Minneapolis author bringing 1934 Teamsters strike to life

ST. PAUL -(Workday Minnesota) After “Bloody Friday,” in 1934, when Minneapolis police brutalized about 60 striking truck drivers, an old woman drove up to the strike’s headquarters in a truck filled with supplies.

It must have been a comical sight — when she opened the car door the truck drivers could see that she was sitting on pillows and had tied wooden blocks to her feet in order to reach the pedals. The striking Teamsters immediately made the old woman head of the hospital visitation division of the women’s auxiliary.

Ben Fisher, a Minneapolis artist and author found this anecdote while researching his new book, “Class Fracas: Sketches of the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers Strike.” He said it proved for him the level of organization and commitment the Teamsters and their supporters had during the strike.

artist Ben Fisher Artist Ben Fisher at work.

Union Advocate photo Fisher became interested the event while reading a book by Farrell Dobbs, an American Trotskyist and leader of the strike. The violence was jarring, and Fisher was fascinated by how the strike remains part of the fabric of modern day Minneapolis.

“I wanted to write a book that was introductory and exploratory” to get readers interested, he said. Fisher considers the book a jumping off point for readers to do their own research.

Aside from his work as an artist and a writer, Fisher has spent time working for the Service Employees International Union, His experiences at SEIU left him feeling that the labor movement has become dry and bureaucratic, another reason he was driven to write the book.

He reminisces about a time when unions that served not just a collective bargaining purpose, but a cultural one. He thinks that labor-related art is an integral part of making people feel moved to join a union.

He recalled a co-worker whose involvement in organizing had stemmed from seeing and being moved by a poster of famed IWW organizer, Joe Hill. Fisher says he would be glad if the book’s mixture of art and text moved just one reader to become involved with the labor movement, or to continue reading about the topic.

The book is meant as a jumping off point for readers to do their own research. “I wanted to open up the history,” he said, to get readers interested.

The book centers on the series of strikes that took place in Minneapolis in 1934, when a powerful group of business owners known as the Citizens Alliance refused to recognize the truckers union in Minnesota. The Teamsters went on strike, and violence escalated throughout the summer. The conflict ended with union recognition, but not before the National Guard had been called in, four strikers had been killed and about 200 injured.

Fisher’s book is not, as it has been called, a graphic novel. “What I ended up doing,” Fisher explained, “was coming up with a relationship between text and images, having the text tell the story and having the image broaden the text, but not making it redundant.”

Of his visual art, Fisher calls the images abstract. “I try to make them like a visual puzzle,” he said. “You might have to take some time with it to understand the relationship between text and image.”

Fisher attempted to use oral histories to reconstruct the events of 1934. He wanted to show the phenomenal amount of control that the Citizen’s Alliance had over the city.

He also tried to bring his readers back to 1934. His characters used a rich vernacular that Fisher admires. “I incorporated the slang into the writing” he explained. “Some of the terms I had never even heard of. ‘Donnybrook’ is one they used a lot. It means a real intense street brawl.”

Ultimately, he said, the story is about “everyday people coming together, commitment, solidarity, and leadership,” Fisher explains. “I’m trying to underline that these were ordinary people fighting for survival.”