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.

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.

"When you read his book it becomes clear how powerful business is and how class-conscious business is," says Fones-Wolf. "It's such an irony that business thought it was un-American for workers to be organized, yet it was perfectly patriotic for businesses to be organized."

Such praise notwithstanding, Millikan still has to make a living. On this fall day he is midway through his normal Wednesday route, primarily dropping off bundles of City Pages at liquor stores and restaurants in Robbinsdale and other western suburbs. The floor of his gray van is flooded with periodicals of all persuasions, from employment circulars to a magazine aimed at the adult-entertainment industry. "You get to know your way around the obscure areas," Millikan observes. "It's like being a taxi driver."

Millikan is searching for his next big project. He believes that there is a need for a book similar to A Union Against Unions, but focusing on the national picture and on such powerful business organizations as the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. "Their little footprints are all over history," he notes, from individual pieces of legislation to the creation of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Millikan wouldn't mind taking on the task himself, but says there's a dearth of funding available for such scholarly research. "You'd think it'd be a natural for unions," he laments, grabbing a bundle of papers for a Tom Thumb convenience store, "but they've never really gotten into it--educating people about the problems of capitalism." The sole assistance Millikan received for his labor research was two small grants from the Historical Society.

"For an independent scholar like Bill Millikan, who doesn't have enormous institutional support or tenure, it's more than a labor of love," says Greg Britton, director of the Minnesota Historical Society Press. "It's a passion. He's really driven to tell this story."

Millikan is also flirting with the idea of examining how corporations managed to clear-cut old-growth forest from Minnesota in the name of capitalism, noting that much of the land was obtained through fraudulent homesteads. Whatever his next investigation, it will have to be something that engages his interest enough to spend hours upon hours with nothing but boxes of decaying documents.

"I need something that pisses me off," he says.

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