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A History of Minneapolis: an Overview by Staff at the Hennepin County Library

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Featuring historical photos and items from the collections of the Hennepin County Library, with contemporary photos from the Phototour of Minneapolis by Chris Gregerson.


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The first labor unions in Minneapolis were organized following the Civil War. During the substantial growth of population and industry in the 1880s-1890s, labor unions became a major political force in the state of Minnesota, and especially in Minneapolis, where industrial workers were concentrated.

May Day Parade (1934) which started at the Minneapolis Auditorium (pictured in background).
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Streets: Metro Area.

Relations between unions and employers were most contentious--violent in fact--in 1934, when Minneapolis teamsters, having successfully won a strike in the coal yards, tried to organize all the teamsters in the city. They met fierce opposition from the Citizens Alliance of Minneapolis, the employer's organization representing over 800 city businesses. The union voted to strike May 12, 1934 and violent clashes ensued in May and July, killing several people.

Truck Drivers Strike (1934).
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Strikes: Truck Drivers.

Governor Floyd B. Olson declared martial law on the streets of Minneapolis and eventually requested President Franklin D. Roosevelt to intervene. Although he didn't do so publicly, Roosevelt did threaten to withdraw public funds available to Minneapolis firms via the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. This proved to be ample motivation for employers to recognize the unions and to enter into collective bargaining with the workers.

Pickets surround Lake Street Plant of Minneapolis Moline Company (1946).
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Strikes: Mpls - Moline.

Children picketing during the Minneapolis teachers strike (1948).
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Photo Strikes: Teachers 1948.

In the mid 1930s, Nellie Stone Johnson organized workers of the Minneapolis Athletic Club and was one of the founders of the Hotel and Restaurant Union-Local 665. She went on to become the first black elected to public office in Minneapolis in 1945, when she won a seat on the Library Board. In 2001, Broadway Community School in north Minneapolis was renamed the Nellie Stone Johnson School in her honor.

Nellie Stone Johnson, 1943.
Minneapolis Collection, Uncat Portraits.

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