Father to OccupyMN: The Farmer-Labor Association and the “Farmer-Labor Leader” Newspaper

The last several weeks have seen me whisked away to the archives of the University of Minnesota Morris where I have been researching the Minnesota Power Line Controversy of the 1970s (these archives have a really good collection of documents one will not find at the state’s historical society; wiki). Sifting through hundreds of pages of Hold That Line, a newsletter published by the protesting farmers, and Wellstone’s Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War (1981), I’ve frequently found myself having to turn my energies to other topics in order to expand my base knowledge of the state and its political/cultural roots.

After all, the radicalism that justifies tearing down transmission towers does not suddenly spring from the ground; as is true with all ideas, it sprung from a seed nurtured through the decades (and that still sits, incubating, beneath the surface).

For those interested in learning about the DFL Party’s radical roots (that is, the Farmer-Labor part of Democratic-Farmer-Labor), I came across two very interesting articles that detail its history: the first comes from the September 1963 issue of Minnesota History (“The Farmer-Labor Association: Minnesota’s Party Within A Party“) and the second comes from the March 1946 issue of … The Fourth International (“The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party“).

The first details the Farmer-Labor Association’s roots its Non-Partisan League, which blew over from North Dakota, but had to adapt to the state’s own political winds. Organizing in rural communities, its membership grew in the 1930s as it hired a full-time staff to encourage the establishment of chapters that would be “educational and social centers” for the community. In the winter of 1933 the association opened a night school that would teach its 150 students oratory and public speaking skills. (Holbo 303). Geographically, the organization was strongest in the Twin Cities and western-Minnesota (including my stompin’ grounds).

In [1936] each of the state’s nine Congressional districts boasted more than a thousand members. The largest numbers were in the old Nonpartisan League strongholds such as Swift, Chippewa, Isanti, and Itasca counties, and in the major metropolitan areas (Holbo 303).

Experienced at grassroots organizing (they were, simultaneously, a union as well as a party), the association decided to create a channel of communication between its chapters in the form of a bi-weekly newspaper called The Farmer-Labor Leader. With its first editor being the socialist Henry George Teigan, the Leader’s content  was “permeated with progressive and socialist doctrine” and would include speeches from leaders and dates for upcoming events. (Holbo 305). Naturally, such a publication (and the party as a whole) stepped on a few toes:

The state’s leading dailies, the Minneapolis Journal, the Minneapolis Tribune, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, bitterly criticized the Farmer-Labor party. Moreover, a great majority of the state’s smaller daily and weekly newspapers were similarly conservative. In fact, Small-town editors, such as Roe G. Chase of the Anoka Herald and Rudolph A. Lee of the Long Prairie Leader, launched some of the most violent sallies against the third party. …

Only a handful of established publications actively supported  the Farmer-Labor movement. These included  the Meeker County News in central Minnesota;  the Farmers’ Independent of Clearwater County in the northwest;  the Mille Lacs County Times and the Askov American in north central Minnesota; and the Montevideo American, the Willmar Daily Tribune, and the Swift County News in  the west central area. All but the Willmar paper were weeklies of limited circulation, and all were located in counties where the Farmer-Labor party was especially strong. (Holbo 305)

Even with eight years of electoral victories (Floyd B. Olson being perhaps the most well-known of the party’s candidates), 1938 saw the Farmer-Labor gubernatorial candidate defeated. Gradually, such losses led to the merger of the association with the Democratic Party of Minnesota, a deal facilitated by Hubert H. Humphrey in Benson, MN; though there is the notion that the association was a fringe, “third” party, the merger was more for the benefit of the Democratic Party than it was for the FLA. From the Fourth International:

In 1944, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party ended twenty-six years of activity as an independent party by merging with the Democrats. The party was eliminated by a bureaucratically forced merger although it was still a strong political force. … Yet up to the merger the party was still polling 38 percent of the vote in state elections, more than the Minnesota Democratic Party. (Creel 77).

Additionally, according to the Trotsky-ist publication, the Farmer-Labor Party period of Minnesota’s history was one of the few moments, nationwide, where labor had a party it could truly call its own. 

The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association was a genuine labor party. It was not just a pro-labor party; it was a party of organized labor, a political federation of labor unions. (Creel 77).

Though the publication says that the FLA serves as “the longest experience with a labor party that U.S. History offers up to the present,” with Occupy Minnesota kicking off, which has been endorsed by local labor units, we may be seeing the dawning of a new movement that stands as heir to our state’s more radical nature.

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