For Love of Labor

An odd-jobber chronicles an ugly chapter in Minneapolis union-busting

One day in the mid-Eighties, William Millikan sat down at a table at the Minnesota Historical Society archives just north of downtown St. Paul and began poring through boxes of documents relating to the Minneapolis Citizens Alliance. He had stumbled across word of the organization, created in 1903 by a handful of business titans to promote "industrial peace," while reading about the 1934 Teamsters strike.

That labor struggle was the bloodiest in Minneapolis history--in no small part because of the role played by the Citizens Alliance. After the striking truckers had brought all commerce in Minneapolis to a halt, the anti-labor organization raised a ragtag army of nearly 1,000 club-wielding businessmen, non-union laborers, and even prisoners to take to city streets to battle with the Teamsters.

Delivery driver and scholar William Millikan
Michael Dvorak
Delivery driver and scholar William Millikan

At the time Millikan had completed a historical detective novel situated in Nazi Germany and sold it to publishing house Stein & Day. He was already at work on a second work of fiction to be set in 1930s Minnesota and was searching the Citizens Alliance archives for clues about life during the Great Depression.

What was Millikan looking for? "Bad guys," he says, erupting in laughter.

That's exactly what he found.

The novel that Millikan sold to Stein & Day, Wetzel's War, never saw print. Despite tantalizing him at one point by sending a copy of the book's cover, the publishing house went bankrupt before it could bring the novel out. The company that subsequently acquired the rights to Wetzel's War also reneged on promises to publish the book--even after he'd whittled 100 pages off the tome at the company's request. He finished the second novel as well, but never even attempted to sell it. "By then I was so disgusted I just left the whole thing," he scoffs.

However, the Citizens Alliance documents that Millikan found that day launched him on a 15-plus-year journey through the ugly underbelly of Minnesota capitalism. Week after week Millikan returned to the archives. He rummaged through the daily calendars of long-deceased corporate chieftains, private journals detailing efforts to derail strikes, surveillance reports on labor organizations, and any other scrap of paper that might provide a clue as to how Minnesota corporations kept unions at bay in the first half of the 20th Century. "You immediately start to see the details and the structure of a massive conspiracy," Millikan recalls.

He compares the arduous research process to anthropologists searching through rubble for clues to ancient civilizations. Occasionally the scientists stumble upon a groundbreaking discovery, but most of the time they wind up unearthing a "chimpanzee's ass bone," he quips. "Most of it's drudgery. You can sit there for eight hours and not find squat."

His years of mind-numbing research are now paying dividends. In March the Minnesota Historical Society Press published his A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947, a painstakingly detailed, nearly 500-page tome, including a half-dozen appendixes and 100 pages of footnotes. In dispassionate but precise prose, Millikan catalogs how the business elite of Minneapolis--along with allies in politics, the judiciary, law enforcement, and the press--conspired to suppress union activity for decades.

Their means were not pretty. Censorship, spying, and outright thuggery were regularly employed. The hardball tactics were, however, successful: For much of the first half of the century Minneapolis remained a bastion of union-free business.

Nobody would ever mistake William Millikan for a titan of capitalism. On this weekday morning he is dressed in a ripped flannel shirt, black jeans, and tennis shoes that he quickly removes after taking a seat at a Dunn Bros. coffee shop in New Hope. A ponytail holder is fighting a losing battle to control Millikan's wild mass of hair. His salt-and-pepper beard has grown to such proportions that it's difficult to discern his mouth; crumbs from the peanut-butter cookie he's eating find homes in the tangled web.

Millikan's résumé makes him an equally unlikely candidate to produce a scholarly tome. The 54-year-old father of six grown children primarily makes his living as a self-described "paperboy." Two or three days a week, working as an independent contractor, Millikan piles free publications such as City Pages, The Phoenix, and Twin Cities Sports into his battered gray van and makes the rounds of bars, liquor stores, and libraries. "It's a capitalist society," he quips. "We all have to work for somebody."

In the realm of commercial publishing, A Union Against Unions is a modest affair. The initial press run was 1,500 copies. But for a scholarly treatise the book is receiving respectable acclaim. Both the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune have run flattering reviews, as has Choice, a trade publication for librarians. Feedback from academic circles has been slower to seep out; such reviews often don't appear until a year or more after publication (occasionally after the book has already gone out of print).

Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, a history professor at West Virginia University and the author of Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, is working on a review of Millikan's book for the Journal of American History, one of the most respected academic journals. Fones-Wolf notes that the vast majority of labor history has been told from the workers' point of view. What makes A Union Against Unions unique, she believes, is that it uses documentation from the businesses themselves to outline the struggle to suppress organized labor.

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