Review- Dobbs, “Teamster Rebellion”

Farrell Dobbs, “Teamster Rebellion” (1972) – The Minneapolis general strike of 1934 has gone down into radical lore, especially among Trotskyites whose ideological forebears provided much of the leadership for it. Farrell Dobbs was one of them, a true product of the radicalization wave of the 1930s, who went from a Hoover voter to a Communist League (not to be confused with the Stalinist Communist Party!) member within a couple of years of coping with the Depression and the bosses of Minneapolis. He was a key organizer of the Minneapolis strikes, which began with the Teamsters but spread widely among employed and unemployed workers in the city.

What this reminds me of are classic command memoirs like Ulysses Grant’s and Tom Barry’s, though I did notice Dobbs uses passive voice much more often than either. At first, I wondered if this was a matter of how often the three authors were talking about collectives versus individuals- Grant seemingly never uses passive voice when referring to the actions of individual generals, but will use it for armies. But no, Dobbs uses it for individuals including himself. I figure he probably learned to write in large part by writing reports to a party that used a lot of passive voice.

Anyway, enough about the writing, which is straightforward throughout with only occasional lapses into (relatively simple) jargon. The story is incredible. Minneapolis was an open shop town, in Dobbs’ telling, with most of the few union leaders in the pockets of a well-organized capitalist class. Work in the trucking industry was hard, unremunerative, and divided into numerous squabbling trade-based cliques — ice drivers vs coal drivers vs loaders etc — each jealously guarding their own scraps of privilege. Dobbs illustrates piece by piece how the drivers were transformed into an engine of class struggle.

More than anything, Dobbs and the other radicals — some party cadre, some not — worked by expanding the site of struggle. Where the American Federation of Labor bosses encouraged a defensive crouch for each subsection of workers, the radicals in the Teamsters worked to reach out, first across the boundaries within the trade, and then to other trades, and to people outside of conventional employment: women, the great masses of unemployed created by the Depression, etc. Not unlike Grant, the teamster radicals were masters of the strategic offensive melded with the tactical defensive. They could move to organize a given sector and let the bosses break their heads reacting to each, which strengthened the connections between Local 574 (the Teamster locus) and its allies.

It’s also worth noting that these were desperate times when the state was much weaker than it is today. Imagine roving pickets of men stopping trucking in a major city today without armed police stopping them at once! That’s eventually what the city fathers did, leading to the Minneapolis police firing on a peaceful, unarmed crowd (Dobbs and the others were capable of cold calculating- they specifically left their clubs at home when the cops came with guns), wounding dozens and killing two. It wasn’t enough. It also helped that Minnesota’s governor, Floyd Olson, was a Farmer-Labor party guy, by no means a radical (Dobbs doesn’t trust him at all) but unable politically to call out the National Guard until the Teamsters had organized nearly the whole city. This was also before WWII, when FDR started seriously repressing threatening industrial strikes much harder. In the end, bosses came to the table and recognized 574.

This is a short, action-packed book- adjusting the plan on the fly, getting the whole community involved (one way in which Hollywood actually deploys a collective orientation instead of an individualist one is the way they use this trope), attempted Stalinist cooptation/sabotage, pitched hand to hand battles, the rough humor of people used to hard knocks… more than anything, the excitement a people marshaling itself for struggle. Dobbs credits his organization and its ideas but seldom in a way that obscures the role of the people themselves in the victory. All in all, a very impressive book, and I look forward to reading the sequels even if I know the story of the Teamsters isn’t always a happy one. *****

Review- Dobbs, “Teamster Rebellion”

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