Early 20th Century
Despite the death of the Populist Party, the first decade of the 20th century saw progressive ideals like trust-busting and government reform expand beyond partisan politics. In 1901 Governor Van Sant spearheaded the national effort to bring the hammer down on the Northern Securities Company railroad monopoly, a crusade President Theodore Roosevelt enthusiastically supported; however, the reform movement really came to a head with the 1904 election of the humble Democrat John Johnson.
Over the course of his three terms the moderate Johnson promoted tax reforms, appointed nonpartisan judges, expanded powers for the Bureau of Labor, reformed the insurance and banking industries, and further regulated the railroads. Johnson took repeated verbal shots from both the Right and Left but remained exceedingly popular with the public and gained national prominence. His legitimate presidential potential was dashed by his untimely death in 1909.
Johnson’s successor, Republican Albert Eberhart, another Swede, continued to take on corporate industrialism, signed the state’s first workers’ compensation laws, and pushed through a sweeping program of government reforms, though he did so out of political necessity rather than personal conviction.
As World War I raged across Europe and dominated the political debate in this country, renewed agrarian discontent swept the Nonpartisan League into Minnesota. This political-pressure group supported some socialistic programs like state ownership of grain elevators and flour mills. Though Nonpartisans had taken control of the governorship and legislature in North Dakota, where the movement had been born, they had less success in the more industrial Minnesota.
The labor movement had strengthened during this time too, and by 1914 over 400 labor organizations were operating across the state, pushing for reforms like the minimum wage and the eight-hour workday. Arthur C. Townley, the league’s founder and a Minnesota native who had moved the headquarters to St. Paul in 1917, realized that to succeed in the state he would need to forge an alliance with labor.
Almost overnight in 1918 the new Farmer-Labor Party, capitalizing on the post-war depression, became the state’s second-largest political party. By 1923 it held both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, and, on the heels of the Great Depression, the flamboyant Floyd B. Olson took the governorship in 1930. The party lost support by the end of the decade for supporting increasingly radical ideas like the public ownership of banks, transportation, utilities, and other essential services. By 1938 a more moderate Republican Party was back on top in the state when Harold Stassen, the Boy Governor, took office at age 31 and Republicans won both houses of the legislature.
Both Stassen and the revitalized party accepted most of the major New Deal programs like Social Security and promoted “enlightened capitalism” as an alternative to the socialistic aims of the Farmer-Laborers. The moderate stance kept the Republicans on top of the political scene in Minnesota until the mid-1950s.
The state’s tradition of championing reform continued in 1933 when the first sit-down strike took place at Austin’s Hormel meatpacking plant. After three days Hormel agreed to submit their wage dispute to binding arbitration. The next year the Minneapolis Teamster Strike, one of the most important events in American labor history, resulted in over 200 strikers injured and 4 killed, and a declaration of Martial Law.
Not only did the truck drivers and warehouse workers win the right to organize, but the tragedy resulted in the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935, which guaranteed all workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. It also prohibited interference in union action by employers and established national standards for resolving labor disputes.
Though the state was rapidly industrializing, farming and mining remained vital to the economy. The lumber industry in Minnesota had peaked in 1899 and the last of the virgin forests were felled by the 1930s, but iron had taken up the slack and by then over half of the ferric ore mined on earth came from Minnesota. The increasing prevalence of automobiles brought visitors to Minnesota’s many lakes, allowing tourism to replace logging as one of the state’s leading three enterprises.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition