Everything old is new again
The unemployed workers’ movement of the 1930s
Published Jan 13, 2012 2:43 AM
The history of economic depressions and joblessness in the U.S. can be traced back to the 19th century. Tens of thousands of people rallied in 1837, 1857, 1873, 1884 and 1893 to demand a public jobs program from the federal government. They opposed high food and rent costs, and big business.
Protests in local communities originated in sporadic street demonstrations, rent rebellions and the disruption of relief centers. Initially, local grassroots organizations were loosely structured, held together mainly by periodic demonstrations. But these groups gathered momentum from direct action victories that yielded public assistance money and food and stopped evictions. Protesters were often confronted by federal, state and local troops, who aggressively dispersed their actions.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was a period of economic crisis that drastically affected the daily lives of millions of people, who faced massive unemployment. The economic collapse also impacted those with low-wage jobs. Industries were devastated, as were the towns where they were located.
The 1930s produced the largest movement of the unemployed and poor that the country had ever known. The jobless rebelled against the inequalities produced by capitalism, an institution of rising profits for the wealthy ruling class. Protest movements emerged that pitted the rulers against those who were ruled — those whom the system had failed.
Beginning in 1929, Communist Party activists formed “Unemployed Councils” (renamed “Unemployment Councils” in 1934). The organizers worked the bread lines, flop houses, factories, relief offices and employment office lines. The CP declared those out of work to be “the tactical key to present the state of the class struggle.” Party organizers concentrated on direct action in the streets and relief offices, seeking out opportunities for leafleting and pamphleteering as well as inciting mass actions and agitation. They held mass meetings and focused on a dual approach of community and trade union unity.
Political demonstrations by the unemployed in big cities marched under Communist Party banners with slogans like “Fight—Don’t Starve.” The Unemployed Councils also led mass protests against police oppression and brutality. Mounted and unmounted cops used bare fists, night sticks and tear gas in mass arrests and even killings to disperse the crowds.
Rising anger led to defiance and resistance. Communists declared March 6, 1930, to be International Unemployment Day, and led marches and rallies of the unemployed in most of the major cities in the U.S. Several thousand marched to factories and auto plants to demand jobs and unemployment insurance. Thousands of unemployed veterans descended on Washington, D.C. Millions of unemployed Blacks and whites marched together, sometimes leading to bloodshed instigated by the cops. Federal troops made war on unarmed people, while the mainstream press branded the demonstrations as “riots.”
During the 1930s, the Communist Party played a leading role in fighting for the demands of African Americans — who were devastated by the Great Depression — and helped mobilize them for their struggle. Thousands of them joined the CP. The CP also undertook food collections in the Black community of Harlem, N.Y., where unemployment had risen to as high as 80 percent. In many places, CP activists organized squads to turn utility services back on.
Communist Party-led trade union organizations fought against the white chauvinistic policy of the American Federation of Labor, which excluded Black workers, and demanded a united labor movement based on equal rights for all workers. In the Black Belt South, they also led the sharecroppers union, which fought courageously against the tyranny of the planters. Members of the Black working class subsequently became leaders of the Black liberation movement.
The Unemployed Councils’ headquarters served as meeting halls and places where tired job searchers could rest and talk. Demonstrations soon became more massive and well organized; they gained momentum and grew in size and frequency. Joint rallies comprised progressive trade unions, communist activists and alliances of communities. They called for the “abolition of the profit system.”
In 1936, most major groups of the unemployed merged, and a national poor people’s alliance was formed that agitated and protested to get legislation implemented. Protesters sought to achieve more substantial reform via organizational and electoral pressure for legislative reforms.
Due to people’s unrest, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” administration put forth more liberal relief policies. Instead of direct public assistance, he called for a public works program.
While the Works Project Administration did provide jobs, the actual number of jobs fell short of the number promised. At the WPA’s peak, only about one in four persons actually gained employment. Job quotas fluctuated wildly with no apparent relation to unemployment, and workers never knew when they might be laid off.
Organization leaders conducted work stoppages and demonstrations on WPA projects, protesting layoffs and demanding more adequate security wages. These leaders were also recognized as the official bargaining agent for WPA workers. They contacted President Roosevelt with reviews of the economic situation, deplored WPA cuts and called for the expansion of the WPA.
A Wealth Tax Act, Wagner Act and Social Security Act were implemented. Under the 1935 Social Security Act, the federal government paid a share of state and local public assistance costs. A Civilian Conservation Corps, designed to stimulate the economy, provided jobs as well.
Local grassroots protests began to decline in militancy as a result of the Roosevelt administration’s more liberal public assistance policy and the absorption of local leaders into bureaucratic roles. The unemployed became less of a threat because they were divided, and the most skilled were absorbed into the WPA. As a result, the government took the stance that less had to be done for them.
By 1936, 2.5 million WPA jobs had been provided, but nearly 10 million people were still unemployed. In 1939, WPA funds were cut, WPA wages were reduced, and workers who had been on WPA payrolls for 18 continuous months were terminated.
Source: “Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail” by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward.
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