A play about something that matters – Howard Petrick as V.R. Dunne

The following piece was first published January 5, 2018, on Redline: Contemporary Marxist Analysis.

 

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Being arrested for union organizing, Minneapolis 1934

 

One of the most important battles fought by workers in the United States in the 1930s was waged by the Teamsters Union in Minneapolis.  Through a series of fights, Minneapolis was converted into a union town and the Teamsters were able to spread organising across the Mid-West.  At the heart of the working class struggle in Minneapolis were a group of teamsters who were union militants and Marxists.  One of the most prominent of these was Vincent Raymond Dunne (1889-1970).  Dunne later spent 16 months in jail for opposition to WW2.

Recently, long-time left-wing activist Howard Petrick, a former anti-Vietnam War GI, produced a play on Dunne and his life. 

 

by Barbara Gregorich

Howard Petrick’s one-man play, Fight for 52 Cents, is set in 1969, with Vincent Ray Dunne speaking to a meeting. With this as the framing device, Dunne tells his younger-generation audience about his life — the lessons he learned in helping lead the working class in its struggle for better living conditions and why he became a communist.

As written and performed by Petrick, Fight for 52 Cents is a well-structured play that treats the audience to the story of Dunne’s life: what events were significant to him, and why; how these events helped shape him and allowed him to stand on a strong foundation.

Childhood experiences
The first event Dunne speaks about is that when he was five years old, his father, who was a street-car conductor in Kansas City, fell into a hole and broke both legs. Because of this accident, his father was not able to work. There was no such thing as workman’s compensation in 19th century United States. Dunne experienced this grave injustice first-hand: the five-year-old child saw that his father was injured and as a result the company he worked for dropped him from existence. The Dunne family was forced to move to Minnesota, where they lived in an old log cabin in Dunne’s grandmother’s back yard.

In addition to learning about lack of justice from the owning class, Dunne learned about books while living in his grandmother’s cabin and visiting the public library. He learned that books contained information, thoughts, analysis, suggestions, directives — they contained everything that people had thought about and fought for. Dunne, like other US revolutionaries such as James P. Cannon and Larry Trainor, was a man widely read in the literature of the world.

When still a boy, the log cabin he lived in with his mother, father, and brothers burned to the ground one cold night. The family escaped with their lives. But their few possessions — beds, linens, cooking utensils, and books — were burned to ashes. The family was destitute.

Solidarity
Destitute for only a very short time — the next morning neighbors from miles around converged on the grounds and erected a new cabin for the family. This building-raising was similar to the quilting bees and barn-raisings by which farmers helped one another survive. That, says Dunne to his audience, was his first lesson in solidarity — the need of farmers and workers to support each other, and the life-saving results of their doing so.

Dunne tells his listeners that by the age of fourteen he left home to work full-time, so that he could send money home to his family. One of his first jobs was in a lumber camp, where he and the other workers lived in rat-infested, lice-ridden sleeping quarters with no provisions for washing linens or clothes or even bodies. The food was cheap, inadequate, moldy, and not nourishing. Before long Dunne hopped the rails and rode to Montana, where he got another job in another lumber camp and where, when he walked in the door, he was greeted by the union steward.

Union organising
The teen-aged Dunne had no idea what a union steward was, but he soon learned how much better off he and his fellow workers were with a union to fight for their rights. The steward made Dunne disrobe and take a sterilizing shower, so that he wouldn’t infest the union lumber camp with any diseases he might have brought with him from the unsanitary nonunion camps. The union saw to it that the workers had clean beds, clean rooms, that their linens were washed, and that they were fed nourishing food. This is how Dunne learned about what unions provided for workers — first-hand experience that, like his solidarity lesson, made a crucial difference to his life.

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Howard Petrick as V.R. Dunne

The play proceeds with more examples of the lessons Dunne learned. Petrick’s performance is riveting: he is V.R. Dunne when he’s on stage, and we care about what happened to him and how these events molded him. As interesting as the early parts of the play are, they take second place to what we hear about when Dunne is in the thick of the struggle for unionization and better wages.

For those who don’t already know it, Vincent Ray Dunne, a member of  the Communist League of America (precursor to the Socialist Workers Party) was the main leader of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, which won union recognition, better working conditions, and better wages for thousands of workers.

How the workers won
For those who don’t know the history of union struggles in the US, and/or who don’t know the story of the 1934 Teamsters strike, what the workers did to win their strike will be eye-opening, because it will reveal the creativity, the intelligence, the analytic abilities, and the courage of the working class. A few examples:

• As preparations for the strike got under way, Dunne and a few others proposed to the 100-member elected strike board (democratically elected by the workers from the workers themselves) that women be added to the army of fighters. Not everybody on the strike board agreed: some didn’t want women to step outside their delegated roles as wives, mothers, and homekeepers. But the communist approach won the day by winning the vote. Working class women were asked to volunteer, and this they did en masse. The struggle of their husbands for better working conditions and better wages was their struggle, too. It was women who handled the communications between all bodies of workers on strike; it was women who sent out dispatches and made assignments of who would go where. It was women who ran the tent kitchens, seeing to it that all were fed. It was women who set up the tent hospitals, seeing to it that all the injured were helped. Without the help of half the working class — women — the other half would have been battling at half-power. Half-power at best.

• When the capitalist class runs a country, it does so for its own narrow profits: the enrichment of the few at the expense of billions around the world. But when the working class is in power, as it was in the Minneapolis strike camp, the needs of all are met. Full discussion of all issues. Daily reports to all of previous day’s discussions. Committees run by elected (not appointed) workers. Food for all. Medical care for all. The working class has the power and imagination to meet the needs of humanity. And, as told through Dunne’s stories and examples, the working class, when it takes charge, not only knows what needs to be done, but does it quickly and efficiently.

• It is the capitalist class which initiates and inflicts violence in order to preserve its power over the lives of others. Thus the police force more than once attacked the striking workers. The police were met by the strikers who knew they had to defend themselves. Which they did with the same foresight and courage that had enabled them to set up the strike headquarters and camp, driving back the police after each assault.

Sheer joy
Fight for 52 Cents is worth seeing more than once. For the sheer joy of hearing a working class leader share the lessons he has learned and pass on the knowledge of how to fight for justice. For the great pleasure of watching Petrick’s portrayal of V.R. Dunne — a comrade he knew and admired, and whose speeches and tapes and oral history interviews he studied in depth.
Part of the opium that the ruling class hands out to  the masses is the opium of escapist entertainment — a deluge of songs, books, movies, and plays about subjects that avoid the bedrock of life-and-death issues. In this general milieu of escapism, a play such as Fight for 52 Cents stands out as a play about something that matters.

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NB: 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the first publication of Barbara’s ground-breaking Women at Play: the story of women in baseball.