Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party
MINNESOTA FARMER-LABOR PARTY
The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party still ranks as America's most successful state level third party. It began in 1919 as something of an organizational conglomerate, functioning as the electoral wing of the national Nonpartisan League (a farm protest movement that originated in North Dakota), the locally strong Minneapolis Socialist Party, and the Minnesota state Federation of Labor. As those organizations disappeared or weakened, the Farmer-Labor Party took on a life of its own as party leaders created a permanent organization known as the Farmer-Labor Association to plan the party's direction. Until the mid-1920s the Farmer-Labor Party was the Republican Party's rival for control of state's congressional delegation. In 1924 the Farmer-Labor Party also supported the independent presidential campaign of Robert La Follette.
During the second half of "Prosperity Decade," membership in the Farmer-Labor Association dropped, the state Federation of Labor withdrew its formal affiliation, and the party's newspaper was sold off. Attractive candidates stopped calling attention to their affiliation with the party. Then, in 1930, the party's 1924 gubernatorial candidate, Floyd B. Olson, ran again. Olson had served for many years as attorney for Hennepin County, a jurisdiction that includes Minneapolis. As an adolescent working as a harvest hand in North Dakota, Olson had joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He also enjoyed good relations with the tightly knit Jewish community of Minneapolis. Later, Olson was an early leader in the American Civil Liberties Union, whose founders sought to protect the right of free political speech for left-wing radicals in the Nonpartisan League, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party, and to protect the civil liberties of labor organizers and labor strikers. Photographs and films from the era show a ruddy, strapping, and evidently gregarious man. Olson had a commanding radio voice, but he was just as good in a convention hall or on the stump. He was elected governor in 1930.
Olson's political heyday ran from 1931 to August 1936, during which time he rose to national prominence. He died in office, however, from stomach cancer. During this period the Farmer-Labor Party gained control of the state's congressional delegation, and by 1936 the party had elected, for the first time, two full-term senators. The party also made rapid progress in mobilizing voters to support candidates for all state-wide executive offices, including treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general, and lieutenant governor.
The Farmer-Labor Party permanently changed the political economy of Minnesota. The party established collective bargaining in the state and protected farmers before passage of the 1933 federal Agricultural Adjustment Act. Two other constituencies of the Farmer-Labor Party that had joined its coalition in the late 1920s and early 1930s were small business owners facing competition from chain stores, and rural bankers facing the prospect of sale of their establishments to larger banks in better condition. For them, the Farmer-Laborites backed anti-chain store legislation and discouraged the acquisition of independent banks by large Twin Cities or out-of-state banks.
In the areas of industrial relations and agricultural income security, the Farmer-Labor Party engaged in close collaboration with dynamic social movements pushing for bold new policies. They did not achieve their goals in the end, but with help from the Farmer-Labor Party, public policy moved far in the direction preferred by the leaders of these movements.
As governor, Floyd Olson used a key executive resource—command of the state National Guard—to recast industrial relations in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the state, particularly in Duluth, on the Iron Range, and in the meat-packing and processing centers in southeastern Minnesota. American governors had historically used this authority to break strikes by enforcing anti-picketing injunctions issued by the courts, thus helping employers withhold recognition of a strike leadership's authority. In several cases, governors had used state military force to assault strike picketers directly. Olson, however, used the Minnesota National Guard during the 1934 truckers' strike in Minneapolis to unravel an "open-shop" anti-union system that had thrived in the Twin Cities for two decades.
Olson did the same in 1935, as did the two succeeding Farmer-Labor governors: Hjalmar Petersen, the lieutenant governor who assumed the governorship after Olson's death in 1936 and held office until January 1937, and former banking commissioner and U.S. Senator Elmer Benson, who held the governorship from 1937 to 1939. Minnesota's three Farmer-Labor governors established a labor record that is rare, if not unique, in the history of American gubernatorial politics. Because they transformed the state National Guard into a neutral instrument for preserving public order in a context of increased labor militancy, they essentially distanced the police power of the state government from its traditional pro-employer role. This change facilitated the rapid increase in trade union strength and the development of modern collective bargaining in Minnesota.
A similar pattern of collaboration between the party and various movements occurred in agriculture in 1932 and 1933 when many commercial farmers in Iowa, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and elsewhere in the north central states and the Plains faced mortgage foreclosure. Prices for corn, milk, and other commodities rapidly sank in the general deflation. In Iowa and Minnesota, protests emerged, partly through the Farmers Holiday Association. This association was an offshoot of the Farmers Union and had been set up to shield the union from legal liability for actions that its members might take in connection with the protest movement. The new organization named itself after the presidential moratorium on bank transactions, euphemistically called the "bank holiday." If bankers could take a holiday from their jobs in order to gain economic relief, impoverished farmers reasoned that they could do the same.
Farmers blocked roads, hoping to dramatize their plight and cause food shortages at regional farm markets. They also mobbed public foreclosure sales of farms, and would either prevent completion of sale or force sale at a ridiculously low price that the original farmer could easily afford. In addition, they organized protest marches on state capitols to bring their cause to the attention of governors and legislators.
One important response, taken by both the Republican and Farmer-Labor parties, was tax relief through homestead exemption legislation, which provided a standard property tax exemption. In February 1933, after several months of issuing sometimes fiery statements of sympathy for the farmers' plight, Olson proclaimed a one-year moratorium on foreclosure sales in Minnesota, acting on the basis of the state's police power. Olson's actions placed considerable pressure on the state legislature; the Farmer-Labor Party controlled only one house, the House of Representatives. Nonetheless, on April 18, 1933, Olson was able to sign the Minnesota Mortgage Moratorium Act.
Harry Peterson, the Minnesota attorney general, who was elected as a Farmer-Laborite, defended the Minnesota Mortgage Moratorium Act when the U.S. Supreme Court accepted an appeal brought from the Supreme Court of Minnesota, which had upheld the statute. In describing the scope and depth of economic distress in Minnesota, the resulting distortion of mortgage contracts undertaken in different times, and the public interest in restoring order and confidence in property rights, the Minnesota attorney general played a key role in the case's presentation. The U.S. Supreme Court was persuaded to break from a tradition of strict construction of the Constitution's contract clause. In an opinion written by the chief justice, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision, Home Building and Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934), gave support to the large number of moratoria enacted throughout the country. It is today a basic undergirding of government regulation.
In contrast to this legal contribution to national policy, the Farmer-Labor Party had little effect on congressional politics, despite its control of the Minnesota delegation in both the House and the Senate. The one exception is its role in the Depression-era debate over unemployment insurance, in which a Farmer-Labor congressman, Ernest Lundeen, defined the radical end of the policy debate. Lundeen used his assignment to the subcommittee on unemployment insurance of the House Committee on Labor to publicize his plan for government and employers to replace all wages lost to unemployment, with the administration of insurance funds to occur through local workers' and farmers' councils. Thousands of American Federation of Labor locals expressed support for the Lundeen bill. It applied to all workers and farmers "without discrimination because of age, sex, race, color, religious or political opinion or affiliation," and it covered workers who became unemployed due to maternity, sickness, accident, or old age. Remarkably, the House Committee on Labor reported the bill favorably after holding hearings on it in 1934 and 1935. However, the bill never received a rule for floor consideration after the Roosevelt administration denounced it, and the bill died when it was defeated as a proposed amendment to the Social Security Act.
The Farmer-Labor Party was a vital organization that left a deep imprint on Minnesota politics and on national regulatory doctrine. Today its vision of social security still inspires scholarly comment and research. The history of the Farmer-Labor Party shows the extent to which some Americans were willing to break from two-party traditions and allegiances if a well-organized, viable, and resilient alternative was available. That alternative ended when the party's leaders merged their organization with the Democratic Party in 1944, creating today's Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party.
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Haynes, John Earl. Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota's DFL Party. 1984.
Mayer, George H. The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson. 1951.
Morlan, Robert L. Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915–1922. 1955. Reprint, 1985.
Tweton, D. Jerome, The New Deal at the Grass Roots: Programs for the People in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. 1988.
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Richard M. Valelly