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Minneapolis Flour Mill Strike, 1903

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Labor Day parade, Minneapolis

Flour mill employees march in a Labor Day parade in Minneapolis, September 5, 1904.

In September 1903, workers in the Minneapolis flour milling industry coordinated a strike that halted production in fourteen different mills. The striking workers fought for higher wages and an eight-hour day. Though their effort failed, it marked a turning point in the city’s labor history by spurring mill owners and other business leaders to limit unions through the Citizens Alliance, an anti-worker organization.

In summer 1903, flour loaders in Minneapolis negotiated for an eight-hour workday, with no success. On September 23, an estimated 1,300 flour mill employees gathered for a meeting to discuss going on strike. Striking—refusing to work—was their last option.

The workers were organized under the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which emphasized arbitration in labor disputes. John M. Finley, president of the International Union of Flour and Cereal Employees, helped organize the flour loaders, who wanted an eight-hour workday at their existing pay rate. Packers and nailers also wanted women flour packers to receive the same wages and hours as their male counterparts to avoid undercutting wages. The workers gave mill owners until 3 o’clock pm on September 23 to agree to arbitration and avert a strike.

The mill owners refused to negotiate with workers. They argued that their employees were well compensated and that pay increases would make Minneapolis mills less competitive nationally. One owner said he would shut down his plant indefinitely rather than discuss the pay scale with his workers. The union leadership responded that flour loading was strenuous and difficult to sustain for ten hours, and that injustice done to workers in other parts of the country was “not sufficient grounds for inequalities” in Minneapolis.

The strike began on September 24. Mills belonging to Pillsbury-Washburn, Washburn-Crosby, and Northwestern Consolidated Companies were forced to close. Workers threatened small mills with a strike if they took orders from closed mills. The striking employees included an estimated 500 packers and nailers, 375 loaders, and 630 mill-operatives out of 1,934 men employed in the industry. Not all the striking workers belonged to the union; public opinion pressured many non-union men to go on strike. Only the millwrights, machinists, and a few others remained at work.

Rather than arbitrate with the workers, the mill owners worked to replace them. They advertised nationally for employees and sent recruiters to New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, and Duluth. Mills promised a free train ticket to Minneapolis, room and board during the strike, and permanent employment. The Pillsbury B Mill hired seventy-five students from the University of Minnesota to work six-hour shifts. To further entice new workers, mill owners organized a commissary department. It included cots and a dining room so that strikebreakers would not need to leave the neighborhood and cross the picket line. Owners barricaded the Mill District and required anyone coming in to have a mill-issued pass. Food vendors brought in provisions under police protection.

The striking workers continued to picket and pressure the mills, despite the pushback from mill owners. They received financial assistance from other unions, and there was talk of a sympathetic strike among railway switchmen. By October 6, however, twelve mills were running, and the union did not have enough financial resources to continue supporting the strikers. Union President Finley recommended that workers end the strike and return to work on October 9. Amid rumors that he had sold out to the owners, the striking mill workers rejected his advice and demanded that new officers take charge.

The strike was essentially over by mid-October. Some workers were able to regain their jobs. Others, who were identified by owners as key organizers, were not rehired. Still, the 1903 strike united workers across the milling industry and inspired them to push for workplace reform.

The 1903 strike cemented the power of the Minneapolis Citizens Alliance, a group of business owners who banded together to limit workers’ rights. At its core was a network of financial power provided by bankers, grain millers, and other business owners. In the wake of the 1903 strike, they sought to prevent workers from forming unions or going on strike. The Citizens Alliance played a significant role in limiting workers’ rights, reaching a critical point during the Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strike of 1934.

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“A. F. L. Enters Local Arena.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 9, 1903.

“Arbitration is Proposed.” Minneapolis Tribune, September 23, 1903.

“Big Strike is Likely.” Minneapolis Tribune, September 21, 1903.

“Eight Hour Day Favored.” Labor World, September 27, 1902.

“Flour but No Bread.” Minneapolis Tribune, September 25, 1903.

“Its Scope Is Broad.” Minneapolis Tribune, September 26, 1902.

“Labor Day is Observed Throughout the Union.” Minneapolis Tribune, September 8, 1903.

“Mill Owners Stand Firm.” Minneapolis Tribune, September 22, 1903.

Millikan, William. A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903–1947. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.

“Gives Case to Unions.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 1, 1903.

“Finley’s Resignation Accepted by the Board.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 11, 1903.

“Looks Like Finale.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 19, 1903.

“Raise Funds for Strikers.” Minneapolis Tribune, September 30, 1903.

“Situation Unchanged.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 2, 1903.

“Strike to Continue.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 10, 1903.

“Two Other Mills Start.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 6, 1903.

Related Images

Labor Day parade, Minneapolis
Labor Day parade, Minneapolis
Flour-milling strike newspaper headline
Flour-milling strike newspaper headline
John M. Finley
John M. Finley
Flour mills and Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis
Flour mills and Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis
Packing floor of Pillsbury-Washburn Company
Packing floor of Pillsbury-Washburn Company
First women flour packers at Washburn-Crosby COMPANY
First women flour packers at Washburn-Crosby COMPANY

Turning Point

On October 9, 1903, Washburn-Crosby, Pillsbury-Washburn, and Northwestern Consolidated Companies reopen various mills with strikebreaking workers recruited both locally and regionally, and record the highest number of flour shipments since the strike began. The mills target students, the unemployed, and people of color as strikebreakers.

Chronology

1874

The first Washburn A Mill opens in Minneapolis.

1878

Washburn A Mill explodes, killing eighteen workers and destroying much of the west-side mill district.

1880 and 1881

The largest flour mills in the world (Washburn-Crosby and then Pillsbury) open in Minneapolis.

1880–1930

Minneapolis, the “Mill City,” leads the nation in flour production.

1886

In December, the American Federation of Labor is founded in Ohio.

1902

The International Union of Flour and Cereal Mill Employees organizes on September 25. Based in Minneapolis, it comprises branches of the American Federation of Labor, and dues are 15 cents a month for members. There are ca. 25,000 members nationally.

1903

During the summer, flour loaders request an eight-hour day at the Minneapolis mills.

1903

The Citizens Alliance forms as an outgrowth of the Minneapolis Civic and Commerce Association (CCA).

1903

Unionized mill employees march in the Labor Day parade on September 7 with an “eight-hour day” banner.

1903

Workers from seventeen Minneapolis mills go on strike on September 24.

1903

By October 9, a majority of mills have hired replacement workers and reopened.

1903

President John Finley steps down from his leadership position on October 10 after union members call for his resignation.

1903

The strike ends in late October.

1934

A truckers’ strike in Minneapolis leads to the end of the Citizens Alliance.