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Fourth International, October 1941


The Editors

The 29 Go On Trial


From Fourth International, Vol.2 No.8, October 1941, pp.227-229.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


On the 20th of this month there begins, in the Federal court room in Minneapolis, the trial of the 29 defendants in the government’s “seditious conspiracy” case against the Socialist Workers Party and Local 544-CIO.

This date was set by Federal Judge Matthew M. Joyce on September II, when he upheld the indictment against the defendants’ demurrer. Five weeks was all that the judge would permit the defendants to prepare trial. The Federal prosecutor, acting under orders from Washington, was successful in persuading the judge not to grant the defendants further time in which to prepare their case. Attorney General Francis Biddle is anxious to push through this case and secure a conviction as soon as possible.

Those who remember the facility with which A. Mitchell Palmer, Mr. Biddle’s notorious predecessor and model, railroaded radical defendants to prison under wartime conditions, cannot permit themselves any illusions about the probable outcome of this case.

“But the charges are so fantastic! They can’t make them stick!” say many friends of the defendants. Many other people who care nothing for the defendants, but have some concern for constitutionalism and decent legal formalities, express the same illusion. When the indictment drawn up by the Department of justice was first published (the full text appeared in the August, 1941 issue of the Fourth International), the liberal organs – The Nation, The New Republic, the New York Post, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, etc. – found the charges so far-fetched and unreasonable that they could hardly believe that the government would go through with the case. But the government has already succeeded in putting the case at the head of the calendar, setting the trial for the 20th of October.

Reactionary governments do many “fantastic” things. That does not lessen the effect of those actions. To convict the defendants on such flimsy charges is indeed fantastic, but so is war and militarism, capitalist dictatorship and exploitation. These things shouldn’t be; but they are.

What the Government Has Already Done

What could happen in this trial which would be more outrageous and undemocratic than that which the government has already done up to now in its all-out attempt to crush Local 544-CIO? This union, under the same leadership which had built the union in 1934 and which has remained uninterruptedly at the helm until now, decided by democratic decision to disaffiliate from the AFL Teamsters and to accept a charter from the CIO. That decision was taken on June 9, whereupon began a series of open government acts to drive the membership of the union to abandon the union and to rejoin the AFL as individual members. One can hardly conceive of anything more “fantastic” than AFL Teamster chief Daniel J. Tobin’s telegram of June 13 to President Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s immediate reply. Tobin told Roosevelt: “The withdrawal from the International Union by the truck drivers’ union, Local 544 and one other small union in Minneapolis, and their affiliation with the CIO is indeed a regrettable and dangerous condition. The officers of this local union ... were requested to disassociate themselves from the radical Trotsky organization ... We feel that while our country is in a dangerous position, those disturbers must be in some way prevented from pursuing this dangerous course.” Stephen Early, Roosevelt’s secretary, immediately issued a statement from the White House which said in part: “When I advised the President of Tobin’s representations this morning, he asked me to immediately have the Government departments and agencies interested in this matter notified.” (New York Times, June 14, 1941.)

And two weeks after this threat from the White House came the June 27 FBI raids on the Minneapolis and St. Paul headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party. And then on July 15 came the indictment of the 29 who are now to go on trial. Everyone in the Twin Cities understood the meaning of these moves. In reporting the FBI raids the St. Paul Dispatch of June 28 came out with an eight-column front page streamer: “US to prosecute Local 544-CIO.” And the press on that day carried Attorney General Biddle’s formal announcement on the raids: “The principal Socialist Workers Party leaders, against whom prosecution is being brought, are also leaders of Local 544-CIO in Minneapolis (who) have gained control of a legitimate labor union to use it for illegitimate purposes.”

Then came a stream of additional government actions against the union. One was the arrest of one of its organizers, Carl Skoglund, on deportation charges – a man who has lived forty years in this country! Another was a Federal indictment in Sioux City, Iowa, against the Local 544 secretary-treasurer, Kelly Postal, on a charge that it was now suddenly discovered that Postal allegedly had something to do with an old strike – a case which had been worked up several years before by the FBI against several Iowa and North Dakota teamsters’ union leaders and the trials of which had been over for two years. Thus encouraged by the Federal authorities, indictments also showered down from the state courts on “embezzlement” charges against the union leaders for failure to turn over the Local 544 treasury to Tobin.

The Latest Outrage

Permit us to skip over much of the rest of the story and come down to the latest “fantastic” government act against the union.

Tobin admitted in his June 13 telegram to Roosevelt that what he was confronted with was “the withdrawal from the International Union by the truck drivers’ union, Local 544.” That did not stop either Tobin or the government departments from directly denying to the membership of the union the right to withdraw from Tobin’s International. Tobin set up a rival “544-AFL” which proceeded in collaboration with the bosses and the labor-hating governor Stassen to sign contracts ostensibly covering all the workers in the industry. Local 544-CIO thereupon proposed to settle the issue by elections, by secret ballot under government supervision, to determine which union actually represented the men. Local 544-CIO filed a series of petitions with State Labor Conciliator Blair and the National Labor Relations Board, asking for such elections. The proverbial man from Mars might think that such elections would be the only way to settle the question. But the State and National Labor Relations Board – i.e., the authorities in Washington -decided otherwise. State Labor Conciliator Blair ruled on only one of the election petitions of Local 544-CIO, that covering the furniture industries; he solemnly ruled that because Local 544-CIO had called a strike in this industry on the basis of strike notices which had been filed prior to the union’s disaffiliation from the AFL, the union was not entitled to the protection of the State Labor Law and was therefore not entitled to an election. Then Blair, instead of going through the painful process of concocting similar pretexts for ruling against the rest of the Local 544-CIO election petitions, proceeded to hold hearings on a Tobin petition to certify the AFL as the bargaining agent for the entire industry without elections. At the hearings hundreds of truck drivers testified that they remained loyal to 544-CIO and wanted elections. The sole witnesses at the hearings for the AFL were its paid officers. Yet, on September 19, State Labor Conciliator Blair certified without elections the Tobin “union” as the official bargaining agent for the entire motor transport industry of Minneapolis! And on that same day, obviously by prearrangement, the National Labor Relations Board rejected all the CIO petitions for elections.

There was one other way for Local 544-CIO to prove conclusively that it is the union which represents the workers in the motor transport industry. That was to strike. If the government and the employers would permit of no other way to count the union’s members, they could count them on the picket-lines.

But that method was also closed by the state government to Local 544-CIO. Minnesota’s “labor” law requires unions to submit strike notices to the state administration and to observe a “cooling off” period. Local 544-CIO submitted such strike notices. The administration rejected them under various pretexts as “illegal.” Then the employers went into the courts and secured injunctions forbidding Local 544ClO to strike.

Thus a situation was created in which, if the union called any section of the workers out on strike, the judges would have been able to put those workers and their leaders into jail, without trial, for contempt of court for violating the injunction! Under these conditions it was impossible for the union to prove its strength by its ability to enforce strikes.

One need hardly record more than these cold facts to dramatize the well-nigh unbelievable outrageousness of this government onslaught against a union which, as everybody in the Twin Cities knows, is the real union of the transport workers of Minneapolis. “Fantastic” – but this is the record of what the government has done.

In the light of this record, one can begin to understand what kangaroo proceedings are being prepared against the defendants when the trial opens on October 20. If Roosevelt on June 13 did not hesitate to publicly align himself with Tobin against the CIO, against a union which had, admittedly by democratic decision, joined the CIO; if Attorney General Biddle did not hesitate to conduct the June 27 demonstrative raids against the Socialist Workers Party as a means of frightening the membership of Local 544-CIO; if the National Labor Relations Board, just reorganized to Roosevelt’s satisfaction, did not hesitate to refuse the truck drivers of Minneapolis their elementary right to an election then Biddle’s flunkeys will hesitate at nothing in railroading the defendants to jail.

Necessitated by Roosevelt’s War Policy

There are well-meaning people who find it hard to believe that the government will trample the Bill of Rights underfoot to aid Roosevelt’s chief labor lieutenant and punish forthright opponents of his war program. We refer these people to the findings of the American Civil Liberties Union. Undoubtedly the governing board of the American Civil Liberties Union, largely composed of friends of the administration, did not like to believe that Tobin was being aided by the government. Nevertheless after a careful investigation, in a letter of August 20 to Attorney General Biddle, the American Civil Liberties Union regretfully comes to the conclusion “that the government injected itself into an interunion controversy in order to promote the interests of the one side (Tobin) which supported the administration’s foreign and domestic policies.”

The “foreign and domestic policies” of Roosevelt are, of course, his war program. We have seen in recent months the lengths to which Roosevelt has gone in putting over his design to plunge the country into war. He has systematically violated the Constitution of the United States which grants to Congress the sole power to involve this country in war. He has not dared to pursue a constitutional course, for even a Congress as conservative as the present one is subject in some degree to the pressure of the masses of the American people. And the masses of the American people are opposed to this country’s involvement in the war. Against the will of the American people, Roosevelt pursues his war course and in that course he must go to any lengths to crush all possible rallying points of mass opposition to the war.

Local 544-CIO came into conflict with Tobin primarily over the question of Roosevelt’s war policy. Tobin found it possible to keep hands off the militant leadership of Local 544 from 1936 to 1941. Tobin hated the union’s famous weekly, The Northwest Organizer, which has consistently pursued an anti-war, anti-Roosevelt policy; but until the heightening of the war crisis, Tobin held back from a head-on clash. His greed for per-capita dues collections – Local 544 was responsible for organizing 200,000 over-the-road drivers into the International in the North Central Area – overcame Tobin’s aversion to the radicalism of the Local 544CIO leadership. Until the deepening of the war crisis, and until Roosevelt cracked the whip for his labor lieutenants to line up the workers for war. Then Tobin moved against 544, and the union local went over to the CIO. Whereupon Tobin turned for aid to Roosevelt and it was readily granted to him, and that aid includes railroading the 29 defendants in the “seditious conspiracy” trial.

The Meaning of This Trial

This trial has a transcendent political and historical importance. That is why we Trotskyists can face it confidently, regardless of the immediate consequences for those who are personally involved. The very desperation of these acts of the government against the Socialist Workers Party and a single local union is a revealing indication of the utter insecurity of the ruling class and its government. They enter this war with the blackest fears for the future of the capitalist class. We, on the contrary, enter this trial with the firm assurance that this skirmish in the class struggle will be followed by gigantic class battles, in which the workers will be victorious. Those battles will free the defendants from Roosevelt’s jail if, in spite of law and justice, he succeeds in putting them there.

The task of the defendants and their supporters is to make every worker in this country understand the meaning of this skirmish. If we can do that, the workers will be all the better prepared to win the great battles which are coming – and are coming sooner than many dream.

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Last updated on 13.9.2008