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Irving Howe

American Labor Has a Vital Stake in Minnesota Trial of 28

(October 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 43, 27 October 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On Monday, October 27, the trial of 28 working class militants, leaders of Local 544-CIO Teamsters and of the Socialist Workers Party, on charges of “seditious conspiracy,” will begin. This trial is unquestionably the most important in American labor history since the mass prosecutions of the IWW during the First World War and the sending of Eugene Debs to jail because he dared voice his socialist opposition to the war.

The American labor movement is confronted here with a trial which is of utmost importance to it. What is at stake are not merely the rights of the Socialist Workers Party or the rights of Local 544, the basic rights and freedoms of the militant labor movement and the rights of existence and free expression for minority radical parties are at stake.

The government has made clear that it considers this a test case. As Assistant U.S. Attorney-General Schweinhaut said: “We cracked down here FIRST. Mr. Biddle has said this is only a START. So you can expect other actions to follow shortly.” (St. Paul Dispatch of June 28, 1941)

As the trial, which is expected to last for at least two months, progresses, Labor Action hopes to bring its readers regular and detailed reports of the proceedings. In the meantime, we wish to indicate the causes for the prosecution of the 28 militants.

No. 544’s Record

Local 544 has been, for the past several years, one of the most militant and progressive unions in the country. In 1934, it won a series of bitter strikes in Minneapolis, which established it as the bargaining agency of the truck drivers in that city. The local had far greater influence than merely in its own trade and locality; it was instrumental in making Minneapolis a strong union center and aided numerous local unions and it helped organize the truck drivers of 11 bordering states, which brought over 200,000 drivers into the Teamsters International. The leader of this 11-state drive was Farrell Dobbs, official of Local 544, and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party.

For a considerable time, a state of “armed peace” existed between Local 544 and the Teamsters International, led by Dan Tobin, a Democratic Party war horse. Though Tobin was, of course, aware of the militant character of the local and the radical sympathies of some of its leaders (some were friendly to the policies of the Socialist Workers Party), he did not enter into any frontal attack against 544. It paid its per capita tax – and brought in a lot of additional members who paid their per capita. Tobin also recalled the previous occasion, in 1935, during which he had scrapped with No. 544, he had come off second best.

It took the war hysteria, which was growing in the spring of 1941, to give Tobin sufficient courage and cause to launch a new attack on the leadership of 544. In the May 1941 issue of his Teamsters Journal, Tobin published an editorial which accused some Minneapolis teamsters of being “known advocates of the Socialist Workers Party” (Tobin had known that for at least seven years!) and declared that anyone who did not resign from the SWP or anyone who opposed the war policies of President Roosevelt would be expelled from the ranks of the Teamsters International.

Tobin concretized these declarations with an order to No. 544 demanding that the local submit to a dictator-receiver to be appointed by Tobin, who would have complete powers to run the local, including the power to expel anyone.

544 Joins the CIO

Rather than submit to this outrageous demand to allow their union to be cut to pieces by one of Tobin’s stooges, Local 544 voted to disaffiliate from the AFL and join the CIO’s United Construction Workers’ organizing committee.

It is at this crucial point that the fight between Tobin and No. 544 begins to take on real national importance. For, as soon as 544 went CIO and a number of other teamster locals followed, Tobin made a desperate move to keep his power over the teamsters. He appealed directly and openly to President Roosevelt, who, it should be remembered, owed him a political debt for the election work which Tobin had done for the Democratic Party last November – declaring that the affiliation of No. 544 with the CIO was a “regrettable and dangerous condition,” that “those disturbers who believe in the policies of foreign, radical governments must in some way be prevented from pursuing THIS DANGEROUS COURSE.”

In other words, Tobin was asking FDR to crack down op Local 544 because ... they were militant unionists and opposed his war policies.

Roosevelt Cracks Down

And Roosevelt cracked down! He immediately issued a statement declaring that it was understandable why “Bundists, Stalinists and Trotskyists are opposed to them” (that is, Tobin & Co. – I.H.) and why such elements should seek to “destroy loyal trade unions which are supporting democracy.” He continued by saying that, in his opinion, this was no time “for labor unions, local or national, to begin raiding each other for the purpose of getting memberships.”

After this false and hypocritical statement (for what was involved was clearly not a matter of raiding for membership, but rather the right of a local union to choose its own leadership in a democratic way even if that leadership were radical!), the government moved fast. The Minneapolis SWP headquarters, as well as those of 544, were raided and a series of indictments issued against leaders of both organizations.

These indictments charged the SWP leaders with “sedition” and “intent to overthrow the government by force” and charged that the organization in 1938 of a Union Defense Guard was a concrete instance of this above purposes.

A few words need to be said about the basis for prosecution. The SWP itself is charged with no overt act which can in any way be construed as being of such a nature as would overthrow the U.S. Government. It has indicated its belief that America is fighting a reactionary war, that the workers should not support such a war and that it intends to convince the American workers of the desirability of socialism. The holding or expressing of these revolutionary socialist opinions is clearly in line with the right of free speech set down in the Bill of Rights. To deprive the SWP of this right would be a step toward constituting a dictatorship which would suppress minority radical points of view.

Likewise with the charge that Local 544 organized a Union Defense Guard to “overthrow the government.” This charge is patently false since the organization of the Guard was a public matter, known in all Minneapolis, and had as its purpose the defense of the union from attacks which the Silver Shirt fascist movement was threatening to make. As soon as this threat was dispelled, the Defense Guard was gradually disbanded, its last activity being to usher at a union picnic for children!

Resurrect Old Law

The indictments have been obtained on the basis of a law which was enacted during the Civil War in July 1861 and of the recently enacted “Omnibus Gag” Act, introduced by Poll-Tax and Labor-Hater Congressman Smith of Virginia. The first law has seldom been used since the Civil War and the constitutionality of the second is seriously questioned. Despite these flimsy, ludicrous grounds, the government is proceeding with the prosecutions.

The purpose should now be clear to every union militant. Roosevelt is out to pay Dan Tobin a political debt – by wiping out the militant leaders of 544 who threaten Tobin’s domination in that industry. If these prosecutions succeed, it is clear that no militant, fighting trade union leadership may not also be framed. What is at stake here is the right of a trade union to choose its own leaders, regardless of their politics. What is at stake here is the right of a revolutionary socialist party to express its anti-war opinions freely and in accordance with the rights which the Bill of Rights grants it. What is at stake is a deliberate, conscious attempt by the government to help a reactionary, pro-war section of the labor movement to destroy one of the most militant and progressive unions in the country.

Unions Defend 544

The labor movement has risen to the defense of the 28 militants. The national CIO, the United Automobile Workers Union, Labor’s Non-Partisan League and numerous other lesser labor organizations have come to the defense of 544. The American Civil Liberties Union has publicly protested the prosecution and is cooperating with the defence.

A united front committee, the Civil Rights Defense Committee, has been formed. The Workers Party has endorsed this committee, and its national secretary, Max Shachtman, is a member of it.

The eyes of every militant worker will be riveted on the Minneapolis trial for the next several weeks. Will we have a repetition of the infamous Palmer raids of the last war, when working class and trade union movements were ruthlessly suppressed, when the government sent hundreds of IWW and anti-war socialists to prison for merely expressing their opinions?

Will Roosevelt conduct his “war for democracy” as Wilson conducted the first one – by persecuting dissidents, by clapping fighting trade unionists into jail?

The American workers await the answer – they watch the trials in Minneapolis – but they are convinced that in the long run it will be they, the masses of the trade union movement, who will decide, and not the witch-hunters of the Roosevelt government.

(The Civil Rights Defense Committee has issued a pamphlet giving the facts on the Minnesota anti-labor case. The pamphlet contains an introduction by James T. Farrell, well known American novelist and chairman of the committee, as well as a thorough review of the case by George Novack. Copies may be obtained by writing to the Civil Rights Defense Committee, 160 Fifth Avenue, New York City.)

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