Flashback: Minnesota’s first labor strike hit St. Paul in 1854, while a 1934 strike killed three
As Minnesota's territorial population exploded in the mid-1800s, workers began organizing and unionizing to fight for their rights, though it sometimes turned deadly.
ST. PAUL — Though 15,000 Minnesota nurses picketing this week may be the nation’s largest strike in the field, it’s not nearly the first time the state’s laborers have taken leave to protest for stronger rights as employees.
In fact, the first reported labor strike in Minnesota took place in St. Paul in 1854, during a period of rapid growth just four years before President James Buchanan granted statehood to a portion of the Minnesota Territory.
The 1850s saw Minnesota’s population grow by approximately nearly 2,800%, as cheap farmland appealed to coastal residents and the development of America’s shipping canals continued to expand west.
With an influx in residents to the state — a trend also observed in St. Paul — business in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area flourished, with the state’s manufacturing industry valued at roughly $58,000, or over $2.2 million in today’s currency.
Yet, not all workers believed their wages in a booming industry were representative of their work.
According to “The Rise of Organized Labor in Minnesota,” published in the 1940 edition of the Minnesota History Magazine, wage issues were first spotlighted in 1854, when journeyman tailors struck for at least two days, demanding higher pay. Despite the significance of the first labor strike recorded in the then-Minnesota Territory, no historical documents indicate the outcome of the strike.
After Minnesota’s first labor union, composed of St. Paul printers, became organized in 1856 during a commemoration dinner honoring Benjamin Franklin, and a similar union was formed by Minneapolis printers, both lost many of their charter members to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for soldiers during the Civil War.
Following the turn of the 20th century, two separate strikes by mining groups on the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota made their mark in the history book. In 1907, miners led a strike that lasted roughly one month before strike-breakers ended the protests with minimal incident, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. After 40 miners walked off the job a decade later, many of the remaining employees — some of whom were previously strike-breakers — struck, and were met with a harsher reaction from the Oliver Iron Company.
“Unlike 1907, strikebreakers were not as readily available and other tactics were employed to end the strike,” writes Jennifer Kleinjung, a reference librarian with the Minnesota Historical Society. “The civil liberties of strikers were violated, mine guards and police used force to intimidate strikers, union leaders were jailed, economic pressure was exerted on merchants who extended credit to strikers, and the Oliver Iron Mining Company refused to negotiate with the strikers.”
After striking for more than three months, some reform was won by the miners, though their employer reportedly held an anti-union attitude for decades to come.
When a Minneapolis strike turned deadly
While the Minnesota Nurses Association’s strike this week has consisted of mostly rally-style speeches and laborers picketing outside of their employers, one strike in the state’s history turned deadly.
In 1934, Minneapolis served as one of the Upper Midwest’s major hubs for goods distribution. A small, but already-organized union, General Drivers Local 574 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was working to recruit truckers to their organization, regardless of what they hauled.
After winning a strike at a local coal yard, Local 574 had grown to over 5,000 members by May 1934, and was ready to take action again.
According to Teamsters, the strike began on May 16, when hundreds of laborers brought trucking within the city to a standstill while calling for union recognition, wage increases and fairer hours.
Violence erupted on day three of the strike, when police attacked demonstrators who attempted to prevent a truck from unloading within the city and advanced again on demonstrators days later.
In July, over 100 police officers opened fire on a group of demonstrators who had supposedly been lured to an intersection by a truck filled with law enforcement. One police officer and two demonstrators were killed, with another 65 injured in the shooting, later dubbed as “Bloody Friday.”
After then-Gov. Floyd Olson declared martial law, deployed thousands of National Guardsmen to the streets and arrested union leaders, nearly 40,000 demonstrators marched the streets demanding their leaders be released. The strike ended in mid-August when employer’s gave into most of the union’s demands.
Another strike set to begin Friday
Though strikes are not necessarily a common occurrence in present-day America, this week alone could see two labor strikes across the nation.
Following the nurses strike, which is set to end early Thursday, another strike is tentatively scheduled to begin Friday, made up of two organizations holding out on new contract negotiations.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) represent over half of rail car workers, and have even called rail carrier’s negotiation tactics “corporate terrorism.”
If continued failure of negotiations persists, a strike could cost the U.S. economy billions for each day workers refuse to work.