(Originally posted in The Militant, November 16, 1998)
Below are excerpts taken from the book Teamster Politics by Farrell Dobbs, a leader of the Teamsters during the historic 1934 Minneapolis strikes and the Socialist Workers Party. It describes how in the 1930s Teamsters Local 544 and other unionists formed a defense guard that pushed back the thug threats of the Silver Shirts, a fascist outfit that was spawned from the deepening capitalist economic crisis of the 1930s. Teamster Politics is copyright (c) 1975 by the Anchor Foundation, Inc., reprinted by permission.
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 the way to hold on to state power and protect special privilege….
One of these profascist groups, the Silver Shirts of America, was of special concern to General Drivers Union, Local 544. It was started in 1932 by William Dudley Pelley, who opened a headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina, and published a weekly organ called Liberation….
Apparently this caused a section of the boss class in Minneapolis to become interested in the movement; and Pelley was encouraged to send one of his aides, Roy Zachary, to the city in the summer of 1938 to launch an organizing drive. Two Silver Shirt rallies followed in quick succession, on July 29 and August 2, at the Royal Arcanum hall….
It became known immediately that Zachary’s main theme had been to call for a vigilante attack on the headquarters of Local 544….
This situation called for prompt countermeasures. So Local 544, acting with its customary decisiveness, answered the threat by organizing a union defense guard during August 1938….
The local served public notice that it would take care of its own defense, putting no misplaced reliance on the police for protection.
The union leaders were fully aware that capitalist politicians in seats of power not only tend to wink at fascist hooliganism; they often encourage and abet such extralegal attacks on workers. Not only that. Their minions, the police, condone and protect fascist activities, become members of such movements and, when open violence is used against the trade unions, usually look the other way….
Conceptually, the guard was not envisaged as the narrow formation of a single union. It was viewed rather as the nucleus around which to build the broadest possible united defense movement…. It was expected that time and events could also make it possible to extend the united front to include the unemployed, minority peoples, youth – all potential victims of the fascists, vigilantes, or other reactionaries….
The only requirements for inclusion in its ranks were readiness to defend the unions from attack, willingness to take the necessary training for that purpose, and acceptance of the democratic discipline required in a combat unit….
The organization raised its own funds -for purchases of equipment and to meet general expenses – by sponsoring dances and other social affairs. Part of this money was used to buy two .22 caliber target pistols and two .22 caliber rifles to give guard members a way to improve their ability to shoot straight….
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 have been picked up if needed to fight off an armed attack by Silver Shirt thugs….
One particular episode graphically illustrated the breadth of the intelligence arm, as well as the guard’s effectiveness in action. It came about when the 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 to [Ray] Rainbolt, who telephoned the place and warned that Pelley would run into trouble if he went ahead. To show he was not bluffing, Rainbolt led a section of the union guard 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 show up….
Following that incident the Teamsters took a step calculated to throw a further scare into the would-be union busters. It came in the form of a special notice printed on the front page of the Northwest Organizer of September 29,1938. The notice instructed all captains of the defense guard to have their squads up to full strength forthwith and to be prepared to mobilize them, ready for action, on short notice.
The move seemed to have the desired effect, for the Silver Shirts transferred their next meeting to the neighboring city of St. Paul. It was held on October 28 at the Minnehaha Hall, and the place was well guarded by cops. Zachary was the main speaker. As reported in the newspapers the next morning, he boasted:
“Leaders of 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.”
Zachary’s line was taken seriously by the Teamsters for several reasons. More could have been involved in the St. Paul affair than a mere effort to boost the sagging morale of the profascist elements by holding a successful meeting. Part of the scheme could also have been to bring pressure upon the Minneapolis authorities to provide them with comparable police protection in that city as well….
Acting on such assumptions, the high command of the union defense guard decided to put on a public show of force….
Toward those ends an emergency mobilization of the defense formation was called on one hour’s notice…. By the designated assembly time, just sixty minutes after the call first went out, about 300 members of the guard had turned out ready for action -an impressive performance….
As for the ultrarightists, they appeared to have gotten the union’s message loud and clear. Zachary made no further attempts to hold rallies in Minneapolis; fascist propaganda tapered off; and after a time it became evident that the Silver Shirt organizing drive in the city had been discontinued altogether.