Busting the Buses

Author William Millikan: "We're going to be a laughingstock if we have no transit"
Michael Dvorak

The present bus strike may be the most crippling in recent memory, but put the accent on the last phrase--it's hardly the first local labor fight over transportation issues. In 1889, streetcar workers in Minneapolis and St. Paul walked off the job, initiating the first mass strike in Twin Cities history. (Workers wanted two employees on each streetcar instead of one, a demand that was never met.) Employees of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company struck again in 1917, angry over low pay and long shifts. Coming in the midst of World War I, the work stoppage ultimately ended unsuccessfully after Gov. Joseph A. A. Burnquist intervened. The workers were ordered back to work by the business-controlled Minnesota Public Safety Commission.

Later, in 1934, the Twin Cities were home to one of the more explosive and seminal labor fights of the last century. When Minneapolis truck drivers walked off the job, they shut down commerce in the city to demand recognition of their union, Teamsters Local 574. In response, the business community assembled a civilian army of some 1,000 men armed with pipes and baseball bats to do battle. The melee became known as the Battle of Deputies Run--because that's exactly what the business army did: run. The Teamsters ultimately triumphed, opening the way for organized labor to gain unparalleled strength in the ensuing years.

Last week I sat down with William Millikan at Montana Coffee Shop in the Warehouse District, just a few blocks from where the violent clashes of 1934 played out, to discuss transit strikes past and present. Millikan, a writer/historian, is the author of a terrific book called A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947 (now available in paperback from the Minnesota Historical Society Press) that chronicles how the Minneapolis business community, under the guise of the Citizens' Alliance, battled the formation and growth of labor unions for most of the first half of the century.


City Pages: Why hasn't the bus strike had an impact more like that of the earlier labor disputes you write about in your book?

William Millikan: It isn't shutting down commerce. The fact is, this is a car culture. Back then it wasn't. Back then, buses were basic transportation for a huge part of the population, so working people were all taking the bus to work. Now it's a few people, and the people in the suburbs are getting on suburban buses. And the people in the city without cars, nobody gives a shit about them anyway. Striking with Bell and Pawlenty running the show, it wasn't a wise time. But I think they were forced. They felt like they were giving up all these benefits. They're getting fucked either way.

CP: But your sense is that this is something Bell and Pawlenty wanted to happen?

Millikan: No question. But I don't think the union understood that going in. In '34, the Teamsters knew exactly what they were heading into. They knew they were going to be clubbed or shot. It was do nothing or go for broke. The odd thing that no one has ever quite totally fathomed, myself included, is that on that day there were police there with weapons. They didn't fire any. There's an assumption that there was a handshake kind of deal between the Teamsters and the police.

If it had been Pawlenty in office at that time, I don't think they'd even have tried the strike. They would've known that the National Guard would've come out and shut them down and shot them if necessary.

CP: What was the long-term fallout from the '34 Teamsters strike?

Millikan: There were still huge strikes after that in the next year. It's not like all of a sudden it was a union town after that. But by the end of the mid-'30s, even Pillsbury and Washburn-Crosby were signing union contracts. Somewhere in there, the game plan changed. And it was the violence, to be blunt, that did it. You've got to scare them.

CP: Where do we stand in comparison to that post-1934 period in terms of the government and corporations' treatment of organized labor?

Millikan: Well, it's dismal now, let's face it. I think they're going to break every union they can. There's a few notable firms, like Costco, that are working with their union, but then you have consolidation, like the Wal-Martization of the grocery industry. It's a dismal time.

CP: Do you see similarities in the political climate between now and 1917 when the streetcar strike occurred and World War I was underway?

Millikan: Well, yes. [In 1917] you have business taking over the Minnesota Public Safety Commission and pretty much running state government. You have a very overt example of business running everything. Who do you think's running things now? The same people. They're just a little trickier about it. I think in the end people will understand what happened.

CP: In the 1917 strike, the decisive action was to call for a general labor strike, which lasted four hours. What's stopping transit from getting other labor unions in town to walk out with them, even if it was only for one day?

Millikan: Other labor unions in town? [Laughs.] They're all trying to hang on, and slowly losing ground. Plus they probably think it's futile and they'd just lose everything. If [management] decided to run the buses, there's not a lot [labor] could do.

CP: But in a way the path that Pawlenty's chosen is much more devastating, which is to say public transit is irrelevant.

Millikan: Exactly. It has to be frustrating. In terms of the publicity battle, I would turn [Taxpayer's League President David] Strom around on himself and say, 'Pawlenty wants to end mass transit.' Because that's kind of the implication of what they've said and done. Certainly a case could be made that that is the plan.

Pawlenty makes the case that to be a major league city, we've got to have a stadium, blah blah blah. That's bullshit. Well, we're going to be the laughingstock of the country if we have no transit--not even a bus system. Every city in the world has a transit system, for Christ's sake. And we're not going to?

CP: Past strikes involved workers at private transit companies. Now we're dealing with government. Does that make any difference?

Millikan: Well, who is the Pawlenty strategy hurting? Who's losing income? The state's not paying their wages. There isn't an entity that [strikers] really can hurt, other than denying service to people Pawlenty doesn't care about anyway. He's a slick asshole. With [Horace] Lowry [owner of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company during the 1934 strike], or somebody like that, you conceivably could hurt his bottom line.

In all these past cases, except '34, the strike was pushed by transit companies, because they knew they were going to win. Management had the upper hand. They wouldn't have forced strikes if they didn't have a strategy. They chose the battleground and the battle. This is very similar, in that way.

CP: Is there any way you see for labor to force government to the bargaining table?

Millikan: I don't know. I don't think they anticipated Pawlenty's reaction. They probably thought he would try and get the buses running, and generate a huge volatile controversy in the process. Whereas the government managers of transit are just sitting there doing nothing.

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