Elmer Benson Showed What a Left Willing to Wield Power Can Do

Elmer Benson became the governor of Minnesota in 1937. His two-year tenure, during which he called the National Guard to defend strikers while other states had police crush them, is proof of the power that a Left capable of controlling the executive can exercise.

Elmer Benson addresses a rally sponsored by the American League Against War & Fascism, Harlem, New York, United States, August 7, 1932. (UPI / Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

On an afternoon in March of 1937, Minnesota governor Elmer Benson arrived on the scene in a small town called Albert Lea where, the mayor warned him, things were on the verge of “bloody civil war.” Over the past week, the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW) had been locked in a struggle with Helmer Myre, a former pro wrestler and rabidly anti-union sheriff. After deputizing a crew of local men and stockpiling a gymnasium full of guns, clubs, and explosives, Myre proceeded to bombard the town union hall, eventually drawing out a group of coughing tradesmen and women with gas bombs and torpedoes.

The mayhem continued as the unionists were jailed, but not long before laborers from neighboring towns caught wind of the trouble and rushed to their defense. Nearly two thousand angry, working-class Minnesotans surrounded the jail, breaking its window with a ball of porcelain waste drippings. Myre and his deputies were forced to retreat inside. Governor Benson, suffering from an ulcer, arrived in fury. “I order you on my responsibility to turn those people loose,” he screamed at Sheriff Myre, adding, “and I’m going with you to see that you do it properly.”

Benson was the last governor from the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, an alliance of agrarians, proletarians, progressives, and radicals that, in the 1920s and ’30s, easily beat out Democrats and became the Minnesota Republican Party’s main competition. In 1930, the party elected Governor Floyd Olson, whose charisma, deftness, self-described “radical” views, and third-party status made him a national symbol of the Popular Front era. In 1936, in the midst of a campaign for US Senate, a short but fatal battle with stomach cancer cut short Olson’s prospects of winning the election. That November, as the state reeled from the Farmer-Labor governor’s sudden death, Elmer Benson hit a high-water mark in the race to succeed Olson’s final term, winning 61 percent of the vote. Historians often treat the single biennial term that followed as an uneventful coda to Floyd Olson’s legendary five years in power. Yet, for socialists, Benson’s tenure is arguably more instructive. There’s little question that he was more radical than Olson, or, for that matter, anyone else to have governed an American state.

A Class Traitor

Born in 1895 to left-wing, Norwegian immigrants in Appleton, Minnesota, Elmer Benson worked as a small-town banker for much of his life. Benson didn’t find this hard to reconcile with his opposition to capitalism, a system that “worked for me” he once said, “but look at all the thousands of people it hasn’t worked for.” It was with a similar sense of contradiction that Benson joined the Farmer-Labor Party shortly after serving in the Army during World War I, a conflict the party had formed largely to oppose in 1918.

A skilled organizer, Benson became a leading figure in the party over the 1920s. When Olson finally won executive power for the party in the early 1930s, Benson got to utilize his professional expertise as state securities commissioner. Using the commission’s authority to stabilize small-town banking made Benson a popular figure in rural Minnesota. In 1935, when Republican US senator Thomas Schall was killed in a hit and run, Governor Olson selected Benson to fill the vacancy. A little over one busy and tragic year later, Benson found himself trying to fill the giant void left in the governor’s mansion by Floyd Olson.

Differences between the two Farmer-Labor governors became apparent as soon as Benson took office on January 4, 1937. In a departure from Olson’s tendency to focus on select practical issues, Benson gave a stem-winding inauguration address calling for increased taxes on business, promotion of cooperatives, new state commissions, and public ownership of cement, electricity and liquor stores. “Private industry has given ample proof of its inability to supply even our most elemental social and economic needs,” Benson declared, adding that government was “no longer a mere huge policeman, protector of the rights of private property; it is now the great guarantor of social and economic justice and security for all the people.”

Minnesota’s bourgeoisie were appalled. At an early luncheon intended to smooth over relations between the new governor and business leaders, Benson literally turned his back on a finance man who offered to set up a trust fund for his children. “Floyd Olson used to say all those things,” one capitalist complained, “but this son of a bitch Benson really believes them.”

The difference in conviction came through most notably in Benson’s position on strike activity. Olson was no doubt friendly to unions in general, but his actions to end the 1934 Minneapolis truckers strike are debated by labor historians to this day. Benson had followed closely as then governor Olson deployed the National Guard both to raid offices of the anti-union Citizens Alliance and arrest the strike’s Trotskyist Teamster leadership. Benson pledged to take a less evenhanded approach, saying in 1936 that during a strike “conditions may arise when it becomes necessary for the state to send troops to the scene of the conflict to maintain public order. But the troops, or the police, must never by indirect or direct action become strikebreakers.” With much of his program stymied by the Republican-held Minnesota Senate, Governor Benson made his mark with a unique willingness to use executive authority as a weapon against capital, rather than a protector of it.

On the day of Governor Benson’s inauguration, four thousand lumberjacks walked off the job in northern Minnesota. Led by indigenous Timber Workers Union president Fred Lequier, the jacks were up against the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, a powerful opponent that these workers fought in subzero temperatures when much of the union’s rank and file was homeless. Benson acted decisively, opening the Duluth Armory as sleeping quarters for the strikers and using relief funds to set up soup kitchens in towns across the region. Much to Weyerhaeuser’s chagrin, Governor Benson also instructed the Highway Patrol to keep scab timber trucks off the roads. Within three weeks, the company agreed to recognize the union and sign a six-month contract granting a pay hike, closed shop, eight-hour working day, and state inspections of the often-filthy labor camps.

Benson used his position to broker strike negotiations, winning recognition not only for unions like the Timber Workers and the IUAW in Albert Lea, but also the St Paul Plasterers, on whose behalf he bargained for six hours straight, never leaving his chair. Benson’s arbitration was clearly tilted to favor the worker and backed by the arm of the state. In July 1937, the governor denied license renewal to the violently anti-union Pinkerton Detective Agency, giving a near monopoly of force to Benson’s National Guard. When the Northern States Power Company came to the bargaining table with the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, it had little choice but to capitulate to the union’s demands since Benson had threatened, in the event of a power cutoff, to operate the Minneapolis electrical system with guardsmen. As Benson was learning, however, he’d also have to exert control of the Minnesota National Guard itself.

In the Spring of 1938, a Newspaper Guild strike in Duluth turned violent when police stormed the picket line with clubs and tear gas. Tension grew as union members, including many lumberjacks, gathered in solidarity with the guild workers. Meanwhile, Adjutant General Ellard Walsh, head of the Minnesota National Guard, hesitated to take action, even under direct order from the furious governor. Benson got out in front of any backlash, issuing a statement that the newspaper publisher was behind the “deliberately planned police attack” and that the picket would be defended “if necessary, against tear gas and nightstick assaults.”

Soon thereafter, a three-hundred-man-strong naval battalion stationed in Duluth’s harbor was put on standby for instant emergency duty. It’s not clear if it was Adjutant General Walsh who issued the order, but the Guild quickly got its contract. The same year, Benson court-martialed Major John Clark, who was also president of a struck furniture company and rumored to be recruiting guardsmen to scab his shop. Clark resigned shortly after the case went to trial. Overall, the Minnesota National Guard was likely reflective of the state’s general attitudes. Back in 1933, then Governor Olson had told an emissary for the Roosevelt administration to “tell ‘em that Olson isn’t taking anybody [to serve in the Guard] who doesn’t carry a Red Card . . . Minnesota is definitely a left-wing State.”

In 1938, the second and final year of Benson’s biennial term, politics in Minnesota were shifting rightward. The governor’s popularity had taken a hit ever since his leadership of the 1937 “People’s Lobby,” a demonstration of Farmer-Labor diehards who occupied the State Capitol upon Benson’s direction to “get rough.” Benson caught flack for his radicalism, not only from predictable Republican quarters, but also fellow Farmer-Labor members like former lieutenant governor Hjalmar Petersen, who briefly took Olson’s place directly following his death in 1936. Petersen, making an issue out of Benson’s trips to New York where he spoke against imperialism, and San Francisco where he defended political prisoner Tom Mooney, launched a primary challenge against his party’s governor in 1938.

Though unsuccessful, the anti-communist and antisemitic aspersions Petersen cast against Benson were picked up by Republican nominee Harold Stassen in the general election. Adding to the obstacles in this midterm election year, Benson remained loyal to his radical unionist supporters in the Congress of Industrial Organizations when they acrimoniously split off from the more conservative American Federation of Labor. The hemorrhages both in the Farmer-Labor Party and broader union movement redounded to Stassen’s benefit, helping him defeat Governor Benson by twenty-six points.

Republicans continued to dominate Minnesota politics over the next six years until 1944, when the Farmer-Labor Party merged with state Democrats at President Roosevelt’s insistence (in Minnesota, the name is still “Democratic Farmer-Labor Party”). Benson eventually left the party in 1948 when the Democratic faction, led by then Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey, succeeded in its purge of radical elements from party leadership and secured an endorsement for incumbent president Harry Truman. Opposed to Truman’s nascent Cold War, Benson defected to the Progressive Party, where he chaired Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign and remained active before its demise in 1955. Up until his death in 1985, Benson used his earnings as a small-town banker to support populist causes like the American Agriculture Movement, and never relented on his socialist views. Though he suggested, as an old timer, that progressives take an “active part” in the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, his main regrets became the 1944 merger and being “too conservative” during his two years as governor.

Given the scope of American history, in which National Guards have been deployed to quash no shortage of labor and civil rights struggles, Benson’s little-known legacy can seem surreal. As American socialists grow our ranks in state and local government, however, it’s slowly becoming more relevant. So far, in the twenty-first century, Democratic Socialists of America’s electoral focus has mostly avoided gubernatorial or even mayoral races, and understandably so. Should that ever change, socialist executives will have to take stock and make creative use of their authority in the face of intransigent business. As Elmer Benson reminds us, state power and American politics at large can look quite different when the Left has control over the levers of power.