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Labor Review Centennial, 1907-2007
To counter annual celebration of 1934 Teamsters victory, business leaders conceived the Minneapolis Aquatennial

From the Minneapolis Labor Review, June 21, 2007

By Kelly Ahern

New union victories in Minneapolis followed the victorious Teamster strikes in 1934. Annual memorials and parades remembered strikers killed by police on “Bloody Friday,” July 20, 1934.

And then there were the picnics. The union’s newspaper, the Northwest Organizer, reported in 1937 that “between 15 and 20 thousand local members and public supporters gathered at Webb’s Place on Bass Lake in the early part of August for a day of feast and frolic.”

The festivities started around 10 a.m. with contests and games, ending at 1:00 a.m. (or later) with music and dancing by Dick Atherton and his 544 band.

The Northwest Organizer described some exciting events: “On the program are races for boys and girls… Hundred yard dashes for men and women; races for fat ladies and fat men; relay kissing races; balloon-blowing contests. Men will vie with one another in the ludicrous cracker-eating and whistling game. There will be a mighty tug-o-war between the Transfer Drivers and the Independent Truck Owners.”

Unionized Yellow Cabs provided a free shuttle service from downtown Minneapolis. The picnics were the largest outdoor labor event in the Northwest.

Employers plan to ‘focus all minds’ on ‘pleasant event’

In 1939, Robley Cramer, editor of the Minneapolis Labor Review, obtained a document from a confidential source proposing a response by the employers to these successful worker celebrations and the perceived “threat of Local 544” progress in unionizing the city:

“A joint stand [against 544] would have tremendous force:
“It would do 5 things.
“Stimulate those already fighting this menace in Minneapolis.
“It would give loyal citizens a rallying point they now lack.
“It would announce to the radical enemy, that the forces arryed (sic) against them are now UNITED.
“It would tell the rest of Minnesota that we are finally awake and ready to act.
 “It would take from the shoulders of Citizens Alliance the burden they have been bearing alone — and give them, in this fight against these labor racketters, the allies they need so badly.”

A secret committee would take on the additional responsibility of reselling the “capitalistic system of Government to the voters of Hennepin County” and would “assist all interested groups in perpetuating the original spirit of America.”

“The special emergency Citizens Committee should have as its third major project some special plan to offset the bad publicity the city has received during the past three years. An activity which would serve to take the minds of Minneapolis citizens off past troubles and focus all minds throughout the state on some pleasant event occurring in Minneapolis.”

The event proposed can be none other than the first Minneapolis Aquatennial.

The third week in July: Only a coincidence?

One Aquatennial historian wrote, “old timers remember when a small delegation of businessmen in the Civic and Commerce Association took a trip to Winnipeg… But the rains came, and the group ran for cover… As they huddled together, the conversation turned to Minneapolis, and the bad image of the labor strife and the gangland ’30s. The idea of a summer festival was born and grew.”

From the start in 1940 with Gene Autry as the first “Aquatennial Guest,” and 10 days of over 200 events, the Aquatennial sought to focus the citizens’ minds on a new classless Minneapolis. Attendees watched grand parades (both day and night) with floats provided by local businesses. They traveled to upscale neighborhoods surrounding city lakes to watch boat races, regattas, and water shows. Subtly, the employers were reclaiming control of the streets.

The Aquatennial has been touted as the “Ten Best Days of Summer.” Since 1940, the festival has been held in the third week in July. Is it only coincidence that 1934’s “Bloody Friday” massacre happened at the end of the third week in July?

The Aquatennial typically includes neighborhood festivals, air and water shows, big name entertainers, a tennis invitational, parades, sailing regattas, and milk carton boat races. The Aquatennial’s frolics compare favorably with other big city celebrations, and put Minneapolis on the map.

Businesses always have run the Aquatennial. In fact, the Aquatennial is a business. Corporations sponsor nearly all of the events and even create new ones. For example, in 1971, to increase sales of milk, ad agency executives looked at the Aquatennial and came up with the first milk carton boat race.

After the great 1877 railroad strike, a group of prominent St. Louis businessmen formed an organization they called The Veiled Prophet, modeled on the New Orleans Carnival society of the Mystick Krewe of Comus.

“They formed the organization largely in response to a general strike by workers the summer before, when workers had both symbolically and physically gained control of the streets,” historian Thomas Spencer writes.

The annual celebration usually includes the Veiled Prophet Parade.  Spencer notes that the “parade’s primary function from the beginning was to be a show of physical power. Parading by on the tops of floats, the members laid claim to the streets. Portraying themselves as royalty set above their social inferiors, the members tried to reinforce the social hierarchy.”

1941 marked the end of radical leadership of Local 544 and the end of the celebratory Teamsters’ picnics. The minds of Minneapolis citizens were re-focused away from the successes of labor’s struggles by a mammoth competing spectacle, the Minneapolis Aquatennial.

The Teamster picnics represented a movement of the people, universal and equally inclusive of all participants — there were no spectators. The Aquatennial, in contrast, remains as a manufactured event “focusing all minds” to the fact that a worker’s place is on the sidelines in an employer run social hierarchy.

Kelly Ahern is a clerical worker at the University of Minnesota and chief steward of AFSCME Local 3800. This article is adapted from a paper she wrote for a class at the University of Minnesota. She wants to acknowledge the assistance of Dave Riehle in editing her paper for publication here.

Click here for the complete text of Ahern’s much longer paper about the Aquatennial’s roots.


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