As more and more people find themselves without jobs, the question arises of how to organize to protect all workers, including unemployed workers. While the coronavirus crisis imposes restrictions on the working class organizing itself in traditional ways (e.g., committees, assemblies, and so on), the exponential growth of unemployment and the development of the crisis makes it imperative for revolutionaries to think of creative and even daring ways to move forward and help put the brakes on the disorganization and fragmentation of the working class as a class.
There is much to be learned from U.S. history about organizing the unemployed. In the early 1930s, as the Great Depression pushed more and more people out of their jobs and into the ranks of the unemployed, the Trade Union Unity League — an organization created by the American Communist Party (CP) in the 1920s to promote “radical unionism” — began to establish Unemployed Councils to protest mass unemployment and inadequate relief.
As this grew, other groups similarly organized. The Workers’ Committee on Unemployment emerged in Chicago, the Unemployed Citizens League began in Seattle, and the independent socialist A.J. Muste organized Leagues of the Unemployed in cities and towns, primarily in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. When Muste fused his American Workers Party with the Communist League of America, it brought Trotskyist organizing into the unemployed leagues.
Eventually, these various organizations actually interacted directly with government relief agencies, winning important gains for their members. In Toledo, Ohio, the site of one of the most important strikes of the period against the Electric Auto-Lite Company, the Lucas County Unemployed League played a decisive role. The League had been leading demonstrations and other actions and eventually became part of the leadership of the strike, at one point sealing off the grounds of the Auto-Lite plant with thousands of unemployed workers in a massive show of worker solidarity.
There are lessons to be learned from this early history. The article below, from Issue #71 (May 2010) of the now-defunct International Socialist Review, discusses how the Communist Party first became involved in organizing the unemployed and recounts some of the subsequent history. It is offered as a partial history of this important period in the U.S. working class struggle.
— Scott Cooper
The Unemployed Movements of the 1930s: Bringing Misery Out of Hiding
by Danny Lucia, International Socialist Review, #71, May 2010
This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the passage of the Social Security Act (SSA). The SSA, which created unemployment insurance and assistance programs for the elderly, disabled, and poor, is the most lasting achievement of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.1Today only the old age and disability pensions are known as “social security” because they are administered by the Social Security Administration. Unemployment insurance and poverty assistance—which have become known as “welfare”—are now administered by separate agencies. These programs formed the foundation of a social welfare system that today keeps an estimated 31 million people out of poverty.2Arloc Sherman, “Safety net effective at fighting poverty but has weakened for the very poorest,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 6, 2009, http://www.cbpp.org. Equally important, the passage of the SSA marked a fundamental shift in American political culture that has endured, even through the past thirty years of conservative attacks on “entitlements” that have steadily eroded the social welfare provisions of the act. Today, unemployment is seen as a societal question that demands some type of government response.
The history taught in most high schools is that Roosevelt created the Social Security Act with the aim of “relieving human suffering…helping business and industry to recover…[and] adjusting the economic system to prevent recurrence.”3See, for example, “Core curriculum: Social studies,” New York State Department of Education, 62. The textbooks typically do not explain why Roosevelt, elected in 1932, did not present the SSA to Congress until 1935, a three-year period that saw no shortage of human suffering.
In fact, Roosevelt had no intention of creating the programs for which he has become a liberal hero. He came into office with a modest package of regulation and piecemeal programs, many of which were watered down by the reactionary Southern segregationist wing of his own Democratic Party. FDR was pressured to create more extensive social welfare programs by the largest protest movement the country had seen since the populist movement of the late 1890s.
Though they are barely mentioned in the history textbooks, it was socialists and communists who built this movement.4Ibid. Socialism is mentioned in the New York curriculum under the subtopic of “other voices,” alongside the demagogue Huey Long and the Nazi sympathizer Father Coughlin. The Communist Party, Socialist Party, and followers of radical pacifist A.J. Muste created unemployed organizations that mobilized hundreds of thousands of jobless workers in local and national protests. While these actions on their own were not enough to win national legislation, they helped to shift popular opinion about government assistance and trained thousands of future leaders of the union movement that did attain the power to produce lasting change.
The mythology of FDR has long been a staple of the Democratic Party. This past year, as debate swirled around President Barack Obama’s health care legislation, a new twist on the old story emerged. Liberal supporters of Obama’s decidedly un-liberal measure tried to reassure themselves with a flawed analogy to the Social Security Act. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote:
social insurance programs tend to start out highly imperfect and incomplete, but get better and more comprehensive as the years go by. Thus Social Security originally had huge gaps in coverage—and a majority of African-Americans, in particular, fell through those gaps. But it was improved over time, and it’s now the bedrock of retirement stability for the vast majority of Americans.5Paul Krugman, “Pass the bill,” New York Times, December 17, 2009.
Krugman is correct that the SSA was passed with many flaws, some of which were later improved. Socialists at the time understood and criticized these weaknesses and looked forward to winning bigger reforms—and maybe a revolution—in the future. But unlike today’s health care reform, the Social Security Act did not build on the existing private charity systems that were actually part of the problem, but instead created enormous federal programs with guaranteed benefits. This was a dramatic shift from the longstanding American tradition of private sector charity. It occurred only because tens of thousands of activists dared to fight for something that at the time seemed utterly unrealistic.
The Great Depression and the “American way”
The starting point of any history of this period must be the horrifying conditions of the Great Depression. The most memorable statistic of this period is the unemployment rate, which reached 25 percent in 1933. As stark as this figure is, it does not begin to capture the crisis encountered by tens of millions. Workers who managed to hold onto their jobs faced increased exploitation and reduction in wages and hours, which made it harder for them to help out jobless family and friends.6Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 218. The social fabric of America was ripped by the crisis: One-quarter of children suffered malnutrition, birth rates dropped, suicide rates rose.7Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 48. Many families were torn apart. In New York City alone, 20,000 children were placed in institutions because their parents couldn’t support them.8Ibid., 61. Homeless armies wandered the country on freight trains; one railroad official testified that the number of train-hoppers caught by his company ballooned from 14,000 in 1929 to 186,000 in 1931.9Franklin Folsom, Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808–1942 (Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1991), 239.
At the onset of the Depression, Republican Herbert Hoover was president. Today, Hoover is notorious for his conservative response to the crisis, his heartlessness in the face of mass suffering (in contrast to the heroic compassion of FDR). But Hoover’s policies didn’t stem from his personal traits. In fact, he had made a name for himself coordinating relief efforts in Europe after the First World War and had convened a series of conferences on unemployment in the 1920s in an effort to coordinate private relief.10Ibid., 223–26.
Hoover’s passive response to the Depression stemmed from the political orthodoxy of the day that government should keep out of unemployment relief. In early 1931, he declared, “the basis of successful relief in national distress is to mobilize…agencies of relief help in the community. This has been the American way.” Hoover’s aim was to maintain the longstanding American tradition that unemployment not be made the responsibility of government but of individuals and “the community.” The private relief system relied on charitable and religious organizations, whose aid was usually both insufficient and degrading. Single unemployed workers were forced to live in squalid “flophouses” while those with families had to submit themselves to patronizing investigations and rules. Most charities operated under the assumption that people were unemployed because they were “unemployable”—or just lazy.
The regulations and investigations were not really meant to address any “culture of poverty.” Rather, as Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue in their seminal book, Poor People’s Movements, these practices were aimed at creating “a clearly demarcated and degraded class, a class of pariahs whose numbers were small but whose fate loomed large in the lives of those who lived close to indigence, warning them always of a life even worse than hard work and severe poverty.”11Piven and Cloward, 42.
This system of degradation created divisions between unemployed and employed workers. At the beginning of the 1930s, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the largest workers’ organization in the country, did not even support unemployment insurance. The AFL, which was comprised mainly of skilled workers’ unions (many of them segregated), did not see itself as the representative for all American workers. Rather, AFL president Samuel Gompers tried convincing American business and government that skilled workers—unlike the unskilled masses—deserved a seat at their table. Many AFL leaders were only too willing to accept the stereotype of the unemployable worker—unskilled, often African American, or a recent immigrant—to contrast with their own members’ respectability.
The problem for Hoover was that even by their own low standards, private organizations were in no way prepared to meet the massive needs unleashed by the Depression. Churches, charities, and ethnic associations were overwhelmed by the flood of requests for rent and grocery money at the same time as they were losing critical funding in the wave of bank failures.12Cohen, 221–23. In New York City, which actually received more state funding then most cities, the welfare department resorted to skipping every tenth family on the rolls, a practice known as “skip the feed.”13Suzanne Wasserman, “’Our alien neighbors’: Coping with the Depression on the Lower East Side,” American Jewish History 88, June 2000, 228.
The crisis exploded on March 6, 1930. That morning, the New York Times ran a headline declaring “Hoover forecasts employment gain. No cause for alarm.”14Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1991), 31. That afternoon, 500,000 people in twenty-five cities demonstrated for government relief. The response by New York City police was described by a reporter for the New York World.
Women struck in the face with blackjacks, boys beaten by gangs of seven and eight policemen, and an old man backed into a doorway and knocked down time after time…. One of [the women] fought savagely howling curses…. A detective ran up and while the policemen held her crashed his blackjack into her face three times before a man dragged her away.15Folsom, 252–55.
Despite this repression, the protesters were back at New York’s City Hall that October. Although they endured more beatings and arrests, they emerged with the movement’s first victory: the city granted $1 million in additional relief (almost $13 million in today’s terms).16Ibid., 270–71.
Beyond this material gain, the March 6 protests threw a wrench in Hoover’s strategy to ride out the Depression on the backs of American workers. Hoover’s infamous declaration that “prosperity is just around the corner” reflected his intention to minimize the extent of the crisis to avoid large-scale government action. Had it not been for the initial protests, he might have been more successful. It is worth noting that unemployment had not yet reached 9 percent by 1930.17Robert VanGiezen and Albert E. Schwenk, “Compensation from before World War I through the Great Depression,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 20, 2003, http://www.bls.gov. If today we remember the Depression as having begun in 1929 and not a few years later when the unemployment rate really shot up (under FDR), it’s because of the hundreds of thousands of jobless workers who forced politicians and newspapers to acknowledge the crisis.
The protests were organized by the Unemployed Councils, formed the previous year by the Communist Party, which was almost as surprised by the size of the March 6 protest as was the Hoover administration. It was the first sign that the radical left had entered a new period.
The Communist Party and Unemployed Councils
The stock market crash of October 1929 brought an abrupt end to a great decade for business. For most working people, it only increased the hard times they were already enduring. Ten years earlier, business leaders had used the momentum gained from winning the First World War to launch “the American plan,” a public relations campaign to associate unions with subversive and foreign influences, particularly Bolshevism. The AFL lost a quarter of its membership during the 1920s.18Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 97.
Alongside the corporate attack on unions was a government campaign against radicals—especially immigrant radicals—known today as the “Red Scare.” From the raids and deportation of thousands in 1919 and 1920 to the framing and execution of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, the “Roaring Twenties” were a difficult time for the American left. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was practically repressed out of existence. The Socialist Party (SP) split over the question of the Russian Revolution and never regained its former influence.
The Communist Party (CP), composed of some of the leading former members of the IWW and SP, was the strongest organization on the American left by the end of the 1920s. But that wasn’t saying much. Founded at the beginning of a period of political reaction and an assault on the labor movement (the AFL lost more than a million members, and it drove thousands of communists from its ranks in this period), the CP was also paralyzed in its first decade by intense factional disputes that required intervention from the Comintern—the Moscow-led organization of communist parties internationally. As a result of the repression, the decline of the labor movement, and factionalism, the party declined throughout its first ten years by more than two-thirds, to just over 6,000 members.19Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Union (New York: International Publishers, 1986), 67.
With the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the CPs all over the word became subordinate satellites of Moscow, required to change policy according to dictates that largely reflected the interest of the Russian bureaucracy. In 1928, Joseph Stalin, consolidating the power of the state bureaucracy in Moscow, expelled opposition leader Leon Trotsky and abolished the remaining elements of workers’ control from the 1917 revolution—all in the name of strengthening the socialist “motherland” against its imperialist enemies and preparing for worldwide revolution. In every communist party, Stalin engineered the elimination of leaders who sided with either Trotsky or Nicolai Bukharin and replaced them with Stalin loyalists who would toe every line delivered from Moscow.
Announcing that capitalism had entered its “Third Period” since the Russian Revolution, one of intractable economic crisis, the Comintern concluded in 1928 that a world revolutionary upsurge was on the immediate agenda. To prepare for this upsurge, the earlier Comintern strategy of proposing united fronts for the purposes of struggle between revolutionary and reformist organizations was abandoned. Communists were to leave the trade unions and form their own “red unions” and refuse joint work with reformist and social-democratic parties, which were now denounced as “social fascist.”20Ibid., 100–01.
The rise of Stalinism and its apocalyptic Third Period perspective had a catastrophic impact on communist parties around the world. Across Europe, communists refused to form united fronts with reformists to resist fascism, with particularly tragic results in Germany.21Duncan Hallas, The Comintern: A History of the Third International (Chicago: Haymarket Books: 2008), 127–44. In the U.S, the CP responded to the new perspective by abandoning its strategy of “boring from within” the AFL, which had suddenly become a social-fascist organization, and creating a competing “revolutionary” union federation: the deceptively named Trade Union Unity League (TUUL). The Comintern defined the TUUL’s primary task not as organizing the many workers ignored and excluded by the AFL, but to “destroy the American Federation of Labor, the most reliable support of American imperialism.”22Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York, Basic Books, Inc, 1984), 39.
The only thing that the TUUL destroyed was the influence and reputation that thousands of communists had worked hard to achieve over the previous decade. In 1928, for example, the CP had a solid base of 300 miners and was a force of opposition to autocratic United Mine Workers (UMW) president John L. Lewis.23Ottanelli, 22. That year, the party took itself out of the UMW and formed a red or dual union, the National Miners Union (NMU), whose membership never reached more than several hundred. Within a year, communists found themselves outside a wave of spontaneous strikes in Pennsylvania and West Virginia while their own NMU general strike call was ignored.24Klehr, 40–41. By the CP’s own reckoning, the TUUL had a membership in 1932 of only 40,000.25Ottanelli, 27.
Similar results followed in other industries. Workers in the early years of the Depression, facing a devastating wave of layoffs and cuts in hours and wages, looked for a united labor movement. Instead they found a Communist Party that defined all its political rivals, from the NAACP to the Socialist Party, as fascists just as surely as Hitler and Mussolini.26Ibid., 17.
The party’s attacks on the rest of the left were not only verbal, as historian Sidney Lens relates:
Since socialists and fascists were all of the same breed, it was permissible to break up socialist (and Trotskyist and Lovestoneite) meetings. Indeed it was sometimes a revolutionary duty. When [Socialist Party leader] Norman Thomas held a rally at Madison Square Garden in February 1934 to protest the murder of socialists by the semi-Fascist Dollfuss regime in Vienna, Stalinist strong-arm men made a shambles of it with catcalls, shrieks, knives, and physical force until it was adjourned. It was not unusual for Communists to break into a meeting of another leftist group, armed with lead pipes, brass knuckles, sticks, and knives to force it to suspend. Every now and then a brick was thrown at an outdoor meeting of the Trotskyites. It became so bad that rivals had to form “defense squads” to protect their gatherings.27Sidney Lens, Radicalism in America (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1966), 304.
Despite these considerable handicaps, the CP entered the Depression with some momentum. Stalin’s elimination of all opposition had the ironic impact of freeing the American party from the paralyzing factionalism of the 1920s. Moreover, the Comintern’s Third Period perspective predicted a massive economic collapse and called on parties to create unemployed organizations. Thus, in August 1929, two months before the stock market crash, the CP began building the Unemployed Councils (UCs) whose protests in the ensuing months would establish the communists as a significant force in the 1930s.28Robert Fisher, Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 39–40.
Building UCs forced communist organizers to confront the limitations of the Comintern perspective that revolutionary speeches would lead the masses into revolutionary action. Steven Nelson, a movement leader in Chicago, describes how he learned this approach from other workers in his first UC meeting.
[My] speech…was pretty vague. I pounded the rostrum a little and complained that the bourgeoisie always make the workers pay for depressions…. The whole approach was sectarian in tone and demonstrated just how isolated we were from most workers…. In this case, however, our approach hadn’t done much damage. These Greek workers really impressed me…. Actually, they knew what to do better than I.
“Now, Mr. Chairman,” someone called from the floor, “the first thing we have to do is set up a committee that can deal with grievances. Let’s have some volunteers.” Many of the early councils were built on existing ethnic and fraternal organizations like this Greek club.
We spent the first few weeks agitating against capitalism…. But even if people listened to our arguments, we couldn’t offer them much hope for the immediate future. How were they going to pay the rent, buy food, and survive in the meantime? Answers began to emerge from the actual experience of organizing.29Nelson, 75–76.
One key strategy that emerged was direct action to help individuals win relief or prevent eviction. Within months, the approach of the Chicago UC had changed remarkably, as evidenced in recollections of Christine Ellis about the first UC meeting in a Black neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.
We spoke simply, explained the platform, the demands and activities of the unemployed council. And then we said, “Are there any questions?”…. Finally an elderly Black man stood up and said, “What you folks figure on doing about that colored family that was thrown out of their house today?… They’re still out there with their furniture on the sidewalk.” So the man with me said, “Very simple. We’ll adjourn the meeting, go over there, and put the furniture back in the house. After that, anyone wishing to join the unemployed council and build an organization to fight evictions, return to this hall and we’ll talk about it some more.” That’s what we did…everybody else pitched in, began to haul in every last bit of furniture, fix up the beds…and when that was all done, went back to the hall. The hall was jammed!30Christine Ellis, “People who cannot be bought,” in Rank and File: Personal Histories of Working-Class Organizers, ed. Alice Lynd and Staughton Lynd (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 18–19.
Through the national network of unemployed councils, people learned about these successful actions and the practice spread rapidly. It is estimated that in 1932, 77,000 New York City families were moved back into their homes by UCs.31Folsom, 269.
The emphasis on neighborhood organizing allowed the UCs to connect with the anarchic atmosphere of desperate rebellion unleashed by the economic crisis. The early 1930s were years of food riots and raids on delivery trucks and packinghouses.32Ibid., 240–41. Hosea Hudson, a leading Black communist in Alabama, describes how landlords in Birmingham would sometimes allow tenants to stay even without paying rent “because if they put a family out, the unemployed workers would wreck the house and take it away for fuel by night…. This was kind of a free-for-all, a share-the-wealth situation.”33Hosea Hudson, Black Worker in the Deep South (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 51–52.
Local actions were combined with a series of national protests that garnered media attention for the unemployment crisis. The 1931 National Hunger March called for federal unemployment insurance at full wages for all unemployed and underemployed workers without regard to age, sex, race, political affiliation, or citizenship status. In addition, the marchers demanded that cities and states provide funding to clothe, house, and feed the unemployed, who would be responsible for administering their own funds.34Unemployed Council of Chicago, Chicago Hunger Fighter, December 1931.
These demands, impressive in their focus on eliminating divisions among workers yet lacking any measures that could be won in the near term, did not arise from any democratic discussions within the councils, but came directly from the CP. The party openly controlled the councils. UC demonstrations often featured speeches and signs calling for defense of the Soviet Union.35Klehr, 53. The first National Unemployment Conference of 1930 adopted a program identical to that of the CP and TUUL, and warned that workers should have “no illusions that the government will grant these measures of partial relief”—an odd rallying cry for an unemployed movement.36Ibid, 50.
While mainstream observers dismissed the CP for its ultra-radical perspective and clumsy tactics, the party was able to connect with the rage bubbling under the surface of society. As the labor radical Len De Caux described the process:
The communists brought misery out of hiding in the workers’ neighborhoods. They paraded it with angry demands through the main streets….and on to City Hall…. Sometimes, I’d hear a communist speaker say something so bitter and extreme, I’d feel embarrassed. Then I’d look around at the unemployed audience—shabby clothes, expressions worried and sour. Faces would start to glow, heads to nod, hands to clap.37Folsom, 232.
As Steve Nelson explained, at a time when the idea of government assistance was far outside the mainstream, the jobless needed to “see that unemployment was not the result of their own or someone else’s mistake, that it was a worldwide phenomenon and a natural product of the system.” For this reason, Nelson felt “the unemployed agitation was as much education as direct action.”38Ibid., 81.
The communists contributed to the movement not only radical demands but also two key strategies for how those demands could be won: solidarity between the labor movement and the unemployed and anti-racist unity.
In contrast to the AFL, communists and other radicals argued that employed and unemployed workers needed to make common cause because their fates were linked. If unemployment relief was not unbearable, employed workers would have more leverage with their bosses because they would be less afraid of going on strike or being fired.
Nowhere did the CP demonstrate these connections more sharply than in Detroit, where the majority of unemployment was directly related to auto factory layoffs. Detroit Unemployed Councils and the Young Communist League led marches to the car factories to protest the meager benefits given to laid-off workers. The next day, protesters shut down the Briggs Highland Park factory, and read a statement to workers inside pledging that the unemployed would not scab in the event of a Briggs strike.39James J. Lorence, Organizing the Unemployed: Community and Union Activists in the Industrial Heartland (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 36–37.
A few months later, on March 7, 1932, the UC and the TUUL-affiliated Auto Workers Union led the Ford Hunger March—a demonstration of 3,000 current and former Ford workers to demand relief, limited hours, an end to racial discrimination, and the right to unionize.40Ibid., 39. Before the protesters could reach company headquarters, they were attacked at the Dearborn border by city police and company security. In the course of the fighting, the police began firing their guns, killing five men and wounding at least seventy-five more. More than 30,000 marched in the funeral procession. Years later, many participants reflected that the events surrounding the Ford Hunger March marked the first chapter in the unionization of American auto companies that took place later in the decade.41Folsom, 305–06.
Racial and ethnic divisions were other barriers facing the unemployed movement. It is hard to overstate the degree to which racism permeated American society in the seventy years between the end of Reconstruction and the birth of the civil rights movement. The South was ruled by a one-party oligarchy, which maintained the allegiance of most poor whites through the frenzy of white supremacy. In the 1930s, Southern Democrats—“Dixiecrats”—formed a solid bloc of reaction that dominated Congress to the point that Roosevelt did not even attempt to pass anti-lynching legislation, which must seem incredible to modern readers. Roosevelt offered this excuse for his inaction to Walter White of the NAACP:
I’ve got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America. The Southerners [of Roosevelt’s own party] by reason of the seniority rule in Congress are chairman or occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take that risk.42Lorence 42–44.
The extreme racism of the Jim Crow South permeated every corner of America, including the labor movement. Since Blacks and immigrants made up a high proportion of the unskilled and unemployed, the biases of skilled workers blended in with racism. Many AFL locals were segregated either formally or informally. The disastrous nature of this policy was made clear during the steelworkers’ strike in 1919, which was defeated in part because tens of thousands of African Americans crossed the picket line rather than fight for a union that didn’t fight for them.43Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights As a National Issue: The Depression Decade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 47.
Into this atmosphere, the CP played a historic role in bringing Black and white jobless workers together into one organization by making anti-racism a part of the movement. The CP made sure that all of its agitation in the unemployed councils included protests against racial discrimination by relief agencies, landlords, and local and federal government.44Cohen, 42. On a more individual level, the Communists’ emphasis on multiracial organizing created situations in which whites and Blacks worked together for a common purpose and created personal bonds. In his autobiography, Hosea Hudson explains how this process took place over years in Birmingham, from the first multiracial jobless marches to the latter part of the decade when white workers objected to having a segregated union hall and supported their Black coworkers’ efforts to register to vote.45See, for example, “Protest relief discrimination against Negroes!” Chicago Hunger Fighter, January 1932. At a time when Depression conditions enabled fascists to gain supporters among the unemployed across Europe and in some parts of the United States, the Communists were able to build a commitment to fighting discrimination in the American unemployed movement.
At the same time, the CP undermined its admirable efforts at building a labor movement united across racial and employment divisions with its steady cries of “fascist” at all competing organizations. In the early 1930s, the CP’s authoritarianism and sectarianism fueled the rise of other radical organizations that began to appear in the unemployed movement.
The SP entered the Depression as a pale remnant of its glory days two decades earlier. Dominated by its old guard, which had expelled the left for supporting the Russian Revolution, the SP sought to lobby AFL locals and Democratic officials for unemployment insurance and other reforms.46Hudson, 58–71. Within a few years, however, the SP had attracted a new layer of young militants who favored the CP’s grass-roots orientation to the unemployed, if not the CP itself. These militants created SP-affiliated workers’ committees that competed with unemployed councils in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere.47Steve Valocchi, “The unemployed workers movement of the 1930s: A reexamination of the Piven and Cloward thesis,” Social Problems 37, May 1990, 194–95.
Another source of unemployed agitation was the Conference of Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), whose dominant figure was a Dutch minister turned radical labor organizer named A.J. Muste. The CPLA established unemployed leagues on the model of the Seattle Unemployed Citizens League, which organized thousands of jobless families into an impressive network of barter and labor exchange.48Klehr, 64. Soon, however, most leagues “renounced self-help in favor of militant protest since self-help never provided more than a fraction of their economic needs.”49Roy Rosenzweig, “Radicals and the jobless: The Musteites and the Unemployed Leagues, 1932–1936,” Labor History 16, 1975, 56. The CPLA (and its later more radical incarnation, the American Workers Party) were never able to attain national prominence but it was a key player in the Midwest, especially in Ohio.
The CP’s attitude to these other unemployment groups was highly sectarian. According to historian Harvey Klehr, “The Communist response was to step up attacks on ‘social-fascists’ for misleading the unemployed. A party plenum in September  attacked the unemployed councils for allowing ‘spontaneous unemployed movements’ in Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Youngstown to fall ‘into the hands of social-fascist leaders.’” The CP did agreed to join a “united front” conference set up by the Chicago UC, which was headed up by a local SP leader, Karl Borders, only to denounce Borders as a “social-fascist” at the conference.50Ibid, 58.
By 1932, there were hundreds of unemployed councils, unemployed leagues, and workers committees on the unemployed across the country. In one city after another, the power dynamics of the relief system were dramatically changed. Upon hearing that a family had been denied relief, the local unemployed organization would call a meeting, lead a march to the agency, and send in an elected committee to demand an immediate appointment to resolve the situation, often with a large and hostile crowd waiting outside the building.51Klehr, 64–65. Hosea Hudson describes the methods of the Birmingham UC:
If someone get out of food and been down to the welfare two or three times and still ain’t got no grocery order…. We’d go to the house of the person that’s involved, the victim, let her tell her story. Then we’d ask all the people, “What do you all think could be done about it?” We wouldn’t just jump up and say what to do. We let the neighbors talk about it for a while, and then it would be some of us in the crowd, we going to say, “If the lady wants to go back down to the welfare, if she wants, I suggest we have a little committee to go with her and find out what the condition is.”52Ibid., 57.
The fighting spirit spread to some of the flophouses. The Chicago UC newspaper reported about a flophouse in which the men elected a committee to demand fresh bread and vegetables and backed up their demands with a protest in which they threw the inferior food on the floor.53Folsom, 262.
As these “pariahs” began to organize themselves, charity agencies found that their own lack of professionalism and arbitrary rules now worked against them:
Relief officials, who were accustomed to discretionary giving to a meek clientele and were not much governed by any fixed set of regulations, usually acquiesced in the face of aggressive protests. With each abrasive encounter, officials in local and private charities gradually forfeited the discretion to give or withhold aid.54“Flophouse protest,” Chicago Hunger Fighter, December 1931.
Or, as an unemployed worker put it: “For three weeks, we would wait for recognition from a relief office. Our committee got it for us in fifteen minutes.”55Piven and Cloward, 57.
As relief agencies caved in to the angry protesters outside their doors, they turned for more aid to municipal governments whose budgets were not growing but shrinking. By 1932 cities found themselves in a vise between a seemingly bottomless economic crisis and the swelling anger of the jobless. From Chicago, where the unemployment rate had reached 40 percent, Mayor Anton Cermak told Congress to send $150 million today or federal troops in the future.56Folsom, 268.In Detroit, relief was reduced to milk and bread; in Philadelphia, it was cut off entirely.57Piven and Cloward, 61. In response, mayors and city businessmen pressured Washington for relief, both individually and through the newly formed Conference of Mayors, an organization that exists to this day. As Piven and Cloward put it, “Driven by the protests of the masses of unemployed and the threat of financial ruin, mayors of the biggest cities of the Unites States, joined by business and banking leaders, had become lobbyists for the poor.”58Jeff Singleton, The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression (Westport: Greenwood, 2000), 82.
In July, President Hoover finally broke with laissez-faire orthodoxy and passed the Emergency Relief and Construction Act (ERCA), the first federal legislation for unemployment relief. But ERCA was the epitome of too little ($300 million) and too late (three years into the Depression). Hoover was crushed by Roosevelt in the November elections.
The First New Deal
Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933 with the promise of a “new deal.” The specifics of this promise were unclear. As governor of New York, Roosevelt had established a liberal reputation by speaking in favor of unemployment insurance and creating a modest state relief program.59Piven and Cloward, 64. Yet Roosevelt was an establishment politician, a scion of a wealthy family who showed little inclination to threaten the wealth of his class. Furthermore, as a Democratic politician, Roosevelt had only been able to secure his party’s nomination by assuring the Dixiecrats that he would not challenge their reactionary agenda.
Roosevelt differed from Hoover primarily in his willingness to “consider greater government intervention into the private market in order to save capitalism.”60Folsom, 256–57 In his famous first one hundred days, the new president issued a series of regulations of banking and industry in an attempt to tackle the bankruptcies and overproduction that had ground the economy to a halt.61Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 47.
In contrast to these Herculean efforts to save business from itself, FDR’s initial legislation on unemployment relief was meager. The Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), passed in May 1933, allocated $3 billion over three years.62Ibid., 47–50. FERA was a big improvement over Hoover’s ERCA, but it was still woefully insufficient to address the ever-growing crisis. Moreover, many state legislatures were reluctant or dilatory in participating in the program. Roosevelt himself, who called relief “repugnant to American ideals of self-reliance,” was only too willing to cut off funding to these states.63Piven and Cloward, 66.
Inadequate as it was in material terms, FERA was a victory for the movement, beginning a dynamic played out for the next few years. FDR would enact a reform in the hopes of quelling unemployment unrest only to see unrest increase instead. This apparent paradox was rooted in the experience of rising unemployment alongside organizing by a self-conscious minority. While unemployed activists represented a minority of the nation’s unemployed, millions more remained in the shadows, ashamed of their status and unwilling to ask for relief. Each new federal relief measure, however, was an acknowledgement that the unemployed were not to blame for their predicament and that they deserved a certain standard of living. Millions of previously invisible jobless workers would emerge to ask for, and then demand, relief and the escalating cycle of protests and reforms continued.
Nowhere was this interplay more apparent than in the rise and fall of the Civilian Works Administration (CWA), the first attempt at federal work relief. The CWA, launched by Roosevelt’s talented liberal aide Harry Hopkins at the end of 1933, provided unemployed workers with jobs that paid real money instead of coupons for food or rent. The program was wildly popular. And that was the problem. “When we started Civil Works we said we were going to put four million men to work,” Hopkins recalled later. “How many do you suppose applied for those four million jobs? About ten million. Now I don’t say there were ten million people out of work, but ten million…stood in line, many of them all night.”64Singleton, 139.
In fact, there were fifteen million people unemployed in 1933, but the Roosevelt administration was not prepared to fund jobs for them all. Many of these were people who had managed to stay off of relief and were thus invisible to Hopkins and the New Deal planners. News of the jobs program, however, led these new millions to apply for relief in order to become eligible for a CWA job. When they found out that CWA did not have enough jobs for them, many people accepted relief for the first time. A FERA manager described the thought process this way: “The government having failed to provide me with a job, it is now up to the government to take care of my family.”65Ibid., 133. One newspaper described the dilemma faced by Roosevelt and Hopkins: “C.W.A. is a bear which the administration holds by the tail. It’s afraid to hold on and it’s afraid to let go!”66Ibid., 137. The president decided to let it go, terminating the CWA within a few months of its inception.
While Roosevelt vacillated, a profound ideological shift regarding the unemployed was taking place. As Hopkins, put it, “For a long time those who did not require relief entertained the illusion that those being aided were in need through some fault of their own. It is now pretty clear in the national mind that the unemployed are a cross-section of the workers, the finest people in the land.”67Herbert Benjamin, A Handbook for Project Workers (New York: National Unemployment Council of the U.S.,1936), 4.
Yet the Roosevelt administration was unwilling to provide these fine people an insurance program for the unemployment that it admitted was not their fault. Some of FDR’s economic advisers tried in vain to convince him to include a substantial unemployment program and old age insurance in the sweeping program of the first one hundred days.68Piven and Cloward, 68. There were other forces, however, pressuring Roosevelt against such an action.
To begin with, there were the Dixiecrats: the devils to whom liberal Democrats sold their souls on their way up the political ladder. These few dozen men were not on the fringe of the party but at its core—their KKK-enforced one-party domination of the South was the foundation of the Democrats’ congressional majority. Their reactionary politics were not limited to racial segregation, but included hostility to any hint of progressive change.
Even if Roosevelt had not been concerned with maintaining Dixiecrat support, he still would have been reluctant to create unemployment insurance. Ruling-class opinion in the United States had long been set against any form of government relief. Unemployment had been a recurring phenomenon since the late nineteenth century. In 1900, for example, unemployment spiked as high as 20 percent.69Selfa, 48. Protests against unemployment and demands for federal relief had grown as well, from groups ranging from the IWW to Coxey’s Army, a loosely organized network that tried to organize jobless workers to hop freight trains from around the country and converge on Washington, D.C., in 1894.
By the early twentieth century, similar protests had led many European countries to create state unemployment programs. The U.S. ruling class, true to its nature, preferred a little violent protest and repression to conceding government responsibility for unemployment. The American resistance to unemployment insurance was connected to the American resistance to unions for those employed in sweatshops, factories, and mines. As Piven and Cloward explain:
These practices were not only a reflection of harshly individualistic American attitudes. They were also a reflection of American economic realities. Work and self-reliance meant grueling toil at low wages for many people. So long as that was so, the dole could not be dispensed permissively for fear some would choose it over work.70Lorence, 2.
The unemployed movement found itself at an impasse: it had shifted public opinion by dramatizing the crisis of the Depression and created enough pressure to win some minor victories. But it was not powerful enough to win a permanent national insurance program. For one thing, the instability of unemployed life led to the instability of unemployed organizations. Most unemployed organizations were made up of a small core of radicals and a larger layer of short-term activists. This problem was particularly acute in the Communist dominated councils, leading CP leader Herbert Benjamin to complain that non-CP activists “find themselves excluded from all participation in the actual work of planning and leading actions.”71Piven and Cloward, 42. But SP and CPLA activists also found their organizations foundering by 1933.72Klehr, 63. Unemployed organizations simply did not have the social weight to do more than create disruption. They did, however, play an important role in building a more powerful force: the labor movement.
The early years of the Depression were horrible for unions. Long lines of jobless workers outside factory gates allowed companies to drastically reduce wages and hours for those still working. In these years it was the unemployed movement that provided the training ground for a new generation of activists. Many leading union militants of the late 1930s learned how to organize—and often how to understand the whole capitalist system—when they were active in the unemployed movement earlier in the decade.
Unemployment peaked at 25 percent in 1933; it then declined to 21.7 percent in 1934.73Valocchi, 197. That may seem like a minor shift but it meant that factories finally began hiring workers again—some of whom had become activists and revolutionaries in the movement. Workers felt more confident to organize to make up lost ground in wages and hours. Thus, 1934 became a turning point for labor, a year that not only saw a strike wave of textile workers from New England to Georgia but also three strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco in which union workers—led by socialists—won the majority of the workers in each city to actively support their fight against both the company and the police. These strikes have been recently analyzed in the pages of this magazine and they will not be described in detail here.74VanGiezen and Schwenk. It is important to note that unemployed organizations played key roles in these strikes, particularly in Toledo, where the Musteite-led Unemployed League played a decisive role in battling police and strike-breakers.75Sharon Smith, “1934: The strikes that paved the way,” International Socialist Review 69, Jan–Feb 2010.
The militancy and radicalism of the strikes of 1934 sent shudders through executive boardrooms and government chambers. “You’ve seen strikes in Toledo,” warned one Congressman in 1935, “You have seen Minneapolis, you have seen San Francisco, and you have seen some of the southern textile strikes…but you have not yet seen the gates of hell opened, and that is what is going to happen from now on.”76Folsom, 352.
Roosevelt needed to take decisive new action to take back the initiative from these radical movements. The result was a spate of dramatic pro-labor legislation that became known as the “second New Deal.” In 1935, Roosevelt pushed through the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the SSA, each of which contain a number of measures that have changed the relationship between labor and capital to this day. It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the NLRA, which guaranteed the right for workers to organize unions, but we will consider the SSA as well as the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The WPA was a mammoth project. Between 1936 and 1943, the government employed an average of 2 million workers, who built 600,000 miles of roads, 75,000 bridges, and 5,584 schools, among other projects. Young workers in the related Civilian Conservation Corps built 45,000 telephone lines and 42,000 dams.77Gwendolyn Mink, The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the welfare state, 1917-1942 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 127. Like the CWA before it, workers flocked to WPA jobs because they gave the unemployed some of the dignity they had been demanding. WPA jobs were based on workers’ skills as opposed to income, which meant there were no home visits or other demeaning investigations.78Folsom, 399–400. Moreover, Roosevelt pledged that the program would provide “self-respecting jobs at useful work.”79Chad Alan Goldberg, “Contesting the status of relief workers during the New Deal,”Social Science History 29, Fall 2005, 345.
The reality of the WPA, however, was somewhat different. To begin with, the program was set up so as not to compete with private industry. This meant, as UC leader Herbert Benjamin pointed out, that miners and steel workers were put to work cutting grass instead of doing the “useful work” at which they were skilled.80Benjamin, 5. At the same time, WPA wages had to be kept sufficiently low that the unemployed would have an incentive to take private work if it became available. The problem with this, Benjamin argued, it that private sector wages had greatly dropped during the Depression, precisely because of the availability of unemployed workers. Rather than forcing those salaries up by paying a decent wage, the WPA reinforced the era’s poverty wages.81Ibid., 4. Furthermore, while Roosevelt and Hopkins promised that the WPA would employ all 5 million of the unemployed on the FERA rolls, in fact it never employed more than half that. Yet the president went ahead with his plans to dismantle FERA after passing the WPA.
The Social Security Act was signed into law on August 14, 1935. The act provided for old age insurance funded by workers and employers, three months insurance for terminated workers funded by employers, and assistance for the blind and dependent children. This act, strengthened in the 1960s and weakened in the 1990s, has remained the crowning achievement for the unemployed movement in the United States—though several decades of an employers’ offensive buttressed by the ideology of free-market individualism has placed Social Security under threat. In addition to the material benefits it has given to millions of people, the SSA marked a historic shift in American culture and consciousness toward the idea that unemployment relief is a societal responsibility.
While the SSA marked a turning point in U.S. policy, it did not satisfy the demands of the unemployed movement. Communists and socialists both campaigned against the legislation. The radicals understood that the SSA, important as it was, did not satisfy the underlying demand of their movement: full equality for the unemployed. In a number of ways, Roosevelt’s legislation drew a distinction between the “unemployable” and those who happened to not have a job. To begin with, the exclusion of agricultural, domestic, and retail workers created a lower status of workers undeserving of insurance. These workers were disproportionately Black and female.82Ibid., 5–6. In addition, the time limits created a distinction between workers facing seasonal layoffs and those facing more long-term unemployment.
Most important, SSA divided benefits into the two categories: universal insurance (for retired and unemployed workers) and public assistance (for dependent children and the disabled.) The SSA thus divided its recipients into those who have “earned” assistance and those who simply “need” it. Not surprisingly, the pension and unemployment programs for the former have remained politically popular. The “welfare” programs, on the other hand, particularly Aid to Dependent Children (ADC, later changed to Aid to Families With Dependent Children, AFDC), which mostly assisted single mothers, soon became seen as a handout to an underclass unconnected to the majority of working Americans.83Alice Kessler-Harris, “In the nation’s image: The gendered limits of social citizenship in the Depression Era,” The Journal of American History 86, December 1999, 1,262.
Instead, unemployed activists supported the Workers and Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill, introduced by Ernest Lundeen, a Farmer-Labor Congressman from Minnesota. The Lundeen Bill reflected many of the demands of the UCs: insurance payments equal to average local wages for all workers over eighteen, part time as well as full time, regardless of race, gender, or citizenship, funded by a new tax on all those making over $5,000 per year, and administered by elected representatives of workers’ organizations.84Mimi Abramovitz, Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 16. It is a sign of those times that this radical legislation was recommended for passage by the House Committee on Labor before it lost momentum in the face of Roosevelt’s competing bill.85Folsom, 472.
Despite the limitations of the WPA and the SSA, the unemployed movement in 1935 seemed powerful enough to do what it had done with previous reforms: use the increased legitimacy that these gave to the demands of the jobless to press for further and more radical changes. These hopes were bolstered in 1936 when the CP, SP, and Musteites ended their squabbles and merged their unemployed organizations into the Workers’ Alliance of America (WAA). The WAA engaged in militant actions to win collective bargaining for workers at a number of WPA projects.86Ibid., 398. Valocchi, 200. Valocchi implies that Roosevelt wanted the Lundeen Bill to make it out of committee to scare conservative Democrats into backing the Social Security Act.
Yet the years after 1936 saw the unemployed movement in decline. In some ways, the movement was a victim of its own success. Its ranks thinned as more jobs appeared through the private sector and WPA. Many movement activists went on to play important roles in the major social movement of the latter half of the decade, the growth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In addition, the expansion of the welfare system in the New Deal created a more professional system of relief. This professionalism, however, meant that agencies grew more skilled not only in meeting their clients’ needs but also in channeling local protests into orderly meetings, and even sometimes decapitating councils by hiring their leaders.87Valocchi, 201.
These explanations, however, are incomplete. In 1938 a second recession spiked unemployment from 14.3 percent back to 19 percent.88Piven and Cloward, 77–79. FDR did not increase relief funds and actually cut the WPA budget in 1939.89VanGeizen and Schwenk. Yet instead of the explosion of anger that one would have expected from actions in the early 1930s, Roosevelt faced little more than polite conferences and scattered protests.90Piven and Cloward, 89, Selfa, 52–53.
What had changed was the Communist Party, now engaged in its Popular Front strategy. This shift, dictated by Moscow in response to the growing threat of Nazi Germany to Russia, called on CPs internationally to unite with progressive capitalist forces, which in the United States meant everyone from the SP to President Roosevelt. Because the Popular Front led the CP to abandon the rabid sectarianism of the Third Period and dramatically (but temporarily) increase its membership, some historians see this as the CP’s most successful period. In reality, it marked the party’s complete surrender of a revolutionary vision to transform society.
In their unemployed work, the Communists oriented the Workers Alliance more on lobbying than on local agitation. This shift reflected the Communists’ new support for Roosevelt, which in turn led to a shift in their approach to his programs. Only two years after Benjamin penned his incisive critique of the WPA, his new unemployed organization called a rally in New York to uncritically “demonstrate to the public just how much WPA means to the 175,000 workers and their families on work programs in that city.”91Piven and Cloward, 87–90.
In the middle of the decade, radicals had scared the White House into creating a social welfare state. Now, as the unemployed movement lost its radical core, Republicans and Dixiecrats regained momentum and FDR “sought corporate support for a massive military buildup, further strengthening his ties to big business.”92Ibid., 89 There would be no third New Deal.
The Social Security Act of 1935 has changed the balance of class forces for the past seventy-five years. SSA’s insurance and assistance programs—as well as the Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps programs added in the 1960s—have not only kept millions from facing utter destitution; they have given workers a little breathing room in case of termination and thus leverage in the eternal tug of war with employers over wages and benefits.
Predictably, free-market fundamentalists at the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute churn out reports against these programs.93Selfa, 52. Yet these normally influential think tanks are largely ignored when it comes to unemployment. Aside from a few cranks, most congressional Republicans voted to extend unemployment insurance by twenty weeks last November, even as they were denouncing government spending at various “tea parties.”94Tad DeHaven, “Food stamp use soars and stigma fades,” Cato Institute, December 2, 2009, http://www.cato-at-liberty.org. See also: James Sherk, “Extended unemployment insurance benefits: The Heritage Foundation 2009 labor boot camp,” Heritage Foundation, January 15, 2009, http://www.heritage.org. For the time being, both parties are unwilling to challenge a program that most Americans have come to see as a fundamental responsibility of government in troubled economic times.
Yet our safety net remains a flawed and inadequate system in all the ways the radicals of the 1930s anticipated—and in many ways they did not. For starters there is the two-tiered nature of the system. Those programs that are universal—provided to all regardless of income—like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and—more recently—Medicare, have become revered institutions. Meanwhile, means-tested programs—provided only to those who qualify—such as AFDC (“welfare”), Supplemental Security Income (“disability”), and Medicaid, face a steady stream of budget cuts, stigmatization, and accusations of cheating the system. The attacks on means-tested programs came to a head in 1996, when Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it” by replacing AFDC with the more restrictive Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). Despite the near-universal praise it receives in the media, TANF has proven to be far less effective than AFDC in preventing poverty.95Corey Boles, “Congress extends jobless benefits, home-buyer credit,” Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2009.
Moreover, even the popular universal programs are inadequate and under threat. Emergency extensions by Congress have allowed workers in some states to collect unemployment insurance for ninety-nine weeks—the longest period in the program’s history.96Sherman, “Safety net effective at fighting poverty but has weakened for the very poorest.” In a prolonged recession, however, millions of workers are finding that jobs do not suddenly appear in the hundredth week. Moreover, strict eligibility requirements and hostile bureaucracies mean that only 36 percent of unemployed workers receive benefits.97Boles, “Congress extends jobless benefits.” For this minority, unemployment checks vary widely depending on where they live, from $411 in Massachusetts to $197 in Mississippi.98Elizabeth Schulte, “Adding insult to injury,” Socialist Worker, February 23, 2009. Meanwhile, states’ unemployment funds are running out while regressive taxation policies, bank bailouts, and the costly demands of American militarism put the future funding for unemployment insurance, Medicare, and even Social Security in doubt. Though the Bush administration failed in its attempts to privatize Social Security, the claim that Social Security is in “crisis” and must be “fixed”—read, whittled down and modified to the detriment of the retired workers who depend on it—is a periodically renewed theme by politicians and the press.99Olga Pierce, “Unemployment insurance buckles after years of underfunding,”ProPublica, June 3, 2009.
As our worst economic crisis since the Depression enters its third full year, the history of the unemployed movement offers a lesson of how local and temporary struggles during a period of overall working-class retreat can interact with radical organizations to strengthen the left for larger struggles to come. Perhaps in this recession unemployed workers will be compelled to fight to maintain or to be eligible for the benefits they deserve. (We should be particularly wary of pseudo-populist attempts to introduce means-testing into universal programs like Social Security, a long-term scheme to turn an untouchable institution into a degraded welfare program.)
Perhaps our generation’s defining struggle will be for health care. As millions discover the inadequacies of the new health care bill over the coming years, the climate may be ripe for “under-insured councils” to initiate local direct actions at insurance offices, hospitals, and drug stores to win the health benefits that the politicians have failed to deliver.
Any movements that arise today will have to confront the same politics of division that existed in the early 1930s. The centrality of anti-racism of the CP at that time is a model for activists today—when the rate of unemployment among African Americans is 50 percent higher than the national average.100“Before his inauguration, Mr. Obama said of Social Security, ‘We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.’” Jackie Calmes, “Next big issue? Social Security pops up again,” New York Times, March 22, 2010. Today we have to apply these principles to immigrants (regardless of legal status), prisoners, and ex-inmates—sections of the population vastly larger than they were eighty years ago. Finally, the movement will have to take on the sexism that lies at the heart of the popular definition of “real” jobs (i.e., not domestic work) that are worthy of insurance.
As in the 1930s, the heart of a new movement for the unemployed will need to be socialist politics. As they always have, employers and politicians use shame—better known today as “personal responsibility”—to discourage those victimized by capitalism from demanding compensation. They blame poverty and joblessness on a “culture of poverty” in the tabloids while they debate capitalism’s “natural rate of unemployment” in the business press.101Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Black America’s economic freefall,” Socialist Worker, January 8, 2010. To counter this, we need an anticapitalist understanding to help people see, as UC organizer Steve Nelson put it, that “unemployment was not the result of their own or someone else’s mistake…[but] a natural product of the system.”
Herbert Benjamin, the CP’s lead organizer of the unemployed councils, eloquently expressed the defiant and intelligent posture we need today:
Ever since the present crisis began, those who are unwilling to provide relief for the millions who have become destitute…have tried to meet every demand for such relief by smugly declaring that: “The unemployed don’t want relief—what they want is jobs!”…. It is of course true that we workers want jobs. It is true that we resent being compelled to live on miserable relief doles which we are made to feel is “charity”. But much as we gag on these humiliating hand-outs, we have come to realize that as long as the masters of industry, finance and government are unwilling and unable to afford us the opportunity to earn a decent livelihood through work, we must compel them to provide us with other means of existence.1
|↑1||Today only the old age and disability pensions are known as “social security” because they are administered by the Social Security Administration. Unemployment insurance and poverty assistance—which have become known as “welfare”—are now administered by separate agencies.|
|↑2||Arloc Sherman, “Safety net effective at fighting poverty but has weakened for the very poorest,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 6, 2009, http://www.cbpp.org.|
|↑3||See, for example, “Core curriculum: Social studies,” New York State Department of Education, 62.|
|↑4||Ibid. Socialism is mentioned in the New York curriculum under the subtopic of “other voices,” alongside the demagogue Huey Long and the Nazi sympathizer Father Coughlin.|
|↑5||Paul Krugman, “Pass the bill,” New York Times, December 17, 2009.|
|↑6||Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 218.|
|↑7||Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 48.|
|↑9||Franklin Folsom, Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808–1942 (Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1991), 239.|
|↑11||Piven and Cloward, 42.|
|↑13||Suzanne Wasserman, “’Our alien neighbors’: Coping with the Depression on the Lower East Side,” American Jewish History 88, June 2000, 228.|
|↑14||Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1991), 31.|
|↑17||Robert VanGiezen and Albert E. Schwenk, “Compensation from before World War I through the Great Depression,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 20, 2003, http://www.bls.gov.|
|↑18||Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 97.|
|↑19||Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Union (New York: International Publishers, 1986), 67.|
|↑21||Duncan Hallas, The Comintern: A History of the Third International (Chicago: Haymarket Books: 2008), 127–44.|
|↑22||Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York, Basic Books, Inc, 1984), 39.|
|↑27||Sidney Lens, Radicalism in America (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1966), 304.|
|↑28||Robert Fisher, Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 39–40.|
|↑30||Christine Ellis, “People who cannot be bought,” in Rank and File: Personal Histories of Working-Class Organizers, ed. Alice Lynd and Staughton Lynd (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 18–19.|
|↑33||Hosea Hudson, Black Worker in the Deep South (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 51–52.|
|↑34||Unemployed Council of Chicago, Chicago Hunger Fighter, December 1931.|
|↑39||James J. Lorence, Organizing the Unemployed: Community and Union Activists in the Industrial Heartland (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 36–37.|
|↑43||Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights As a National Issue: The Depression Decade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 47.|
|↑45||See, for example, “Protest relief discrimination against Negroes!” Chicago Hunger Fighter, January 1932.|
|↑47||Steve Valocchi, “The unemployed workers movement of the 1930s: A reexamination of the Piven and Cloward thesis,” Social Problems 37, May 1990, 194–95.|
|↑49||Roy Rosenzweig, “Radicals and the jobless: The Musteites and the Unemployed Leagues, 1932–1936,” Labor History 16, 1975, 56.|
|↑54||“Flophouse protest,” Chicago Hunger Fighter, December 1931.|
|↑55||Piven and Cloward, 57.|
|↑57||Piven and Cloward, 61.|
|↑58||Jeff Singleton, The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression (Westport: Greenwood, 2000), 82.|
|↑59||Piven and Cloward, 64.|
|↑61||Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 47.|
|↑63||Piven and Cloward, 66.|
|↑67||Herbert Benjamin, A Handbook for Project Workers (New York: National Unemployment Council of the U.S.,1936), 4.|
|↑68||Piven and Cloward, 68.|
|↑71||Piven and Cloward, 42.|
|↑74||VanGiezen and Schwenk.|
|↑75||Sharon Smith, “1934: The strikes that paved the way,” International Socialist Review 69, Jan–Feb 2010.|
|↑77||Gwendolyn Mink, The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the welfare state, 1917-1942 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 127.|
|↑79||Chad Alan Goldberg, “Contesting the status of relief workers during the New Deal,”Social Science History 29, Fall 2005, 345.|
|↑83||Alice Kessler-Harris, “In the nation’s image: The gendered limits of social citizenship in the Depression Era,” The Journal of American History 86, December 1999, 1,262.|
|↑84||Mimi Abramovitz, Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 16.|
|↑86||Ibid., 398. Valocchi, 200. Valocchi implies that Roosevelt wanted the Lundeen Bill to make it out of committee to scare conservative Democrats into backing the Social Security Act.|
|↑88||Piven and Cloward, 77–79.|
|↑89||VanGeizen and Schwenk.|
|↑90||Piven and Cloward, 89, Selfa, 52–53.|
|↑91||Piven and Cloward, 87–90.|
|↑94||Tad DeHaven, “Food stamp use soars and stigma fades,” Cato Institute, December 2, 2009, http://www.cato-at-liberty.org. See also: James Sherk, “Extended unemployment insurance benefits: The Heritage Foundation 2009 labor boot camp,” Heritage Foundation, January 15, 2009, http://www.heritage.org.|
|↑95||Corey Boles, “Congress extends jobless benefits, home-buyer credit,” Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2009.|
|↑96||Sherman, “Safety net effective at fighting poverty but has weakened for the very poorest.”|
|↑97||Boles, “Congress extends jobless benefits.”|
|↑98||Elizabeth Schulte, “Adding insult to injury,” Socialist Worker, February 23, 2009.|
|↑99||Olga Pierce, “Unemployment insurance buckles after years of underfunding,”ProPublica, June 3, 2009.|
|↑100||“Before his inauguration, Mr. Obama said of Social Security, ‘We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.’” Jackie Calmes, “Next big issue? Social Security pops up again,” New York Times, March 22, 2010.|
|↑101||Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Black America’s economic freefall,” Socialist Worker, January 8, 2010.|