In 1933, Farrell Dobbs had a job shoveling coal in Minneapolis where he met Grant Dunne, a truck driver, who was unloading a shipment of coal. Dunne invited him to an organizing meeting of Teamster Local 574. The union sought to organize coal-yard workers. Grant Dunne was the brother of Vincent Ray and Miles Dunne. The Communist Party had expelled the three Dunnes for backing Trotsky. Unlike many of the other early adherents to the Trotskyist movement, the brothers were not members of the intelligentsia. They were workers who had taken part in the International Workers Movement's struggles in the early part of the century. They hoped to build powerful industrial unions in the 1930s during the depths of the Great Depression. Such unions could play a role not only in defending the standard of living of working people, but serve as a battering ram against the capitalist system as well.
Dobbs was happy join an organizing drive for personal reasons at least. His pay was $18 for a sixty hour week and had recently learned that his boss would cut his wages to $16 for a forty hour week. While Dobbs was no socialist, he knew firsthand what injustice meant. So in the dead of winter, Local 274 struck just as a severe cold wave hit the city. The coal-yard bosses conceded as quickly as they did in the recent UPS strike and the union movement gained a feeling of power and self-confidence. The political and organizing skills of the Dunne brothers impressed Dobbs to such an extent that he decided to join the Trotskyist movement.
The next step in the Teamsters organizing drive in Minneapolis was to bring truck drivers into the union. On May 13, 1934, Local 274 voted to strike the trucking industry in Minneapolis. The union rented a large building where it set up offices, a garage, a field hospital and a commissary. Union carpenters and plumbers helped to set up the building and the Cook and Waiters Union organized 100 volunteers who served 4,000 to 5,000 strikers and family members each day. The union organized the strike like a military operation. Sentries stood guard on fifty roads leading into the city with orders to block all scab traffic. Teenagers on motorcycles acted as couriers, bringing news from the field to strike headquarters. Ray Dunne and Farrell Dobbs were the main coordinators of strike. In less than a year, Dobbs had evolved from an ordinary worker to a strike leader. This happened countless times in the 1930s when a powerful mass movement helped ordinary people discover latent talents.
On July 20, 1934 the cops opened fire on ten unarmed pickets. When other strikers came to their aid, the police shot at them as well. They wounded sixty- seven people, including many whom the cops shot in the back while trying to escape. Two eventually died. Instead of intimidating the workers, the opposite happened. The strike deepened and mass support grew. Four hundred thousand workers attended a mass rally, one of the largest in Minneapolis history. The bosses finally relented in August and recognized union representation for the truck-drivers.
The victory in Minneapolis encouraged the Teamsters to organize over-the-road truckers next. In "Teamster's Power," Dobbs described their working conditions:
"The workers aimed at in this drive toiled under inhuman conditions. Hours of labor varied widely. Trips of from 80 to 120 continuous hours--with catnaps snatched here and there--were quite common. Even longer stretches of continuous driving were obtained through the use of sleeper-cabs.
"Usually the 'sleeping' device consisted of a flat slab behind the drivers' seat with a thin, hard, often lumpy mattress. Two drivers were assigned to these operations, alternating between a turn at the wheel and 'resting' on the slab. Genuine relief from exhaustion was impossible under these rude, unsanitary conditions in a moving truck. Yet the bosses often sought to deduct bunk time from the drivers pay, claiming that they were 'not working.'"
Dobbs put an organizing committee together that included James R. Hoffa, a young trade union militant from Detroit Teamsters Local 299. Hoffa had led a successful work-stoppage involving trucks loaded with highly perishable strawberries. From that moment on, other unionists paid respect to Hoffa as the leader of the "Strawberry Boys." Hoffa, like Dobbs, knew what it meant to be poor. His father was coal miner who died when Hoffa was seven years old. He quit school at the age of fourteen and went to work as a stock boy for $12 per hour. By the time Dobbs had initiated his organizing drive, Hoffa had a reputation for physical courage. In fights with scabs or the cops, he never retreated. In "The Trials of Jimmy Hoffa, he said, "My scalp was laid open sufficiently wide to require stitches no less than six times during the first year I was a business agent of Local 299."
The big difference between Hoffa and Dobbs was political. Hoffa's vision of the labor movement was as a means to advance the interests of working people, and his own career. Over the years the latter goal became much more important than the first. Dobbs, on the other hand, thought that the only way working people could end exploitation was through socialist revolution. The union movement was simply a means toward this end.
When Dobbs met with Teamsters president Dan Tobin in 1939, he received an invitation to become a careerist. Dobbs listened politely, but spurned Tobin's offer. He explains why in "Teamsters Power":
"As the discussion [with Tobin] in its entirety revealed, the IBT head did not contemplate indefinite retention on his staff of an organizer who was a revolutionary-socialist. He obviously relied on the corrupting effects that he assumed high wages and soft living would have upon me. With the passage of time, he expected that I would become just another business unionist. For a period he would have tolerated my continued radicalism, because my special knowledge about the union's newly developed activities in the long distance trucking industry; but only as a part of a transitional process. In the end, either I would have allowed my principles to become compromised, or moves would have been undertaken to oust me from the staff. With the country about to enter World War II, there could be no question that these were the alternatives."