Farmer-Labor tradition means more than just jobs

Farmer Labor sign on a car around 1925. (MNopedia)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

We see some curious sights this election year. Oh, I can’t get into all of them. Our times are too strange for that.

But one thing struck me as especially odd. It was members of the Republican Party arguing that they are now the “Republican Farmer Labor” party. This comes amid claims that candidates like Pete Stauber represent a new labor tradition for this typically anti-union party.

This doesn’t come with any significant policy change. The GOP still supports laws that would prevent unions from requiring membership or fair share dues to participate in contract benefits. They still oppose anything resembling living wage guarantees. And they won’t support policy assuring that everyone in American has access to affordable health care.

No, it’s more etherial than that. The argument, now a warped version of the old Rudy Perpich mantra, is jobs, jobs, jobs.

But do Republicans, or anyone for that matter, truly understand what those words, “Farmer Labor,” mean?

In the last days of the early 20th Century Progressive Era, the northern plains saw several attempts to protect workers and check the powers of corporate forces. It started with the Nonpartisan League. Exactly 100 years ago, progressive candidates ran in the primaries of both major parties, in hopes to swing the Republicans and Democrats toward farmer-labor policies.

This attempt largely failed in Minnesota, but seeds were sown. Farmer Labor clubs formed and started to organize in communities across Minnesota. One such group formed here in Hibbing. This led to the eventual Minnesota Farmer Labor Party.

The Farmer Labor party was a collection of strange bedfellows. Rural family farmers were essentially small business owners. They bought land and equipment. But they faced peril when venture capitalists toyed with prices for their crops. The F-L paired them with industrial workers from cities and places like the Iron Range. These workers didn’t own property. They rented, often from their own employers. Their only asset was their labor, and that labor was exploited for low wages.

The Minnesota Farmer Labor Party remains the most successful third party in American history, if you don’t count the Republicans who replaced the Whigs in the mid 1800s. During the Great Depression the F-L held the governor’s office, legislature, U.S. House and Senate seats. This period in state history established the Minnesota traditions of equality and high quality of life for workers.

After World War II, the party merged with the Democrats, giving us today’s Democratic Farmer Labor party.

So let’s get back to the present. What does it mean to be “for labor?”

That’s an important question. Because the way labor is being defined in today’s political debate is brutally simple: do you support large development projects that create jobs, no matter what?

After all, the logic follows, workers and their families will benefit if these companies hire them.

This is true, but simplistic. It’s also far from what labor pioneers intended when they first stood up to the nearly omnipotent power of 20th Century industrial trusts.

Labor means equality between workers and corporations. Rights and benefits for all who work. Labor means quality of life for all working people and their families, upward mobility for their children. That means elite schools for all children, rich or poor. A job is one thing. Respect is another.

Who stands up for this today?

History shows a period — a golden era — where this became a hard-earned reality here on the Iron Range. Our ancestors, and others who were struck down before they could marry or have children, sacrificed their safety, security and even their lives to make it happen.

Much has changed since the advent of the Farmer Labor Party. Family farms have been replaced by massive corporate farms. A handful of family farms hold out, always wondering when the end might come.

Meantime, descendants of the urban laborers of 1918 now wear suits and sell insurance. Many of the old jobs are done by automation, overseen by someone who manipulates code instead of ball peen hammers. Half the American workforce serves fellow humans in one way or another.

Experienced miners now make enough money to buy the sprawling town homes of former Oliver Mining Company superintendents. They wouldn’t, of course. The yards are too small and, besides, you can get a real nice lake home for the same price.

That’s what Labor with an “L” gets us. A middle class for those who labor with an “l.” That’s what it can deliver to a new generation. A strong middle class lifts our whole economy, creating more jobs than any developer could promise.

Subservience to corporations gets us back where we started. Try it if you like. But it’s not Farmer Labor. No sir.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Republicans may yap about “jobs jobs jobs” but it should be obvious that they are really all about profits for investors.

  2. David Gray says

    Defining who is for labor depends on how strong you view the link to be between the interests of the unions and the working class.

    The DFL really doesn’t have much to say to farmers today but in much of the 8th district that isn’t one of the most burning issues.

    • It’s a fair point about the 8th CD, but I’d disagree with the idea that the DFL doesn’t have a ton to say to farmers. The creation of Minnesota’s anti-corporate farming laws–part of the reason family farming in MN hasn’t been entirely subsumed!–are (in part) a product of the flip in the control of the Legislature from the Conservatives to the Liberals after the 1972 election.

      I was prepared to say “OK, fine, the DFL has given up on things like ‘parity’ in its programs,” but I was surprised to read that Dayton distinctly referenced parity in his August FarmFest letter. Hell, the Rochester Post-Bulletin referenced a return to a modified form of parity in a July 2018 article. The trade bill has given the DFL an inside track to pursue the ‘F’ in the ol’ acronym the way they haven’t had an opportunity to pursue it since…well, if I’m choosing, I’d say the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996.

      In retrospect, though, these issues could still be pretty clear to Range DFLers. It hasn’t been THAT long since Jim Oberstar was in the Congressional Populist Caucus or Rick Nolan was (on his FIRST go-round!) introducing parity bills in Congress. Hell, Paul Wellstone was active in bringing farm protesters (like Groundswell) and Hormel P-9ers into dialogue during the crises and strikes of the mid-1980s. The DFL’s been talking to farmers; it’s possible that now the federal government is giving farmers reason to listen again.

  3. I always wonder about policies that don’t advance the workers in this country. By that, I mean wage earners of any kind, low wages to high wages and even salaried workers. The policies that squeeze wages, keeping income down, will affect those people who sell goods and services, and those who make products. Keeping wages low, and often lower raises than the cost of living going up, means people buy fewer non necessities. At some point, this should kick the corporations and also the tourist and leisure industries.

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