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A banner headline in the November 7, 1930 issue of the Labor Review celebrated the election of Farmer-Labor candidate Floyd B. Olson as governor of Minnesota.

New documentary film presents history of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor movement

Adapted from the Minneapolis Labor Review, October 22, 2022

By Peter Rachleff

SAINT PAUL — Have you wondered why the Democratic Party in Minnesota is called “the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party”? Its name bears witness to a rich and complex history, but, for the most part, this witness is mute. Workers, farmers, students, immigrants, other newcomers to the state, never hear the story that lies behind this name. But, now, there is an outstanding new documentary film, “The Farmer-Labor Movement: A Minnesota Story,” which tells this story with the passion, commitment, and energy it deserves.

Thursday, November 10, at 7:00 p.m,, the East Side Freedom Library, in collaboration with the Ramsey County Historical Society and the Roseville Public Library, will live-stream this film, followed by a conversation with the filmmakers, Randy Croce, Tom O’Connell, and Anna Kuharjec. See link for details.

Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party represents one of the most successful progressive third-party coalitions in American history. From its roots in 1917 through the early 1940s, the Farmer-Labor Party elected hundreds of candidates to local, state and national office and created a powerful movement based on the needs of struggling workers and farmers.

Inspired by the success of North Dakota’s Nonpartisan League and concerned with the anti-immigrant and anti-labor ideologies of Minnesota’s leading business and political figures, grassroots organizers reached from mines, meat-packing plants, railroads, and factories to farms across the state.

While they initially followed the North Dakota strategy of running candidates within Republican primaries, with some success, in 1924 they founded the Farmer-Labor Federation, and, a year later, the Farmer-Labor Association, which not only underpinned the electoral work of the Farmer-Labor Party but also provided educational, organizational, and social activities.

The Farmer-Labor movement incorporated diverse traditions, from the anti-monopoly passions of rural populists and the socialist ideas embraced by some Finnish and Scandinavian immigrants, to women’s suffrage advocates and proponents of militant industrial unionism. These issues and energies infused the Farmer-Labor movement.

The challenges farmers and workers faced in the Great Depression spawned a militant farmers’ movement across the state and reinvigorated the labor movement, from the country’s first sit-down strike in Austin’s Hormel plant in November 1933, to the series of Teamsters’ strikes in Minneapolis in 1934, which turned the country’s most notorious open shop city into a union town.

The Farmer-Labor Party quickly became the most popular political party in the state, electing two governors, four U.S. Senators, six U.S. Congressmen, and numerous state legislators and local officeholders. They united around a radical platform called “the Cooperative Commonwealth,” and they enacted a moratorium on farm foreclosures, relief for the unemployed, banking reform, a state income tax, and thirteen new state forests. They also served as a model for progressive activists in other states, as activists launched third parties in five other states and contemplated, in 1936, the formation of a national third party.

The effectiveness of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and the new challenges posed by World War II changed the political terrain across the country and in Minnesota. Under the leadership of Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey, the Democrats convinced the Farmer-Laborites to merge with them in 1944, creating the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Within a decade, Keynesian economics, McCarthyism and the Cold War, and the institutionalization of the labor movement would sap the energy from the Farmer-Labor movement, and its grassroots organizations and associations would fade from everyday life. And, in time, dominant political discourse would undermine interest in why Minnesota’s Democratic Party bears the unique name as our state’s political history became sanitized.

But it is our history, and its experiences, impacts, and legacies still shape our present. “The Farmer-Labor Movement: A Minnesota Story” gives us the opportunity to learn this history, and to learn from it.

Peter Rachleff is a retired Macalester College history professor and co-founder of the East Side Freedom Library.

Related links and stories:

November 10: East Side Freedom Library hosts online premiere of new documentary film about Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party
(Labor Review, October 22, 2022)

Farmer-Labor movement film was seven years in the making
By Steve Share
(Labor Review, October 22, 2022)

Film trailer (1:14)

Stream the entire film on YouTube (56:48)

Website of Farmer-Labor Education Committee

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