Lessons from labor history can inform our labor movement during COVID-19 crisis

The East Side Freedom Library, in more relaxed times. (submitted photo)

(Peter Rachleff, co-director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, wrote this essay for The Union Advocate’s May 2020 issue.)

COVID-19 is the biggest crisis of our lives, and workers are on the front lines. Large, profitable employers expect workers deemed “essential” — those in healthcare, grocery stores, food production, and shipping, among others — to risk their health and safety and that of their families, many for meager pay and benefits. Portions of the economy have shut down, leaving millions jobless with a threadbare social safety net. Where do we look for ideas about how to respond?

At the East Side Freedom Library, we believe that studying our past offers valuable lessons for the present. We collect resources and host programs which help us understand how workers developed organizations and strategies to confront the key challenges of their lives. The current situation has led us to reconsider the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of 1934. Their dramatic story shows that the labor movement is strongest when unions boldly organize workers on the job and in the community around a shared vision of fairness and justice.

These strikes changed the course of history, transforming Minneapolis from a notorious anti-labor bastion into a “union town.” In the depths of the Depression and the depths of winter, a group of dedicated activists in the city’s coal yards bypassed the traditional strategy of organizing workers into separate unions depending on the work they did. They organized coal heavers, warehouse workers, truck drivers, and helpers into a single union. With the support of working people and families throughout the city, they won a brief strike in February 1934.

Their success inspired other Minneapolis workers to believe that if they organized together, if they practiced solidarity, and if they involved their families, they, too, could change their lives. Over the spring, activists and organizers built one industrial union of all workers involved in trucking. Five thousand joined. The union built a “Committee of 100,” a network of stewards and rank-and-filers to link workplaces. They organized an Unemployed Committee to advocate for those without work. They started a daily newspaper, The Organizer, to tell their story to the wider community. And they organized a Women’s Auxiliary, which ran a commissary and a soup kitchen.

These steps became critical in May, when, challenged by employers and the fiercely anti-union Citizens’ Alliance, the union struck. They needed all of these innovations to strengthen internal solidarity and gain the solidarity of the community. Their roving pickets challenged scab-driven trucks, and they engaged in physical battles with the local police. In two weeks, they had won many of their demands. When employers tried to undercut their agreements, the union called its members — now 10,000 — back on strike. They held firm for several weeks, and finally won secure contracts, significant raises, and work rules and working conditions that became the model for the industry nationwide.

The Teamsters’ story is instructive for our situation. Their strategy prioritized internal and external organization, linking workers and their families to the union, other unions, and the community. They practiced anti-racism and sought workers of color for membership and leadership roles. The local union’s new constitution even required that every meeting include a presentation on labor history.

No wonder we celebrate this event at the East Side Freedom Library. But the point is not just to celebrate history but to learn from it.

Labor’s crisis did not begin with COVID-19. For decades, employers have evaded labor protections through outsourcing and subcontracting. They have eroded wages and benefits, and through the legislatures and courts attacked the right to picket or have a union at all. This pandemic has laid bare just how far we have slid in terms of work rules, wages, health care, sick pay, and workplace protections. It has also revealed how “essential” workers are to the safety, security, and quality of life enjoyed by our community. Like when those coal yard workers went on strike, the contradictions are clear.

We founded the East Side Freedom Library in 2014 to share stories of the labor movement and to inspire solidarity among unions and with our diverse communities. We are proud to preserve and present our shared history. We have been inspired by recent actions taken by local educators and Amazon workers, and workers elsewhere as well as by the dedication and determination of nurses and healthcare workers to speak up for their rights and for the people who depend upon them. Informed by the lessons of the past, when we fight together, the future is ours to win.

– Peter Rachleff wishes to acknowledge the work of Kristi Wright in conceptualizing and writing this article. Wright was a union organizer among graduate employees at the U of M and is currently working with the library to expand and deepen relationships with labor.


  1. Edward Dijerau says:

    The bigest crisis, in my life time, was serving in the US ARMY in Viet Nam in 1968. When I survived and came home, my spot in the IBEW Electrical workers Apprenticeship was held for me by my Union. We hung tough in Viet Nam and in my local union, durring tough ,times when work was slow and some would try to cut wages thinking we would cave in, we stayed tuff. Stay tuff, stay unified… Solidarity. and vote this November…

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