strike, creamette company, john vachon, September 1939, LOC

Labor strife and the making of Minneapolis

Published September 2, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

This week we’ll feature images of Minneapolis workers, in honor of Labor Day. The 1934 Truckers’ Strike is the the most famous labor conflict in the history of Minneapolis and is now credited with making the city a union town. This strike did break the control of the repressive Citizens’ Alliance. But this one conflict did not make the city into a union stronghold. This epic clash ushered in a period of labor unrest and for the rest of the decade, workers struggled for collective bargaining and higher wages in workplaces all over the city. This image from the Library of Congress shows a woman picketing the Creamette Company–known for making macaroni part of an American diet–in September 1939. Photographer John Vachon captured the scene.

HG3 18T p32

Civil War in Minneapolis: Battle of Deputies Run

Published May 22, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

“The Battle of Deputies Run” was fought 80 years ago in downtown Minneapolis, in the heart of what is now the fashionable North Loop. One of the bloodiest clashes in the history of the city, this armed skirmish grew out of the protracted Truckers’ Strike, which consumed Minneapolis during 1934. This conflict between the radical Teamsters’ Union and the powerful Citizens’ Alliance began in February and plunged the city into civil war for most of 1934. No one could remain neutral in the city, which was paralyzed by the strikers’ blockade and the violence between the picketers and the employers. The city’s ruling elite circled the wagons–raising a “citizens army” that battled strikers in the streets. But strikers garnered vast support from other workers, who made up the majority of the city.

After employers had refused to recognize the teamsters’ union, the city’s truckers voted to strike in the middle of May. Truckers refused to drive; they also organized to block any truck traffic in and out of the city. These “flying pickets,” ” had the town tied up tight,” the sheriff explained. “Not a truck could move in Minneapolis.”

By the fifth day of the strike, the city’s food supply was dwindling and both sides were growing impatient. The Citizens’ Alliance denounced the “Red Dictators” who were determined to “starve our city into submission.” They tried to break the strike by luring a group of picketers into an alley where they were beaten with saps and night clubs. But after dozens of protesters were hospitalized, strikers were galvanized. They prepared for armed conflict, organizing for battle in the city’s central market, the nexus of the city’s truck traffic and thus a critical site for both sides.

Strikers spent the next couple of days making clubs and building their reserves for battle. On the morning of May 21st, they marched in military formation from the Central Labor Union headquarters to the central market, where they faced armed police officers and employers who had been deputized. “Clubs, pipe, rock and in instance a knife were used by the crowd after police watched two truckloads of strikers enter the district and unload. ..Some hundred police armed with sawed-off shotguns…attempted to halt the advancing group.”

The battle between the strikers and the deputies was broadcast live by local radio station KSTP, which reported it like a football game. Listeners all over Minnesota followed the action blow by blow.

Strikers won this battle, which was one of many violent clashes in the city during the summer of 1934. The Teamsters were finally victorious in August, forcing employers to recognize their union and negotiate over wages and working conditions. Their success electrified labor organizers across the country. It also fundamentally changed the balance of power in the city, which had earned been known as an “Open Shop” town since the beginning of the twentieth century thanks to the Citizens’ Alliance, which was considered the most powerful employers’ group in the country.

Material for this post was taken from Charles Rumford Walker’s classic account of the Truckers’ strike, American City. Images are from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

myrtle cain, voter card, side one, hclib vertical files

Myrtle A. Cain: “indorsed by the Working People’s Political League”

Published March 25, 2014 by Anna Romskog

Today’s blogger is Anna Romskog is a junior history major at Augsburg College. She will be a regular presence here during 2014, when she will be working as one of the student researchers for the Historyapolis Project.

This card–from 1922–urges voters in the 28th district of Minneapolis to vote for Myrtle A. Cain, a candidate for the Minnesota State Legislature who was “indorsed by the Working People’s Political League.” Cain was one of the pioneering political women who immediately sought public office after American women were granted the vote by the Nineteenth Amendment.

In 1922, Cain was one of four women to win seats in the Minnesota state legislature. When she went to St. Paul, she represented a constituency in Northeast Minneapolis that was dominated by immigrants and labor activists like herself.

Before running for office, Cain developed her leadership skills in the labor movement. Cain organized a strike of “Hello Girls” or telephone operators that started in November of 1918, just a few days after the Armistice ended World War I. Under Cain’s leadership, the strikers demanded significant wage increases and better working hours, mounting a bold though ultimately unsuccessful challenge to the local business elite.

At the same time Cain pledged her support to the National Woman’s Party, a radical feminist group organized in 1917 to win full equality for women.  The NWP staged dramatic, non-violent protests to demand the immediate enfranchisement of women; after the Nineteenth Amendment it launched a campaign for a measure it called the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment that would mandate equal treatment for both sexes under the law.

Cain’s activist history shaped her legislative priorities when was took her seat at the State Capitol. She was one of a handful of legislators to support the Granting Equal Rights, Privileges, and Immunities to both Sexes bill. The bill, supported by Cain and six male legislators was not a popular one and was opposed by the three other women who were legislators during the 1923-24 session, including well-known suffragist Clara Ueland. The other three women worried that Cain’s bill was too radical and would erode the political gains just won by women. The vote on the bill was postponed indefinitely. Cain detailed the rest of her agenda on the back of her campaign card: 

myrtle cain, voter card, side 2, hclib vertical files


Much to the relief of more conservative female legislators like Mabeth Hurd Paige, Cain did not win her bid for re-election in 1924. She lost by just 39 votes to John F. Bowers, also of the Farmer-Labor Party.

This set-back did little to dampen her conviction that women deserved equal protection under the law. In 1973–when Minnesota was considering whether to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment–Cain returned to the State Capitol to speak in favor of the measure.

Cain’s voter card is from the vertical files at the Minneapolis Collection, Hennepin County Central Library. Material for this post is taken from Elizabeth Faue, Community of Suffering and Struggle: Men, Women, and the Labor Movements in Minneapolis, 1915-1945, (University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Mary Pruitt, Myrtle Cain (1894-1980) in The Privilege for Which We Struggled: Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Minnesota, ed. Heidi Bauer, (St. Paul:Upper Midwest Women’s History Center, 1999); Darragh Aldrich, Lady in Law: A Biography of Mabeth Hurd Paige (Chicago: Ralph Fletcher Seymour, 1950).

North Star Woolen Mills

“When a girl’s got her living to earn she can’t choose where she’ll work”

Published March 20, 2014 by Tamatha Perlman

Today’s guest blogger is Tamatha Perlman, a writer and museum professional, who is working on a book about murder, madness and unrequited love in 19th century Minneapolis. In this post she describes the working conditions of women in the Mill City, using the work of labor journalist Eva Gay to bring readers to the weaving floor of the North Star Mill. The image above shows the North Star Woolen Mill building, which still exists in downtown Minneapolis.

Sunlight made a spotty appearance through the garden level windows in the basement of the North Star Woolen Mill. Tucked in the back of the large room, behind the men operating the dryers, women washed the blankets finished on the floors above.  In 1888, for 90 cents a day, women of all ages operated massive “gigs,” washing vats filled with scalding water. The hot air was thick, hovering around 98 degrees. The stench of wet wool and lye clung heavily to the heat. It was something, the girls said, you got used to after a while.  Opening the windows in the mill–located near Sixth Avenue South in Minneapolis–was out of the question. Dirt kicked up from the street would stick to the blankets. Washing and drying them once was enough.

Weaving was skilled work. It took endurance to perform and patience to learn. A women hoping to learn had to rely on a friend good enough to sacrifice a few days’ wages to teach her. Weavers were paid by the piece and a good weaver could make up to $1.35 a day. Factory foremen did a final count each day, rating each piece for quality to see if it would be counted for payment.

The weaving floor at the North Star Mill was immaculate, a fact that always impressed factory visitors. They remarked on the way that light streamed through large windows and gleamed off whitewashed walls. What they did not realize is that these young weavers were expected to clean over the lunch hour. Employers were able to exploit the fact that relentless work kept mill girls from becoming too close to one another.

Life in the woolen mills was a short term prospect. Most weavers could not work year-round. Many women could only work three or four years before being forced to find other employment after succumbing to repetitive stress injuries. Others had back pain from standing at the heavy looms for ten hours a day. “Some get married, some go to the hospital, and we don’t know anything about many of them; they just drop out and others take their places,” one of the young women explained.

Despite these grueling conditions, mill owners had no shortage of willing workers. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, women were streaming into Minneapolis from farms and overseas. These jobs required little experience with machinery and no proficiency in English. Employers had little regulation. They had only their conscience to dictate how much they worried about workplace safety or comfort.

“Do you think it’s worth while to ruin your health by working in this place for such wages?” a reporter asked a gig operator in an 1888 interview.

“I don’t know as it is,” was the wary reply; “but when a girl’s got her living to earn she can’t choose where she’ll work.”

Quotes are taken from newspaper articles by Eva Gay that were published in the St. Paul Globe in 1888. The image is from the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) at the Library of Congress.