Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency: the Marxist voice of labour and youth.
teamster-rebellion-lg.jpgA review of Farrell Dobbs' account of the Teamsters struggle in 1934, against bosses intent on holding down workers pay and conditions. The Teamsters rebellion gets to the heart of what trade unionism is all about, showing how workers' innate ability to organise and manage their affairs on a collective basis is brought into sharp focus by the battles to improve their lives.

Having just finished reading this hugely inspiring book I thought I'd tell you about it in the hope that you might pick it up and let it inspire you, particularly during the increasingly difficult times many of us find ourselves in at work today.

The first of four books in a series, this is a true life account of the struggles for union recognition fought by the transport workers in Minnesota, US in 1934.

teamsters.jpgIt is particularly inspiring in that it wasn't just that honest working men and their families faced a struggle against the bosses who were always intent on holding down their pay and working conditions in the pursuit of private gain. They also faced a struggle against their own leadership - the officials of their union (The Teamsters) - who sought to keep the workers divided and weak in order to protect their own positions and the privileges that went with them.

Dobbs' account gets to the heart of what trade unionism is all about, showing how workers' innate ability to organise and manage their affairs on a collective basis is brought into sharp focus by the battles to improve their lives. The striking workers go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the bosses have a real fight on their hands, ensuring support for the strike stays solid by making sure the poor and needy are fed, the sick and wounded are tended to and the lies and slander of the bosses are rebutted with the truth.

dobbs_farrell.jpgAgainst a backdrop of economic depression, the strike movement that is recounted here by Dobbs threw up genuine leaders whose authority was tested again and again and legitimised in the heat of the struggles for the right of workers to organise and to win improvements to their pay and conditions. Dobbs, who later became a prominent leader of the American Trotskyist movement, was a key figure in leading the 1934 strike alongside others who were not prepared to accept the ‘business  agents' in the union leadership. These ‘agents' would use all kinds of trickery and corruption to ensure they held onto power rather than providing real leadership on the basis of trade union principles such as democracy and solidarity.

The workers and those fighting alongside them, such as the unemployed, soon realised that they could not trust the bosses or the politicians or the police who were frequently used against them at the behest of the bosses. Unprovoked violence was unleashed upon the pickets, who were using entirely peaceful methods up until the point when they were forced to defend themselves - some of whom died at the hands of the police.

The book is anything but dry and abstract even in its discussion of the strategic and tactical considerations that were key to winning the campaign. These are brought out vividly with accounts of the colourful characters and often amusing anecdotes. The book is engaging and moves along at a pace. For me it was a real ‘page turner'.

There are also a number of black and white photographs of key figures, demonstrations and picket battles and pages from ‘The Organiser', the strike committee's newspaper which was produced regularly throughout the strikes to counter the bosses' propaganda in the mainstream media.

Obviously I haven't gone into too much detail here but I will spoil the ending by telling you that the union won, forcing the bosses to accept recognition of the union for a majority of workers in the industry which gave them a position of strength to fight for further recognition and improvements to workers' lives.

The key message for me is that it is through the struggles of militant trade unions that working people are able to protect and gain improvements to their pay and working conditions. It is as true today as it was in 1934.

‘Teamster Rebellion' by Farrell Dobbs (ISBN 0-87348-973-X ) is published by Pathfinder Press and is available from Wellred Books  http://wellred.marxist.com/index.asp?c=OA .

 

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