Teamsters against the Silver Shirts

Submitted by AWL on 16 October, 2008 - 6:10 Author: By Charlie Salmon

The history, politics and struggles of the rank-and-file Minnesota Teamsters in the 1930s provides countless examples of how effective socialist leadership can transform the working class movement.

Among these examples is the story of the “544 Union Defense Guard” (UDG). Formed in response to heightened activity from the anti-union, fascist “Silver Shirt” movement, the UDG developed from an organisation to protect union and radical meetings from attack to a tool that forced all fascist activities out of Minneapolis.

The example of the UDG is an inspiring and timely lesson in militant, working class anti-fascism.

Workers’ Defence

The tactic of workers organising for self-defence did not originate with the Teamsters. Throughout the history of the labour and socialist movements, our opponents have used physical violence against us. In the court transcripts of veteran Trotskyist James P Cannon’s defence against the charge of “conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the US government” (printed as Socialism on Trial) he explains some of the history:

“I have known about the idea of workers’ defense guards and seen them organised long before I ever heard of the Russian Revolution ... [later] in the first years of our [the American Trotskyist movement] existence ... [the] Communist Party, the Stalinists, tried to break up our meetings by hoodlum violence ... They tried the Stalin game [of violence against critics]... we reacted by organising workers’ defense guards to protect our meetings. And I may add, parenthetically, we protected them so well that we put a stop to that monkey business at the cost of a few cracked heads, which I personally greatly appreciated in those days.”

The organisation Cannon helped build, the American Socialist Workers’ Party (no relation to the current British SWP) organised similar defence guards in response to threats from the far-right. In New York the Nazi supporting “Bundists” and a fascist organisation calling itself the “Christian Front” posed a particular threat:

“[I]n some parts of the country [from 1938-1939] we were confronted with an incipient fascist movement. Different organizations with different names began preaching Hitlerite doctrines in this country, and tried to practice Hitlerite methods of physical intimidation of workers’ meetings, of Jews, Jewish stores, and suppressing free speech by violent methods.

“In New York it became a rather acute problem. The various Bundist and associated groups in New York developed the practice of breaking up street meetings when either our party or some other workers’ party would attempt to speak ...

“Basing ourselves on the experiences of the German and Italian fascist movements, which began with gangs of hoodlums and ended by destroying completely the labor unions and all workers’ organisations and all civil rights — we came to the conclusion that the fascists should be met on their own ground, and that we would raise the slogan of workers’ defense guards...

We discussed this with Trotsky; his part in it was primarily an exposition of the development of the fascist movement in Europe... he heartily seconded it that our party should propose that the unions, wherever their peace was menaced by these hoodlums, should organise workers’ defense guards and protect themselves.”

Like the post-war 43 Group, the American Trotskyists organised to meet “like with like”. But rather than build communal organisations they looked to the labour movement, the organised working class, for a response.

Fascism in Minneapolis

In response to the “stormy” rise of the Congress of Industrial Organisations in the early 1930s, right wing, proto-fascist organisations began to emerge across the United States. In Minneapolis and elsewhere, these anti-union groups made little headway in the face of a fighting, militant labour movement in the process of forging a national organisation. The situation changed markedly in the late 1930s as economic and social problems developed:

“Clashes between capital and labor in times of social crisis tend to stimulate activity among political demagogues with a fascist mentality. They anticipate that intensification of the class struggle will cause sections of the ruling class to turn away from parliamentary democracy and its methods of rule, and resort to fascism as a way to hold on to state power and protect special privilege. Each of the aspirants hopes, moreover, to be chosen as the ‘fuehrer’ to lead the terrorist movement needed for the murderous assault on the working class that accompanies such a turn in policy.” [Farrell Dobbs, Teamster Politics]

From 1937 the US economy experienced a new economic crisis. The New Deal — a scheme of mass public works, initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create jobs, reform business practices and aid economic recovery in the Great Depression — collapsed, unemployment rocketed again and the government began preparations for war.

In circumstances where the trade union leaderships failed to provide an effective response, where layers of the middle class became increasingly demoralised, and where patriotic sentiment was stoked by a war-minded administration, many people turned to the right.

“As a result, various profascist groups that had sprung up earlier began to recruit quite rapidly, and they received a parallel increase in financial backing from wealthy antilabor interests. Emboldened by this new support, they became more aggressive, as well as more provocative. In some instances these outfits organized uniformed bands of storm troopers, which were drilled openly; and whether uniformed or not, thugs of that type mobilized to launch terror campaigns”.

The Silver Shirts were one such organisation. Formed in 1932 by William Dudley Pelley and initially concentrating their organising efforts on small towns and agricultural communities, by 1938 the Silver Shirts made their first, tentative steps into Minneapolis. Dudley’s deputy, Roy Zachary, organised two rallies on July 29 and August 2 at the Royal Arcanum Hall, Minneapolis. The Teamsters were aware of Zachary’s arrival in the city and kept close tabs on his movements.

The meeting, attended by George Belden, head of Associated Industries — a major local employer — called for people to join the “fink union” the “Associated Council of Independent Unions”, which had previously dragged the Teamsters into court. But the main aim of the rally was to encourage and organise an attack on the Teamsters Local (branch) 544 offices.

These meetings demonstrated a close relationship between union busting organisations, local businessmen and the fascist movement. Local 544 had only one choice — to form a defence guard to protect their offices, activities and membership.

Organising for defence

“Formation of the guard was reported in the Northwest Organizer, and a press release announcing the step was handed to the daily papers ... The new bodies functions were described in the report as ‘defense of the union’s picket lines, headquarters and members against anti-labor violence’. Through this action the local served public notice that it would take care of its own defense, putting no misplaced reliance on the police for protection.”

Local 544 had learned from the lessons presented by the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany and from bitter firsthand experience that the police and government are no friends of the unions. Rather than make calls for the banning of Silver Shirt’s activities or protection from the police, the union acted in the best traditions of the movement: self-organisation.

“Local 544’s pioneer action... not only served its own needs; the step blazed a trail for trade unionists everywhere in the country.”

From the first, the Union Defense Guard did not restrict its membership to one particular union. They actively encourages other labour movement organisations to join the effort and had a perspective of involving the unemployed, minority groups, young people and “all potential victims of the fascists, vigilantes, or other reactionaries.”

“The guard was in no sense an elite body. It was simply a businesslike formation open to any active union member. The only requirements for inclusion in its ranks were readiness to defend the unions from attack ... Moreover, its activities were conducted only with the consent of the membership of the trade unions involved, under their control.”

The formation of the guard was a reactive, defensive measure against the very real threat of fascist attack. In the absence of a broader, effective working class leadership, the labour movement failed to stem the growth of fascism in the face of economic and social crisis. But this defensive step was not made by a small group of ideologically pure, self-selected purists. The militants in the Teamsters took every step to make the Union Defense Guard as big and inclusive as possible: the only requirement being a commitment to the labour movement. They saw themselves as taking necessary action but also aimed to encourage similar formations on a national scale. As in many other cases, the Minneapolis Teamsters were at the vanguard of workers struggle.

On the offensive

The 544 UDG organised itself into compact squads, each five strong, recruiting a total 600 members in a short space of time. Having drawn recruits from the local labour movement, it was important that the 544 UDG developed an independent life so as to protect unions from police persecution. They organised fundraising activities, lectures, training and the weapons necessary to defend from armed attack.

“Members of the guard were not armed by the unions, since in the given circumstances that would have made them vulnerable to police frame-ups. But many of them had guns of their own at home, which were used to hunt game; and those could quickly be picked up if needed to fight off an armed attack by Silver Shirt thugs.”

Effective anti-fascist work always depends on collecting information about fascist activity — not just details of meeting places, activities and actions but copies of fascist leaflets, papers and magazines. The 544 UDG used their intelligence gathering to great effect:

“[T]he Silver Shirts attempted to hold another rally, to be addressed by Pelley himself.

“On the day of the scheduled affair, a cab driver delivered Pelley to a residence in the city’s silk-stocking district. The driver immediately reported this ... a section of the union guard [went] to Calhoun Hall, where the rally was to be held that night. Arrival of the union forces caused the audience to leave in a hurry, and the demagogue never did turn up.”

Pelley — the would-be fuehrer —fled the city that very night. The UDG published a public statement designed to scare the fascists even further. The notice instructed all unit commanders to prepare their members for emergency mobilisation should the Silver Shirts return. At the next Silver Shirt meeting in St. Paul one of Pelley’s deputies told the local press that:

“Leaders of the 544 have said we cannot hold meetings in Minneapolis, but we shall hold them, with the aid of the police. The police know that some day they’ll need our support and that’s why they’re supporting us now.”

The fascists received massive police protection in St. Paul, something that hadn’t been afforded to them in Minneapolis. But the Silver Shirts had already built some support in the city, not least from the biggest employer – Associated Industries. The 544 UDG quite reasonably assumed that some pressure would be put on the city police. In response, they organised a massive show of force.

“The high command of the union defense guard decided to put on a public show of force. The aim was twofold: to make it plain to one and all that the Silver Shirts were not going to operate in Minneapolis without a serious fight and, simultaneously, to test the guard’s efficiency in the course of such a demonstration.”

Only a handful of the UDG’s main organisers knew that the emergency call was a drill. With just one hour notice, three hundred UDG members assembled in the centre of Minneapolis. This mobilisation had the desired effect: there were to be no more fascist meetings, no more propaganda stunts and the Silver Shirts never mentioned Minneapolis again. In the face of effective organisation, the fascists were driven from the city.

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