Minneapolis Police were once used as strike breakers

Now the Police Officer’s Federation has lost the support of other unions

The General Drivers strike of 1934 turned bloody when police began firing into crowds of picketers. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“The blood of workers ran freely in the streets of Minneapolis yesterday. They were shot down and wounded by uniformed thugs commanded by police chief Michael Johannes. Forty-eight sons of the working class were mowed down by shotguns in the hands of police” — From The Organizer, the daily strike bulletin of General Drivers Local 574 that served as a daily newsletter chronicling the Teamsters’ strike of 1934. 

At the turn of the 20th century, the Minneapolis Police Department was the strongarm of Citizens Alliance, the band of private business interests — including the Pillsbury and Washburn flour scions — that used their massive wealth to suppress labor uprisings and collective bargaining initiatives. 

Tom Weber, author of Minneapolis: An Urban Biography, said the Citizens Alliance put the city’s police force on their payroll: “They did it by hiring, for lack of a better word, their own army,” he said. “They would hire people to help them break the strikes.” 

This was a Police Department that, at the time, was itself embroiled in organized crime, taking a cut of black market profits in exchange for allowing illegal activities to continue unabated by law enforcement. And Mayor A. A. Ames — who instituted his allies on the force — was in on the action.  

By the time the explosive General Drivers strike began in 1934, the police were not a neutral party. The truckers and other laborers went on strike that summer to demand higher wages. On July 20th, strikers were picketing in the North Loop when police began firing into the crowd, injuring about 60 workers.

Gov. Floyd Olson brought in the National Guard. Unlike during the recent protests after George Floyd’s killing when the National Guard and police worked in tandem, in 1934 the Guard was used to to impede police attacks on the workers. Olson ordered an investigation into what came to be known as  “Bloody Friday.” The report found that police used deadly force even though their own safety was never endangered. The investigation also showed that the department tried to influence public opinion against the strike. 

And, finally: “The police department did not act as an impartial police force to enforce law and order, but rather became an agency to break the strike.”

Later, the police union was instrumental in attacking Black demonstrators during the 1967 Plymouth Avenue unrest. Charles Stenvig, a predecessor of current union President Bob Kroll, encouraged his union members to crack down on Black protesters as they demonstrated against racial injustice, Weber said. 

Stenvig ran for mayor two years later and won a platform of imposing “law and order,” campaigning on a promise to “take the handcuffs off of the police.” It was widely viewed as a dog whistle to prejudiced white voters. 

Many in labor reexamining this history as they draw away from police unions

For the current proponents of “abolishing” or “defunding” the police, this history resonates; they view the current Police Department as merely continuing a long police tradition of antagonizing the working class and people of color of Minneapolis. 

“The police is a repressive force of the politicians and the ruling class to repress workers and particularly Black folks and people of color,” said Ali Fuhrman, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2822 that represents Hennepin County clerical workers. 

In the wake of the killing of Floyd by a Minneapolice police officer, many in the labor movement are examining that history and questioning if police unions wield too much power in protecting their members from misconduct. Calls for Kroll’s removal are a ceaseless drumbeat, including from other labor unions. 

Kroll declined to comment.

Brian Peters is executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which is not a union but lobbies on behalf of law enforcement and offers legal defense funds for officers involved in critical incidents. He said blaming Kroll and the union for systemic inequalities is a way for politicians — like the mayor and the City Council — to shift the blame that should fall on their shoulders. He called the idea of defunding the Police Department “absolutely ridiculous.”

The union doesn’t have the ‘power’ that people seem to be inferring,” Peters said. “Everyone is pointing the finger at police unions and it’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s failed leadership on many levels, but they fail to look at themselves in the mirror to call into question some of the failed leadership they’ve demonstrated for many, many years,” he said. 

Fuhrman said the police union has hidden behind the labor movement for too long, and called for dissolution of the police union. “They shouldn’t have unions. They’re already protected by the whole system. As workers we have no protections without our union,” she said. “Cops can get away with murder and still keep their jobs so it’s not even the same thing. We get terminated for nothing.”

John Remington, an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota and an arbitrator with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services, has heard police grievances, including termination cases, though not involving the City of Minneapolis and its police union. He said the police union’s contract is standard. Like Peters, he said it’s incumbent upon the city to revise the provisions.

“I’m sort of baffled by the mayor’s position that somehow this is a union problem. To say that it’s the union’s fault that the officers were able to protect their members effectively. That’s what the union is for,” Remington said. “If they don’t like the way the contract is structured, they need to try and make some changes on it.”

As a public sector branch, the police force has the right to negotiate wages and working conditions, Remington said. 

The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.