1934: When low-wage workers fought back

Union Square, 1934, some 60,000 communists gather in New York City to protest unemployment and capitalism.

Union Square, 1934, some 60,000 communists gather in New York City to protest unemployment and capitalism.

As 2014 begins, workers and oppressed people in the United States are looking at the fight ahead. Low-wage workers are on the move, demanding higher wages, union rights and dignity.

Eighty years ago, workers were also fighting back and organizing for justice. The year 1934 was a turning point in the class struggle, and a great year for the working class. It was a year when low-paid workers shook the foundations of the U.S.

The low-wage workers of the 1930s were often recent immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe or Ireland who worked in industries. Some African-American workers, who had moved north trying to escape Jim Crow, also worked in the industries, receiving even lower wages. The steel mills, textile plants, packing houses and other urban industrial centers were known for their low wages, lengthy hours and unsafe working conditions.

Beginning in 1929, the U.S. was experiencing the infamous Great Depression. Laid-off workers were poorly clothed, hungry and homeless across the country. Starting in 1931, there were huge uprisings of unemployed workers. The Hunger Marches, led by the Unemployed Councils, brought out thousands of workers to demand “Work or wages now!” “Don’t starve, fight!” was the slogan as veterans held the famous Bonus March of 1931, demanding benefits and occupying Washington, D.C.

Many radical organizers looked for inspiration to the Soviet Union at the time, which was having an economic boom while the rest of the world was in a depression. Workers were inspired to fight back by communist leaders, who agitated about how unemployment, homelessness and poverty would be eliminated in a “Soviet America.”

With unemployed workers and veterans already in motion, it was in 1934 that low-paid industrial workers took action on the job.

The general strike wave

In San Francisco, the dockworkers shut the city down. They refused to unload the ships until their union was recognized and the humiliating “shape up” practices were ended. The union also demanded that Black workers be hired to work on the docks. When the longshore workers went on strike, workers all throughout the city joined them. President Franklin D. Roosevelt begged the strikers to return to work, as businesses throughout the country could not receive imported goods. Four longshore workers were killed by the National Guard, who opened fire on the striking workers.

When the strike was finally over, the longshore workers had won many of their demands. They had union representation, much higher pay and better working conditions. Black workers were hired to work alongside white workers on the docks. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union still represents the dockworkers on the West Coast to this day.

In Minneapolis, the drivers who delivered coal so people could heat their homes organized into the Teamsters union. Leaders of the local wanted to expand the union from simply representing the coal drivers to representing workers throughout the entire city. With the demand “Make Minneapolis a union town!” the coal drivers shut down the city.

The rule was “no scab trucks.” No car could travel the streets of Minneapolis without a pass from the union. Activists from the union and community with baseball bats made sure of this. Soon, the National Guard was sent in, but the workers fought back.

When the Minneapolis Teamsters strike ended, the workers were victorious. With Minneapolis as a base area, the Teamsters were able to expand to Kansas, Nebraska and other parts of the country, winning contracts and improving working conditions.

In Toledo, Ohio, the workers at the Auto-Lite auto parts factory also shut the city down in a general strike. Workers across the city walked off the job in solidarity. The National Guard was sent in, and the workers fought back.

In addition to the three municipal general strikes, 1934 was also the year of a national textile workers strike. Workers across the South in the National Textile Union went on strike to demand union representation. South Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency in response to this uprising, and called out the National Guard and vigilante squads to battle the strikers.

Then and now

The American Federation of Labor was at first opposed to organizing industrial workers, instead focusing on “skilled trades.” In Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo, as well as in the textile mills of the South, it was communists, armed with the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, who led the struggle. To do it, they had to push back the right-wing labor bureaucrats.

Communists like Samuel Darcy, Farrell Dobbs and William Z. Foster said all workers — “skilled” or “unskilled” — had the right to be unionized. They also said that racism had no place in the labor movement, and that Black workers and white workers should stand together against the bosses. They knew that successful strikes involved the support of the community, especially the unemployed and oppressed workers.

Following the strike wave of 1934, Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act. The right of workers to organize unions became federal law. By the early 1940s, workers all across the country in steel mills, packing houses, rubber plants and auto plants had won union representation and better wages.

In modern times, the Democratic Party often talks of bringing “good paying industrial jobs back to America.” They ignore the fact that industrial jobs only became good paying because of militant organizing and working-class struggle.

Instead of trying to reimport industrial labor to the U.S., it is time for low-paid workers in fast-food restaurants, airports, hotels and everywhere to do what industrial workers did in 1934. It is time for them to fight back. Eighty years after 1934, we must raise the call for working-class power — and fight against capitalism!