Interview Conducted: 1959.
Source: The Militant, New York, May 4, 1959.
HTML markup/Editing: David Walters in 2006 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
Vincent R. Dunne became nationally famous in the bitterly fought teamsters strikes of 1934 35 that transformed Minneapolis from a notorious open-shop fortress into a stronghold of unionism. This was one of the key victories that inspired workers from coast to coast and contributed significantly to the great upsurge that culminated in the organization of the CIO.
In his book American City, a history of the dramatic strike struggles in Minneapolis, Charles R. Walker judged Dunne to be the principal leader. In sketching Dunne’s role, Walker wrote that “his whole life and character prepared him for the position he took in the strike crisis of 1934—”
This has stuck in my mind since I first read it. What was it in Dunne’s life and character that prepared him to lead one of America’s most crucial union organizing struggles?
On April 17 Dunne celebrated his seventieth birthday and fifty five years of continuous activity in the labor and socialist movement. He was in New York that weekend and the editor of the The Militant asked me to interview him. I decided to satisfy my own curiosity about Ray’s early background.
“Did you have any idea as a youngster that you would become a workers. leader?” I asked him by way of an opener.
He seemed a little taken aback. “I had no thought of ever becoming a leader. That was only accidental. I was surprised to observe people looking at me and thinking of me as some kind of leader. It was a strange feeling.”
“But you seem to have handled the responsibility all right—”
“I did the best I could”.
That turned out to be one of the threads in the fascinating pattern of his life. He was loaded with responsibility at an age that nowadays would be considered somewhat tender.
He was born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1889. His mother was the daughter of a Wisconsin shoemaker. His father, an itinerant worker was an immigrant from County Clare, Ireland. Coming up one day from repairing cables for the cable car company, Ray’s father stepped accidentally into a hole and broke a knee cap.
In those days there was no workmen’s compensation. The family lost the small house they had been struggling to buy. Things looked bleak in Kansas City for the Irish immigrant when he got out of the hospital.
The mother took the three year old Ray and his older brother, Bill, to live with her parents, who had settled on a farm east of Little Falls, Minnesota. When Ray’s father could move about, enough money was scraped together to get him up to the farm and the family moved into an old log house.
Aside from more children, the family continued to be blessed with not much more than hardships. Among other things their log home burned down.
“We lost everything,” Ray recalled.” We had to go to my grandfather’s house a quarter of a mile away in the middle of the night in freezing weather. Bill and I had to carry some of our younger brothers and sisters. I was about six or seven.”
Solidarity was a powerful force among these frontier dwellers and the neighbors organized a building bee to put up a new home for the Dunnes. Things like that stuck in Ray’s mind.
“By that time my father had sufficient strength in his leg and he went back to his former occupation as an itinerant worker, taking what he could find building railroads, felling trees as a sawyer in the lumber woods”.
Such rough circumstances shaped the children. “As we grew up we went out to work on nearby farms, on threshing rigs in the fall, helping with the plowing in the spring. We used to work by the month plow, take care of the horses. We could drive a team by the time we were eight or nine years old. We were useful that way, you see. By the time we were twelve or thirteen, we could take the place of a man at any task around the farm.
“We worked for farmers for $7 or $8 a month. That included board of course. We worked from four o’clock in the morning until it was dark at night. After dark, and before daylight, you cleaned the stable and curried your team and milked a few cows. After a quick breakfast but a hearty one, I assure you the day’s work began”
School was sandwiched into the winter months when work around the farms slacked off. “I went from the first through the seventh reader. They didn’t go by grades then but the McGuffey reader. You could make two or three readers in one term, depending on how fast the teacher pushed and how much you could do. The important thing was to get through as fast as you could. The determining factor in finishing your education was your height and weight. The faster you grew, the less education you got. The average was about six years. I think I had five.”
Then came his first “man’s” job. Ray graduated to this at the age of eleven or twelve. He had the reins on a team pulling a water wagon for the threshing machine at harvest time. Like any boy of those days, Ray was proud of the trust placed in him.
“You took care of your team. That was the special charge. A team was valuable, you know. If you hurt a horse, that was a terrible thing. Besides, you fell in love with the horses.
You wanted to take care of them”.
“I don’t know if I can understand that,” I said to Ray. “Being a pavement kid, I never drove a team of horses. But didn’t you miss school?”
Ray laughed. “You didn’t regret that so much. Sometimes you missed playing with the other children, but on the other hand you felt a little bit superior to them.
“Besides, you knew that you were earning money that you could send home to your mother, and that was an all encompassing responsibility. It was a responsibility you liked. You didn’t feel that you were put upon or abused by it. You were proud to bring home a whole dollar, even two sometimes. It went a long way.”
At fourteen, Ray got his “cork shoes” and struck up an acquaintance with logs in the Minnesota lumber camps. At fifteen, he had ranged far enough to reach the Montana camps. That was a significant year in Ray’s life, for unionism had not reached Minnesota, but in Montana the Western Federation of Miners was already a power.
“When I arrived at the camp, I was met by a man that turned out to be the union steward. He didn’t talk about the union right off. He first introduced me to some of the benefits of unionism. He took me down to the bathhouse. They had a stove going and plenty of hot water. All new men had to scrub themselves and boil their clothes sometimes the steward lent a hand. This was to prevent bedbugs and lice from being brought in.
“Then he took me to the bunk house. I had never seen anything like it. In Minnesota the bunk houses were dark and dirty, the thinks packed with mud. Here they were light and airy with high ceilings and plenty of windows. Everything was spotless and the bunks even had sheets!
“I was amazed at the difference the union made. I had known very little about unions except for some talk I had heard as I made my way to Montana. But after the steward had let my impressions sink in and then casually asked me if I wanted to join up, I didn’t wait.”
That was how the union man was born in Vincent R. Dunne. “The union made all the difference in the world. There was no starting out before dawn and working until dark, and never any Sunday work. They couldn’t fire a man at will the way they did back in Minnesota. And if a foreman eursed out a man, he cursed him right back—”
Ray soon learned that the steward had other responsibilities besides seeing to it that standards of cleanliness were maintained. Among other things, he appeared to be a literature agent with a stock of books for sale. Some of the books might even have been called somewhat radical. As literature agent, the steward took an interest in furthering young Ray’s education and suggested some titles that seemed to fit his age level.
The first of these was The Origin of Species by an Englishman named Charles Darwin. A dictionary went with the order.
“The book made a deep impression on me,” Ray said. “I read it and reread it throughout the entire season. It was a big factor in shaping my thinking—”
The young evolutionist graduated next into a revolutionist. It was in the lumber camp that Ray heard about the Russian Revolution of 1905. Speakers from the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, occasionally came through for a friendly visit with the steward and other comrades and they brought ideas that widened the world for the lumberjacks. One of them told about the uprising of the Russian people against the Czar.
“When we heard about this, we regarded it as part of our own struggle, our comrades in Russia fighting the same enemy.” The IWW had done well in inspiring the young lumber worker with the view that the American workers. own struggle wasn’t just for wages and better conditions but for an end to capitalist exploitation as a whole.
Then came 1907 and the “money panic.” Men were laid off in droves. Many were paid in script, and since this wasn’t legal tender, they found themselves stranded in a Montana winter.
Ray and some of his comrades headed toward warmer climate and rumors of jobs in the Pacific Northwest. At eighteen, the young worker enjoyed his first ride on a passenger train on top, that is.”
In Seattle, thousands of jobless were camped, waiting for something to turn up. The IWW campaigned militantly for aid to the unemployed and Ray became one of the “agitators—” He learned how to speak from a soapbox. He felt a policeman’s stick. He was arrested in one of the historic “free speech fights.”
The local capitalist politicians conceded to the pressure organized by the IWW and authorized a state road-building project. But this meant work for only some of the unemployed. Ray headed down to California, using the type of transportation to which he had now become accustomed. It was a dangerous way to travel, for besides the hazards of riding the blinds, the tops, or the rods, railroad dicks were free with their clubs and would not hesitate to shoot.
In Los Angeles, the 18 year old agitator was sentenced to a road gang and he helped briefly in laying out what he later recognized as Sunset Boulevard. After a few days he was made a trustee and the ball and chain was removed so that he could fetch water for the men. A few trips with the bucket brought him to an old Wobbly—at least he seemed old to Ray.
“He told me if I came back once more, he’d beat the daylights out of me.” Ray smiled. “He was pretty big so I took him at his word and headed to places where speakers and organizers were needed.”
From Los Angeles, the IWW trail took Ray into the South. In Louisiana he worked in a sawmill. It was unorganized and conditions were fierce. Ray found himself the center of those who wanted to do something about it. But the effort was defeated and they lost their jobs. It was Vincent R. Dunne’s first attempt to organize a strike.
On an Arkansas road gang, he saw how brutally Negro prisoners are treated, “far worse even than white prisoners—”
In Clifton, Texas, working as second cook in a restaurant, he got another taste of racist prejudice. “I had to stand there and serve whites at the counter and hand plates out the back door to Negroes, who had to pay for whatever was given them. I had to listen to these fellows at the counter plan and organize rapes for Saturday nights, picking out the Negro girls they were going to get. For three solid months I listened. I was pretty hardened from my association with itinerant workers in the lumber camps and harvest fields, but I was sick to my stomach. These were things I had heard about but never seen. It seemed to set my radical thinking so that it never changed.”
Two years after leaving Montana, Ray finally made it back to his family in Minnesota. They had moved to Minneapolis. “I was happy to be in the Twin Cities where the Wobblies had their biggest local. But I was no longer just a Wobbly, a syndicalist, even then. I knew about Debs and socialism. I had heard it discussed in the jungles, on jobs, in the box cars. I had absorbed a lot. And my experiences on the road made my belief in socialism deeply ingrained”.
As a skilled teamster, Ray went to work for various express companies. Attempts to organize under the AFL were frustrated because of the conservatism of the small craft union. Ray kept up with the IWW and plunged deeper into the study of socialism.
In 1914 he married. He and Jenny reared two children of their own and three adopted children. Ray took care of his family obligations, but his main goal in life remained the advancement of socialism.
Activities consisted of recruiting, organizing meetings, advertising speakers, such as Debs, who came to town, selling literature, and reading everything possible about socialism.
In 1917 the Russian Revolution stirred the entire radical movement to its depths. New alignments appeared. Some of the old formations began to wither. Ray, together with some of his closest associates, became members of the Communist Party.
In 1928 Ray was elected to his second term on the Minnesota district committee of the party. It was then that three members of the Central Committee, Cannon, Shachtman and Abern, were expelled for opposing Stalin and supporting the Trotskyist Left Opposition in the Soviet Union.
“This had to be challenged,” said Ray. “We had to protest this expulsion, this bureaucratic disregard of all rights in the party. When we made our protest we were expelled too.”
As a consequence, Ray and some thirty of his Minnesota comrades became founding members of the organization that eventually developed into the Socialist Workers Party.
Throughout the fight, first to reform the Communist Party and then to continue the program of revolutionary socialism, Ray and his comrades continued their union organizing work. They finally succeeded in the Minneapolis coal yards in 1934 and this precipitated the great struggle that ended by bringing the bulk of the city’s truck drivers into the union.
Then came World War II and a conspiracy among Teamsters boss Tobin and state and federal government officials to smash the militant leadership of the Minneapolis teamsters. In 1941, Dunne and seventeen other leaders of the union and of the Socialist Workers Party became the first victims of the Smith “Gag” Act.
The sentence of sixteen months in Sandstone did nothing to change Ray’s mind about the evils of capitalism and the desirability of socialism. He came out as convinced as ever of the correctness of his socialist beliefs, and he turned even more energetically to the work of building the Socialist Workers Party.
Today he is chairman of the Socialist Workers Party in Minnesota, and at seventy he feels that he still has energy to keep going at the task he chose as a youth building for socialism.
“But haven’t you ever thought about a socialist victory in America being postponed more than you expected?” I asked.
“I never was concerned too much about when it would come exactly, although I would sure like to see it soon. For me the main thing was to work for it. That’s a job and a responsibility in itself. You’re working for a cause, for the future. That’s enough—”
“And looking back from the age of seventy, you don’t have any regrets?”
“Of course. I suppose everyone has some regrets. I wish I could have done more.”
Last updated: 10.8.2012