In Part I in this series on lessons to be learned from the New Deal, I described the enormous economic and social costs of the first years of the Great Depression and the reluctance of business and government leaders to pursue policies likely to threaten the status quo. I did so to demonstrate that we should not assume that simply establishing the seriousness of our current multifaceted crisis, especially one that has yet to directly threaten capitalist profitability, will be enough to win elite consideration of a transformative Green New Deal.
I also argued that it was the growth of an increasingly militant political movement openly challenging the legitimacy of the police, courts, and other state institutions that finally transformed the national political environment and pushed Roosevelt to change course and introduce his early New Deal employment and relief programs. In this post, I examine the driving force of this movement, the movement of unemployed.
The growth and effectiveness of the unemployed movement owes much to the organizing and strategic choices of the U.S. Communist Party (CP). While there is much to criticize about CP policies and activities, especially its sectarianism and aggressive antagonism towards other groups, there is also much we can learn about successful organizing from its work with the unemployed in the early years of the depression.
The party faced the challenge of building a mass movement powerful enough to force a change in government policy. Although its initial victory was limited, the policy breakthrough associated with the programs of the First New Deal led to new expectations and demands, culminating in Roosevelt’s adoption of far more extensive employment and relief policies as part of his Second New Deal, only two years later.
We face a similar challenge today; we need to build a mass movement capable of forcing the government to begin adopting policies that help advance a Green New Deal. Therefore, it is well worth our time to study how party activists built a national organization of the unemployed that helped the unemployed see that their hard times were the result of structural rather than personal failure; encouraged local, collective, and direct action in defense of immediate shared basic needs; and connected local actions to a broader national campaign for government action.
The CP and the unemployed movement
The CP made its decision to organize the unemployed even before the start of the Great Depression. In August 1929, two months before the stock market crash, the CP established the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) as an alternative to the AFL and called on that body to assist in the creation of a nation-wide organization of Unemployed Councils (UCs).
The CP was following the lead of the Communist International which had, in 1928, declared the start of the so-called Third Period, which was said to mark the beginning of capitalism’s terminal stage, and called on all communist parties to end their joint work with other organizations and prepare for the coming revolutionary struggle. This stance meant that as unemployment exploded, those without work had the benefit of an existing organization to give them a voice and instrument of action. Unfortunately, it also led to destructive attacks on other political tendencies and efforts to build organizations of the unemployed, thereby weakening the overall effort.
The CP’s first big effort directed towards the unemployed was the March 6, 1930 demonstrations against unemployment and for relief that drew some 500,000 people in twenty-five cities and was organized under the banner of “International Day for Struggle against Worldwide Unemployment.” The New York City demonstration, the largest, was met by police repression, with many demonstrators beaten and arrested. But another New York City protest by the unemployed in October produced a victory, with the city agreeing to boost relief spending by $1 million. These actions created visibility for the CP’s fledgling national network of UCs and helped to build its membership.
The Unemployed Councils of the USA held its founding convention in early July. The following month it issued a statement calling on Congress to adopt its “Workers Unemployment Insurance Bill.” The bill called for “payment of $35 per week for each unemployed worker plus an additional $5 per week per dependent and the creation of a ‘National Unemployment Insurance Fund’ to be generated through a tax on all property valued in excess of $25,000 and incomes of more than $5,000.” A new Workers’ Commission, to be elected by working people, was to control the distribution of funds.
To this point, the Unemployed Councils of the USA was dominated by the CP, and its general program and demands largely echoed those of the CP, often including foreign policy declarations expressing support for the Soviet Union. However, in November, finally acknowledging that this dominance was limiting recruitment, the party agreed to give its organizers more independence and freedom to focus on the issues of most direct concern to the unemployed. In the months that followed, “a wave of rent strikes, eviction fights, and hunger marches involving an estimated 250,000 workers in seventy-five cities and six states swept the country. The Unemployed Councils had become a force to be reckoned with.”
The party’s focus on building a confrontational movement operating both locally and nationally led it to reject a variety of other efforts embraced by some unemployed. As Franklin Folsom describes:
Early in 1931, some leaders of Unemployed Councils had recommended setting up food kitchens, and Communists helped organize food collections. These were humane acts of assistance to people who needed something to eat immediately. In a few months, however, both the Communists and the Unemployed Councils abandoned the idea, saying it had nothing to do with solving the basic problems of the unemployed. Similarly, Communist and council policy on the subject of looting varied depending on time and place. In the early days of mass unemployment some Communists encouraged the direct appropriation of food. Later the practice was frowned on because it solved no long-term problem and could provoke very costly counteraction.
Many unemployed also turned to self-help activities to survive. The so-called “productive enterprise” movement, in which unemployed workers sought to create their own enterprises to produce either for the market or barter, spread rapidly. According to one study, by the end of 1932 this movement was active in thirty-seven states, with the largest group in California. The CP and UCs opposed this effort from the start, calling it a self-starvation movement.
The organization and activity of the UCs
Most UCs were neighborhood centered, since the unemployed generally spent most of their time in the neighborhoods where they lived. The basic unit of the UC was the block committee, which comprised all unemployed local residents and their family members. Each block committee elected delegates to a neighborhood unemployed council, and these councils, in turn, elected delegates to county or city unemployed councils.
The block committee office served as a social center, where the unemployed could gather and build relationships. Through conversation and even more importantly action they were also able to develop a new radical understanding of the cause of their unemployment as well as appreciation for collective power. As Steve Nelson, a leader of the Chicago UC movement, explained, it was important for the unemployed 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.” Thus, “unemployed agitation was as much education as direct action.”
With time on their hands, the unemployed were generally eager to act in defense of their neighbors, especially around housing and relief. Here is Christine Ellis, a UC organizer, talking about what happened at one 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!
Carl Winder, another UC activist, describes the response of the councils in New York to attempted evictions for nonpayment of rent:
Squads of neighbors were organized to bar the way to the dispossessing offices. Whole neighborhoods were frequently mobilized to take part in this mutual assistance. Where superior police force prevailed, it became common practice for the Unemployed Councils to lead volunteer squads in carrying the displaced furniture and belongings back into the home after the police had departed. Council organizers became adept in fashioning meter-jumps to restore disconnected electric service and gas.
Hosea Hudson, a UC activist in Alabama, tells 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.”
No Work, No Rent! was the common chant at UC anti-eviction actions. And because UCs were part of a national organization, successful strategies in one area were quickly shared with UCs in another, spurring new actions. According to one account, UCs had practically stopped evictions in Detroit by March 1931. It was estimated that in 1932, 77,000 New York City families were moved back into their homes by UCs. At the same time, these were costly actions. The police would often arrest many of those involved as well as use force to end resistance, leading to serious injuries and in some cases deaths.
UCs also mobilized to help people who were turned down for relief assistance. Normally, UC organizers would gather a large crowd outside the relief agency and send in an elected committee to demand a meeting to reverse the decision. Here is Hosea Hudson again, explaining the approach 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.”
In New York, UC members would often organize sit-ins at the relief office and refuse to leave until the center reversed a negative decision. Intimidated by the aggressive protests, local relief officials throughout the country increasingly gave ground and approved relief requests.
This kind of activism directly challenged business and elite claims that prosperity was just around the corner. It also revealed a growing radical spark, as more and more people openly challenged the legitimacy of the police, the court system, and state institutions.
With demands for relief escalating, cash-strapped relief agencies began pressing city governments for additional funds. But city budgets were also shrinking. As Danny Lucia reports in his study of unemployed organizing, this was an explosive situation. In 1932, with Chicago’s unemployment rate at 40 percent, “Mayor Anton Cermak told Congress to send $150 million today or federal troops in the future.”
Thus, the militancy of the unemployed movement was now pushing mayors and even some business leaders to also press for federal action. This development served to amplify the UCs own state and national campaigns demanding direct job creation and a program of federal relief. These campaigns, by design, also helped generate publicity and support for local UC actions.
For example, in January 1931, a gathering of the Unemployed Councils of America and the TUUL decided to launch a national petition drive aimed at forcing Congress to pass a Federal Unemployment Insurance bill. The UCs then began door-to-door canvassing for signatures. Approximately a month later a delegation of 140 people was sent to Washington DC to deliver the petition to Congress on National Unemployment Insurance Day. Demonstrations in support of the petition, organized by UCs, were held in most major cities on the same day.
Not long after, the CP set up a new organization, the Unemployed Committee for the National Hunger March, to coordinate a national hunger march on Washington DC to demand federal unemployment insurance and “the granting of emergency winter relief for the unemployed in the form of a lump-sum payment of $150 per unemployed worker, with an additional $50 for each dependent” as well as “a 7-hour workday, establishment of a union wage pay scale for unemployed workers, payment of a soldiers’ bonus to veterans of World War I, and an end to discrimination against black American and foreign-born workers.” Local conferences selected 1,670 delegates, who converged on Washington from four separate columns in December 1931. Their trip across the country was supported by local UCs.
Not surprisingly, the delegates were denied entrance to the Capital to present their demands. They stayed two days and then started back, holding mass meetings across the country on their return trip to talk about their demands and the need for mass action to win them.
Another National Hunger March took place the following year. This time 3,000 delegates came to Washington DC to again present their demands for winter relief and unemployment insurance. These marches not only helped to strengthen the movement of the unemployed, they also greatly increased the pressure on elected officials to take some action to restore popular confidence in the government.
Underpinning the strategic orientation of the work of the UCs was the CP’s determination to build solidarity between the labor movement and the unemployed and anti-racist unity. The first is highlighted by struggles in Detroit, where most unemployment was the result of auto factory layoffs. There, the UCs and the Young Communist League led several marches to auto plants to protest the inadequate benefits given to laid-off workers. Organizers would also read statements aimed at the workers still employed in the plants, pledging that the unemployed would not scab if workers struck for improved conditions.
As for anti-racism work, 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. 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.”
Other organizing efforts
The CP was not the only left organization working to build a movement of the unemployed. Both the Socialist Party and the Conference of Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), led by A.J. Muste, also created unemployed organizations that mobilized hundreds of thousands of jobless workers in local and national protests. The Socialist Party created affiliated committees in a number of cities, the largest in Chicago and New York. These committees were, like the UCs, generally oriented towards direct action in response to local conditions but they also engaged in electoral efforts.
The CPLA organized a number of Unemployed Citizen Leagues (UCLs) following the model of the Seattle Unemployed Citizens League. Established in the summer of 1931, the Seattle UCL quickly grew to a membership of 80,000 by 1933. The UCLs initially focused on self-help through barter and labor exchange. For example, members of the Seattle league:
persuaded farmers to let them harvest the fruit and potatoes for which there was no market, and they borrowed trucks to transport this produce. Women exchanged sewing for food. Barbers cut hair for canned berries. This practice of barter spread and was highly organized. . . . Some men collected firewood from cutover forested areas; in all, they cut, split, and hauled 11,000 cords. The products of these labors were shared by UCL members. Some members repaired houses or worked in shoe repair shops, while others did gardening. There were also child welfare and legal aid projects in which lawyers contributed their services.
The UCLs were also active in local elections, supporting candidates and legislation in favor of extended relief aid and unemployment insurance. However, after a few years, most abandoned their focus on self-help, finding that “the needs of the jobless greatly exceeded the ability of a mutual aid program to meet them,” and turned instead to more direct-action protests similar to those of the UCs. Although the CPLA failed to develop a national presence, their leagues were important in the Midwest, especially Ohio.
The CP was hostile to these organizations and their organizing efforts. In line with their Third Period strategy, the CP considered them to be a danger to the movement they were trying to build and their leaders to be “social-fascists.” Party opposition went beyond denouncing these groups. UC activists were encouraged to undermine their work, sometimes by physical force, other times by infiltrating and disrupting their meetings. This sectarianism clearly weakened the overall strength of the unemployed movement. At the same time, local UC activists would sometimes ignore CP and UC leadership directives and find ways to build solidarity around joint actions on behalf of the unemployed.
The unemployed were not the only group whose organizing threatened the status quo. As Steve Fraser pointed out: “Farmers took to the fields and roads in shocking displays of lawlessness. All across the corn belt, rebels banded together to forcibly prevent evictions of fellow farmers.” The Farm Holiday Association, an organization of midwestern farmers founded in 1932, not only mobilized its members to resist evictions, it also supported a progressive income tax, federal relief for the urban unemployed, and federal government control of the banks. “In the South, tenants and sharecroppers unionized and conducted what a Department of Labor study called a ‘miniature civil war.’”
Veterans also organized. World War I veterans from around the country, many with their families, traveled to Washington DC in summer 1932. The call for a national Bonus March, although made by a largely anti-communist leadership, was inspired by the CP organized First National Hunger March. The veterans had been promised a bonus to compensate for their low war-time pay, but the Congress had delayed payment until 1945. The veterans wanted their money now and set-up camps near the Capitol to pressure Congress to act. Their camps were destroyed and the veterans violently dispersed by troops led by Douglas McArthur and Dwight Eisenhower.
In short, the political trajectory was one that concerned a growing number of political and business leaders. Working people, largely anchored by a left-promoted, mass-based movement of unemployed, were becoming increasingly militant and dismissive of establishment calls for patience. Continued federal inaction was becoming ever more dangerous. Recognizing the need for action to preserve existing structures of power, it took Roosevelt only three months to drop his commitment to balanced budget orthodoxy in favor of New Deal experimentation.
The multifaceted crisis we face today is significantly different from the crisis activists faced in the first years of the Great Depression. But there is no question that, much like then, we will need to build a powerful, mass-movement for change if we hope to harness state power to advance a Green New Deal.
The First New Deal was not the result of administration concerns over the economic and social costs of the Great Depression. Rather, it was political pressure that forced Roosevelt to begin experimenting with programs responsive to the concerns of working people. And, not surprisingly, these experiments were, as will be discussed in the next post in this series, quite limited. It took new organizing to push Roosevelt to implement more progressive programs as part of his Second New Deal.
There are also lessons to be learned from the period about movement building itself, specifically the CPs organizing and strategic choices in targeting the unemployed and building a national movement of the unemployed anchored by a network of UCs. The UCs helped transform how people understood the cause of their hard times. They also created a local, collective, and direct outlet for action in defense of immediate shared basic needs. The CP also emphasized the importance of organizing those actions in ways designed to overcome important divisions among working people. Finally, the party and the UCs created broader campaigns for public policies on the national level that were directly responsive to local concerns and actions. Thus, organizing helped create a momentum that built political awareness, leadership capacity, class unity, and national weight around demands for new public initiatives.
The call for a Green New Deal speaks to a variety of crises and the need for change in many different sectors, including food production, energy generation, transportation, manufacturing, social and physical infrastructure, housing, health care, and employment creation. It also projects a vision of a new more sustainable, egalitarian, and democratic society. While it would be a mistake to equate the organizing work in the early years of the depression, which focused on employment and relief, with what is required today given the multifaceted nature of our crisis, we would do well to keep the organizing experience highlighted above in mind as we seek to advance the movement building process needed to win a Green New Deal. It offers important insights into some of the organizational and political challenges we can expect to face and helpful criteria for deciding how best to respond to them.
For example, it challenges us to think carefully about how to ensure that our organizing work both illuminates the roots of our current multifaceted crises, building anti-capitalist consciousness, and challenges existing racial, ethnic, and gender divisions, strengthening working class unity. It also challenges us to think about how to ensure that that our efforts in different geographic areas and around different issues will connect to build a national presence and organizational form that strengthens and unites our various efforts and also projects our overall vision of a restructured society. And it also challenges us to think about how we should engage the state itself, envisioning and preparing for the ways it can be expected to seek to undermine whatever reforms are won.