instance of racial profiling — the police officer, according to audio later obtained by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, pulled the car over because he thought the driver’s “wide-set nose” resembled that of a recent robbery suspect.
Once stopped, Reynolds recounted, Castile reached for his wallet upon being asked to produce his ID and informed the officer that he was carrying a licensed firearm. The officer then shot him multiple times, the gruesome scene captured on Reynolds’s phone and livestreamed to the world.
What can Philando Castile’s death, and the murders of so many other African Americans at the hands of police, possibly have to do with the 1934 labor protests in Minneapolis? The answer takes us into the politics of labor, and points to what a revitalized and politicized union movement might look like.
For the connection is to be found in Castile’s union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) — and its transformation.
A Long History
In the more than eighty years since those summer demonstrations, the Minneapolis-area Teamsters have shifted from being an impressive vehicle of politically radical and sophisticated industrial unionism, anchored in understandings of the irreconcilable interests of contending classes, to a more restrained business union, focused on dues collection and reluctant to expand the struggles of labor to encompass the battles of all of the dispossessed.
The 1934 parade and Municipal Auditorium rally was driven by the organizational upsurge of the General Drivers’ Union, Local 574 of the IBT. That union, led by revolutionary Trotskyists, fought three strikes over the course of 1934. It battled to establish an industrial union representing labor in the broad transport field, not just the “privileged” drivers.
Local 574 also supported the struggles of other workers, and drew the ranks of the unemployed and women laboring in the home without the benefit of union recognition or wages into its activities.
It formed an armed Union Defense Guard to resist fascism in the late 1930s. During World War II, this bastion of class-struggle unionism was targeted by the state, its radical leadership jailed.
The beginnings of the rise of the Minneapolis Teamsters local lie in 1934’s momentous confrontations between the workers, on the one hand, and the employers and various layers of the state, from the municipality right on up to the Roosevelt administration, on the other.
Pitched battles in the Market Square of Minneapolis erupted, pitting vigilantes and police against workers. Lives were lost. “Deputies” of the employers’ association group, the Citizen’s League, were killed, as were striking workers.
One of these union victims, Henry Ness, was riddled with police bullets as he and other strikers confronted a strike-breaking, police-convoyed truck on July 20, 1934, a day remembered in Minneapolis as “Bloody Friday.” Ness, unarmed, was shot point-blank in the chest and then, turning to escape the fusillade of police bullets, was riddled with buckshot from behind. Doctors removed thirty-eight slugs from his body. He died, two days later, of the wounds.
A witness reported that the police “just went wild . . . they shot at anybody that moved.” An inquiry into the events of “Bloody Friday” later noted that “[p]olice took direct aim at the pickets and fired to kill; physical safety of police was at no time endangered; no weapons were in the possession of pickets.”
Naturally, the leadership of the 1934 Teamsters uprising regarded the police as class enemies. They saw the “harness bulls,” as they called them, as anything but neutral defenders of the peace.
To the extent that the police served and protected, they did so in the interests of powerful employers, not ordinary people. They had proven, many times over, their lethal disdain for the downtrodden.
The notion that the police could be union brothers and sisters would have seemed, to the militants of 1934, dedicated to building and extending trade unionism, ludicrous at best and obscene at worst.
Yet in 2016, we are confronted with trade unionism of a very different kind. Philando Castile was a member of Teamsters Local 320. Comprised of public and law enforcement employees, including cops and correctional officers, Local 320 is a business union amalgam of class enemies that would have been unfathomable in 1934.
While the cop who killed Castile isn’t a Teamster — the St Anthony department is represented by the Law Enforcement Labor Services of Minnesota, a statewide union of five thousand police officers — Local 320’s contradictions were on display in its statement following Castile’s death. In the right-hand corner of the letterhead, perched above the words lamenting the demise of its “union brother,” was a law enforcement badge.
Voices of Reaction
Cops joining the labor movement is not new, of course. In the United States, one of the first recognition strikes waged by police occurred in Boston in 1919, with the cops seeking to establish a collective bargaining regime bolstered by a charter from the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Craft unionism’s chief proponent, Samuel Gompers, was not a big advocate of public-sector strikes, and as the Boston Police work stoppage drew heated criticism, the AFL backed away from all-out support for the striking cops.
Yet police unionism came to pass. After World War II, policemen’s associations morphed into unions and, especially in the post-1960s years, cops established a strong foothold in the trade union movement. Quite often, their locally based unions were created to protect and insulate police from criticisms that grew out of the civil rights and antiwar movements.
They haven’t forgotten their roots. Forceful defenders of the material interests of their membership, police unions remain staunch voices of reaction.
Under a capitalism overripe for mass upheaval, a significant job of the police is to restrain and repress the discontented; the work of prison guards is to regulate the convicted, most of whom are behind bars for reasons that have as much to do with their oppression as any “antisocial behavior”; and the purpose of those employed in the security apparatus is to serve and protect not people but property, and those who accumulate it ever more voraciously.
Being does indeed determine consciousness. Within such constituencies, racism thrives, feeding off of the bigotries that have historically associated African Americans with disorder and dysfunctionality, that regard it as somehow natural that blacks occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and are disproportionally incarcerated and overly represented on death row. The black male triggers, literally, racist antagonisms, bred in the bones of the law-and-order brigade.
Today, as the labor movement finds itself in crisis — worsening working conditions, dropping remuneration, “right-to-work” laws, failed strikes — it must reject its most reactionary elements: the cops, the correctional officers, and the security guards who promote an authoritarian politics congruent with their experience.
Trade unions, if they are to revive, must be made into nurseries of resistance on many fronts. It is not just a matter of growth, but of growth for what reasons. It is not simply about struggles for the organization of work sectors and the defense of wages and protections, but organization to what larger ends.
Some unions, under siege, their class-struggle sensibilities waning, are more than content to expand their ranks and top up their dues coffers by organizing the expanding employees of the policing machine, the incarceration industry, and the surveillance state.
Yet unions cannot be a part of the fight against elite rule if they harbor those whose work it is to protect those very same elites. Nor can they be part of the fight against racist police murder and brutality if they organize and defend those guilty of this ugliness. They cannot welcome into their union halls the same people who use the tragic shooting of police in Dallas to quash protests and downplay the killing of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and others.
Just as Toronto’s chapter of Black Lives Matter halted the June 2016 Gay Pride Parade to demand that the police who routinely harass and hound LGBTQ youth be barred from having a float in the parade festivities, so too should trade unions be challenged to keep cops out of their ranks.
The blue dues of police business unionists, paid in seductive green, are red with the blood of the dispossessed, be they waged or unwaged, black or white. They don’t belong in a trade union movement based on the axiom, “an injury to one is an injury to all.” With the death of Philando Castile and so many others, there can surely no longer be any question that injury is endemic to the work of the police under capitalism.