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Workers need a new WPA jobs program

Published Nov 23, 2010 9:46 PM

Martha Grevatt
WW photo: Alan Pollock

Following are excerpts from a Nov. 13 talk at the Workers World Party national conference by Martha Grevatt, a 23-year auto worker and United Auto Workers activist, now in the Detroit branch. She had been a leading member of the Cleveland branch for many years.

At June’s United Auto Workers convention, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stated that 40 million workers are unemployed or underemployed. That’s a staggering figure!

Not surprisingly, organized labor, including the UAW, had a strong presence at the Oct. 2 One Nation march, where job creation was a central demand.

Two days before the march, it was clear it would be big. With much fanfare, the House of Representatives announced a new “jobs bill.” What is it? New tariffs are being imposed on commodities imported from China!

Workers World newspaper called that “baloney.”

What would a real jobs bill look like? The best example in U.S. history was the 1935 Emergency Relief Act that authorized $5 billion to relieve mass unemployment. It was passed in April. By May, President Franklin Roosevelt had created the Works Progress Administration. Within six months, 3 million workers had gotten jobs — building highways, airports, schools, hospitals, post offices and housing projects.

They did what we call “green jobs” — planting trees and constructing national parks. They did everything, from exterminating rats to making books for the blind. Writers, actors, musicians and visual artists found work through the WPA. Three-fourths of the $11 billion spent went to construction projects, benefiting all but three U.S. counties.

Why did the government do this then and why not now? Some might say Roosevelt had a big heart, but he never knew poverty. Wouldn’t President Barack Obama, who didn’t come from wealth, have an even bigger heart for the suffering masses?

The money wouldn’t even need Congressional authorization. Job creation was a stated purpose of the Troubled Assets Relief Program. Since most of the $700 billion has been repaid — by banks receiving additional government “assistance” — that money is available; $600 billion could create 12 million jobs paying $50,000 a year.

As General Motors is making billions in profits, why can’t the majority shareholder — the government — use that money to put Detroit back to work?

What made the 1930s different? Left-wing journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, who was at many protests then, wrote, “Every day in the papers there are headlines: ‘Police disperse unemployment demonstrations’ ... ‘Gas ready for hunger marchers.’ ... The country sees processions of men and women, all demonstrating; a formidable lot of marches on city halls and statehouses have occurred this past couple of years.”

In the years before the WPA, the unemployed were well-organized, engaging thousands of battles — from blocking evictions to facing clubs and bullets in numerous hunger marches. The ruling class had to give the working class something.

But even the WPA was not enough. The auto industry was — and is — a prime example of how the capitalist drive for profit leads to fewer workers doing more work for less pay. What else could be done?

A 1930s leaflet directed to autoworkers was headlined: “Six-hour day, eight-hours pay, keep depression away.” The 30-hour week, with time-and-a-half pay after 30 hours, was fundamental to the original 1933 version of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Black-Connery bill passed the Senate; it narrowly failed in the House after Roosevelt withdrew support. However, the demand was kept alive — from the 1934 San Francisco General Strike to the 1937 Flint sit-down strike.

Millions of jobs could be created if Black-Connery were passed today. When France implemented the 35-hour week in the 1990s, 400,000 jobs were created. In 1988, a UAW study concluded that if the Big Three auto companies cut overtime and held the workweek to 40 hours, this would create 88,000 jobs.

Imagine if hours were cut still further — and in the whole economy! Capitalism is wage-slavery; mass unemployment is its flip side. We need another WPA and a shorter workweek. We need a fighting labor movement again.

As WW’s editorial stated, “Labor of every hue, gender and creed needs the broadest solidarity at home and abroad to fight this global system. We must vigorously reject racism, sexism, anti-gay” — and anti-lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer — “bigotry, attacks on Muslims and scapegoating of undocumented immigrants.”

When all working class sectors unite, when the class struggle is revived, then capital won’t be so mighty. Then the bosses will be helpless in the face of working-class solidarity.

We’re about making that happen!

Power to the workers and oppressed!