Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minnesota Now and Then: A union-member‘s granddaughter recounts the 1934 trucker‘s strike

Tear gas
Using tear gas during truckers' strike, Minneapolis in 1934
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

You may not know it from the headlines, but union membership in Minnesota has declined slightly in recent years after a bump in 2020 and 2021.

As of June 2024, 13 percent of workers in Minnesota belong to a union, which is higher than the national rate of 10 percent. And it’s much higher than 90 years ago, when a transformative labor battle was boiling over in the state’s largest city.

Unions were basically non-existent in Minneapolis in the early 1930s until a group of worker activists rallied truckers and their wives to form a union in 1934. By May, they had as many as 3,000 members.

The union led three strikes, beginning in February and stretching into the summer of 1934. The struggle became violent at times. Strikers killed two strikebreakers in May.

Police killed two workers and wounded 67 others in July, a day known as “Bloody Friday.” By late August, the union had accomplished its goal of securing influence for workers in the city.

Linda Leighton is granddaughter of a strike leader and she’s one of the organizers of an annual commemoration. She joined Minnesota Now to talk about her family story of the strike.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: It's time for our history segment that we call Minnesota Now and Then. We'll look at a turning point in the labor movement, and it happened in Minneapolis exactly, 90 years ago.

About 13% of Minnesota workers belong to a union today, which is higher than rates seen 90 years ago, when a transformative labor battle was boiling over in the state's largest city. Unions were basically nonexistent in Minneapolis in the early 1930s. Successfully held at bay by business leaders of the day.

That's until a group of worker activists rallied truckers and their wives to form a union in 1934.

By May of 1934, they had as many as 3,000 members, and they had big dreams, as union leader Harry DeBoer told NPR in a 1985 documentary.

HARRY DEBOER: As a matter of fact, we took up the slogan, "Make Minneapolis a Union Town and Every Man an Organizer."

CATHY WURZER: When employers refused to recognize the union, union leaders called a strike. Trucking operations in the city ground to a halt. The struggle became violent at times, reaching a crescendo on July 20, of 1934, a day known as Bloody Friday.

Police opened fire on strikers, wounding 67 and killing two of them. Then Governor Floyd B. Olson declared martial law, and called in the National Guard.

For our next guest, the Minneapolis trucker's strike and his legacy is personal. Linda Leighton is granddaughter of a strike leader, and she's one of the organizers of an annual commemoration. She's on the line.

Linda, thanks for taking the time.

LINDA LEIGHTON: Oh, thank you, Cathy. I love talking about this rarely heard piece of Minneapolis history.

CATHY WURZER: You know, I had a wonderful history teacher, who was a U of M legend, Hy Berman, and Hy-- of course, you know, Hy-- Hy would talk about this all the time, but prior to our conversations, I never knew a thing about it.

LINDA LEIGHTON: That's right.

CATHY WURZER: So you're-- I understand, your grandpa, Vincent Dunne, was a key leader of the strike. Is that right?

LINDA LEIGHTON: Yes. He was usually called Ray Dunne by the strikers. I called him grandpa.

CATHY WURZER: I'm curious, as to what conditions-- what were conditions like for your grandpa and his brothers and other truck drivers at the time?

LINDA LEIGHTON: Well, the Citizens' Alliance, which was-- that you mentioned, which was more or less the employers, the people who owned companies, basically-- people worked on Saturdays. It was during the Depression so things were bad everywhere, but they were especially bad in Minneapolis, because they had really held down any unions that wanted to organize.

And I think-- like I say, everybody worked Saturday, a lot worked Saturday and half a Sunday. You were lucky if you got one day off a week. The wages were so poor that people-- well, they called them starvation wages, and it was ripe for people to try and organize, I guess.

CATHY WURZER: What were some of the tactics that they used to not only organize the union, but then what were the tactics that the business leaders used against the union?

LINDA LEIGHTON: Well, I'm not as familiar-- well, what they used against the unions is they double blacklisted them. They gave their name-- if they were trying to be in a union, they gave that worker's name not only to the employers, but also, to anybody who might be interested in talking to that person, and made it so that they just couldn't-- they couldn't discuss unions.


And then as they were organizing, how did they get everyone together? What was the pitch to join this union, especially when you had the potential for being blacklisted, in a sense?

LINDA LEIGHTON: Well, I think there was organizing for years among some of the leaders. My grandfather was lucky enough. Ray Dunne had a job as a weighmaster at a coal yard. And because he was the weighmaster, he saw a lot of people who were truckers, the haulers of the coal. And he got to talk to them, and it expanded. He asked them to talk to other people the way you do when you organize. And they were meeting, of course, all the time, on the QT.

And then in February, the first strike-- there were three strikes, actually, during the year. And the first strike was really effective, because they planned it and got all the truckers in the coal yard to quit delivering coal during two of the coldest nights and days of February of 1934. And the bosses, the employers caved in and gave them what they were asking for, which was pretty modest, but then rescinded it a month later. Just, like, barely paid the extra money, and then it was gone again.

So then, they got serious and did a lot more organizing. Organizing is really just talking to people, and giving your views, and listening to what they have to say.

CATHY WURZER: Right. It sounds like the strike ultimately was, of course, a big win for labor, but boy, the crackdown-- the police crackdown clearly was awful. And Floyd B. Olson sending in the National Guard.

What did your grandfather say about that violence that day, that summer?

LINDA LEIGHTON: Well, he wasn't afraid of it, because-- I mean, he hated it, of course. Nobody wants to be violent. But when you're struggling, and they had tried plenty of times to talk, right, but that wasn't working. And so when they struck, they didn't allow a single shipment to be made.

And the strikers organized nearby farmers. They had the-- they did a lot of organizing with other groups. They allowed the unemployed to be in the union if they wanted to, to help them.

Anyway, yeah, it was hard, and they didn't like it. People were appalled, of course. Two men died, and more than 50 were shot, mostly in the back, by Minneapolis police on Bloody Friday.

CATHY WURZER: Why don't you think that more people-- what was it about this chapter in our history that seems to have been largely forgotten? Why do you think that is?

LINDA LEIGHTON: Well, I think, it's not in the interest of the owners of businesses to have you see people have a success. And it's never taught in schools. I went to public schools, and I worked at a school for 33 years as a union member, and nobody ever knew about this, unless you were directly connected or were lucky enough, like you, to have somebody who talked about it. It just wasn't-- it wasn't out there.

CATHY WURZER: Now, you've devoted much of your life to commemorating the 1934 strike, for obvious reasons. You have a family history, too. But for folks, maybe students of today, why is it important to remember that period of time?

LINDA LEIGHTON: Because it shows what power there is in solidarity, I think. And it gives you a hope.

It isn't like people want to just destroy the companies that they work for. They just want a fair shake. They want to have decent wages and know when they're scheduled beforehand or have a regular schedule. They're just asking for stuff that, I think, is just respectful.

CATHY WURZER: Now, tell us about the events that are coming up as part of the commemoration.

LINDA LEIGHTON: Oh, my gosh. It's so exciting. We do this actually not every year, but every five years.

We do go to the Bloody Friday plaque and lay a wreath most years in July.

CATHY WURZER: Where is that?

LINDA LEIGHTON: It is on-- oh, gosh, I hope I'm not going to get this wrong-- it's on 701 North Third Street, Minneapolis. It's right on the corner of a brick building, kind of on-- and you have to look for it to find it. But that is in the old world-- in the old warehouse district. And it's right around the corner on Seventh that Bloody Friday took place.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So you'll lay a wreath, and then other events.

LINDA LEIGHTON: Oh, man, there's so many cool things going on. First of all, there's an exhibit right now at the Central Library in Minneapolis, of six artists that is all about the strikes, or any strikes. And I think that goes until, oh, maybe-- I don't know when that ends, but it's up there for a while.

And then there's film screenings at the library. There's going to be four films shown, including a really good 43-minute film of the 1934 truckers strikes here in Minneapolis.

And then, there's the Bloody Friday. That's on June 23rd, from 1:00 to 4:00 PM at the Minneapolis Central Library on the Nicollet Mall. Then on the 20th, at 4:00 PM, there's the Bloody Friday Memorial, where people say a few words. We remember the fallen, talk about it a little, and put the wreath out.

And then, there's more film screenings in Saint Paul at the East Side Freedom Library. And there's going to be readings from some really interesting works that people put out during the strike era

CATHY WURZER: Well, it sounds-- and it sounds like--

LINDA LEIGHTON: Finally, Cathy, finally, the big deal. All of Wabun Park is reserved for us for the 90th Anniversary Picnic on July 27th, from 12:00, noon, to 4:00 PM. It's going to be fun.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. All right.

I see, we have a complete list on our website, too. Perfect.


CATHY WURZER: All right, Linda, thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

LINDA LEIGHTON: Well, I really appreciated being here. It's great to talk about this. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Linda Leighton is a labor activist and the granddaughter of Vince Dunne, who was one of the leaders of that Minneapolis trucker's strike back in 1934. She's a member of the Remember 1934 Collective, which is holding, as you heard, events throughout the summer. Links at nprnews.org.

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