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Labor Review Centennial, 1907-2007
McCarthy's campaign in 1968: new DFL activists battled labor

From the Minneapolis Labor Review, September 20, 2007

By Ronald G. Cohen, Labor Review editor 1968-1975

My enthusiasm for current Labor Review editor Steve Share’s comprehensive series covering the 100th anniversary of the Minneapolis Labor Review nosedived when he dug up an old editor and asked me for comments.

Every time anyone picks up the Labor Review you see my one lasting contribution: I switched the format from a full-sized newspaper to a tabloid shortly after becoming editor in 1968.

That election year began peacefully in Minnesota with President Lyndon Johnson set to run as the Democratic Party candidate.

However, politics grew turbulent when Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Gene McCarthy unearthed mounting anti-Vietnam War sentiment as he ran in the New Hampshire Democratic primary election. He racked up a sizable vote against the sitting president.

When President Johnson declined to run for re-election March 31, the stage was set for two Minnesotans to clash head on for the Democratic nomination, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and McCarthy.

Then Hennepin County, with its dominant Minneapolis population, was a union stronghold within the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Naturally, the Central Labor Union Council favored former Minneapolis Mayor and U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, the AFL-CIO’s presumed candidate.

But motivated by anti-war sentiment, an army of McCarthy supporters engineered a shocking upset and won control of the Hennepin County DFL.

The Labor Review’s April 11 edition stressed that Jerry Froehlig from the Bakers Union was ousted as treasurer. In the key race for chairman, Fay Frawley from the Bartenders Union lost to 26-year-old law student Vance Opperman. (Many readers today know Opperman as a noted trial lawyer and DFL power broker.)

Adding to the bitterness was the refusal of the new McCarthy Hennepin County leaders to endorse several state representatives with union ties for re-election.

The last straw for labor leaders — most of whom were World War II veterans — was the so-called “Draft Dodgers Resolution” passed by the McCarthy forces and reported on the Labor Review front page. The resolution commended the courage of young men who refused induction into the U.S. Army and urged that such persons return from Canada without criminal penalty.

Soon after, Opperman threw more fuel on the fire in a speech to the Citizens League dutifully covered by the Labor Review. He asserted that issues like the Vietnam War didn’t fit into the “politics as usual” mold. He proclaimed a communications gap between union leaders and the rank and file, together with less identification by workers with the idea of a labor movement.

In the end, outstate DFLers carried Minnesota for Humphrey. He went on to win the Democratic Party nomination for president at the controversial 1968 Chicago Convention, where anti-war protestors were clubbed by police.

Later, the “Domino Theory” behind the national AFL-CIO’s support for the Vietnam War was explained in a rare front page editorial in the Labor Review. One by one, Southeast Asian nations would fall to communist aggression if America failed to fight on to victory, the theory predicted.

If elected, Hubert Humphrey, a featured speaker at many national AFL-CIO conventions, could have corrected flaws in U.S. labor law that plague workers organizing efforts today.

But he narrowly lost to Republican Richard Nixon, who reportedly campaigned on a plan to end the war (a plan that took years to achieve).

To this day, the question remains: if McCarthy’s last-minute endorsement of Humphrey came earlier, would it have made a difference to his angry followers and changed history?

Ronald G. Cohen was a member of the United Federation of Postal Clerks and editor of the local union’s newsletter, The Northern Light, when he became Labor Review editor with the May 2, 1968 issue. He edited the Labor Review through the January 1, 1975 issue. Cohen left the Labor Review to work for the Minnesota AFL-CIO as director of research and publications. Later named the state federation’s communications director, Cohen retired in 1993. He still writes occasionally for the newsletter of the Minnesota State Retiree Council, AFL-CIO.


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