Growing awareness of our ever-worsening climate crisis has boosted the popularity of movements calling for a Green New Deal. At present, the Green New Deal is a big tent idea, grounded to some extent by its identification with the original New Deal and emphasis on the need for strong state action to initiate social-system change on a massive scale. Challenges abound for Green New Deal activists. Among the many, how to:
- create supportive working relationships between the different movements currently pushing for a Green New Deal
- develop a sharper, shared vision of the aims of a Green New Deal
- increase popular support for those aims as well as participation in those movements
- build sufficient political power to force a change in state policy along lines favorable to the Green New Deal
- ensure that the resulting trajectory of change strengthens the broader struggle to achieve a socially just and ecologically sustainable political-economy
While there are great differences between the crises and political movements and possibilities of the 1930s and now, there are also important lessons that can be learned from the efforts of activists to build mass movements for social transformation during the Great Depression. My aim in this series, including in this fifth and last post, is to illuminate the challenges faced and choices made by these activists in order to draw out some of the relevant lessons.
In previous posts I argued that the despite the severity of the Great Depression, it took sustained, left-led, mass organizing and actions to force the federal government to accept responsibility for improving economic conditions. Unfortunately, First New Deal relief and job creation policies were inadequate, far from what the growing movement of unemployed demanded or was needed to meet majority needs. However, continued mass activity by the unemployed, those on relief, and those employed eventually forced the Roosevelt administration to undertake a Second New Deal, which included its widely praised programs for public works (WPA), social security (Social Security Act), and union rights (National Labor Relations Act).
These Second New Deal programs were unprecedented and did improve conditions for working people. But, as I argue in this final post, both the WPA and the Social Security Act again fell short of the transformative changes demanded by activists. And while the NLRA did offer workers important legal protections that made it safer for them to unionize their workplaces, its effect was to encourage a top-down system of labor-management relations that suppressed rank and file activism and class consciousness. Thus, despite their pathbreaking nature, these programs were far from revolutionary. Rather they were designed to ameliorate the suffering caused by capitalism’s crisis without threatening capitalist control over economic activity.
Tragically, changes in the political and economic environment, as well as strategic choices made by the left in response to those changes led to the weakening of popular movements, leaving them unable to push the Roosevelt administration into yet a Third New Deal. As a result, the upsurge of the 1930s failed to advance the socialist-inspired transformation that motivated many of its participants. In the end, it proved only able to force the state to adopt policies that reformed the workings of the system, a not inconsiderable achievement, but one that still left working people vulnerable to the vicissitudes of capitalism. Hopefully, a careful study of the New Deal experience will help Green New Deal activists build movements able to avoid the trap of limited reform while fighting for the massive, interconnected, and empowering social-system change we so desperately need.
The Second New Deal
It is easy to understand why supporters of a Green New Deal look to the New Deal as a touchstone. Growing numbers of people have come to the conclusion that our problems are too big to be solved by individual or local efforts alone, and that once again innovative and transformative state-led actions will be needed to solve them. Quite simply, the New Deal experience inspires people to believe in the possibility of a Green New Deal.
When people talk about the innovative and transformative policies of the New Deal they normally mean the core policies of the Second New Deal: the WPA, the Social Security Act, and the National Labor Relations Act. As innovative as these policies were, they were, as discussed in Part IV, largely forced on the Roosevelt Administration by left-led mass movements. And, as we see next, they were, by design, meant to blunt more radical demands for change. In short, they were important reforms, but no more than reforms, and as such offered only partial solutions to the problems of the time. Sadly, workers today continue to suffer from their limitations.
Works Progress Administration
One of the most important Second New Deal programs was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Established in May 1935, it employed millions of unemployed to carry out public projects such as construction of public buildings and roads. Federal Project Number One, a much smaller program that also operated under the WPA umbrella, employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. These included the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Art Project.
Roosevelt’s decision to replace the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) with the WPA was a clear sign that he recognized that his First New Deal employment and relief programs—FERA and the Civil Works Administration (CWA)—had done little to satisfy fast growing left-led unemployed movements that were demanding a federal jobs program under which unemployed workers would be directly put to work, at union wages, producing a wide range of needed goods and services.
FERA had provided loans and grants to states which then offered relief work to those that qualified for relief. As discussed in Part III, the program required workers to submit to demeaning financial investigations, often paid those chosen for relief with coupons that could only be redeemed for select food items, made no attempt to match worker skills with jobs, and often employed those on relief in make-work tasks. While FERA marked the first direct federal support for relief and enabled states to greatly expand their relief rolls, it also required states to provide matching funds to receive FERA money. Limited state resources meant that relief covered only about one-third of those unemployed.
CWA was a far more popular program, most importantly because it involved direct federal employment, had no relief requirement, paid relatively well, and sought to match workers’ skills with jobs. However, it was, by design, a short-term program that lasted only 6 months, with most employment creation ending after 4 months.
The WPA was a federal program that operated its own projects in cooperation with state and local governments, which were required to cover some 10 to 30 percent of their costs. In some cases, the WPA took over ongoing FERA state and local relief programs. But, despite its impressive accomplishments, it also fell short of movement demands.
Although the WPA combined elements of both FERA and the CWA, it was far more like the former than the latter. For example, in contrast to the CWA, participation in WPA projects required a state means test. Thus, unemployment alone was not enough to qualify a person for the program. Moreover, as under FERA, participants were subject to demeaning monitoring of their spending habits and living conditions.
Again. unlike the CWA, little effort was made to match workers’ skills with jobs. Workers were divided into two broad categories of skilled and unskilled. The unskilled were assigned construction jobs even if they had no construction experience. The skilled were assigned a variety of writing or teaching jobs regardless of whether they had experience in those areas. The program did pay market wages. However, limits were put on maximum allowable hours of weekly employment in addition to an overall limit on total earnings.
WPA employment opportunities were also limited. Its average monthly employment was approximately 3 million workers. The CWA, at its peak, employed over 4 million a month. The WPA, like FERA, employed only about one-third of the unemployed. Moreover, because of unstable program financing, even those employed by the WPA would sometimes suffer layoffs.
The unemployed movement wanted a permanent federal employment program that would guarantee full employment. And they wanted that program to employ people to produce needed goods and services as a direct counter to private production. This was far from the vision of the Roosevelt administration. As Harry Hopkins, chief administrator of the WPA, explained:
Policy from the first was not to compete with private business. Hence we could neither work on private property, set up a rival merchandising system, nor form a work outlet through manufacturing, even though manufacturing had contributed to relief rolls hundreds of thousands of workers accustomed to operating machines and to doing nothing else for a living.
Operating under these limits, the WPA had little choice but to focus its efforts on the construction of public buildings and roads. Post offices accounted for close to half of the more than 3000 public buildings constructed.
Moreover, despite its limitations, the unemployed had to fight to sustain the program. Congress decided to provide funds for the program one year at a time. Sometimes allocations fell short of planned spending, resulting in layoffs. Other times, militant demonstrations by an alliance of unemployed groups forced Congress into making supplemental appropriations.
The number of public works projects and WPA participants began a steady decline in 1939. The next year the Roosevelt administration decided to reorient program activity to projects of direct use to the military, including construction of base housing and military airfields as well as expansion of naval yards. The WPA was quietly terminated in 1943, with unemployment problems seemingly solved thanks to the demands of wartime production. Sadly, the unemployed never developed the political weight or broader social movement needed to push the government into embracing a more expansive and ongoing program of national planning and public production.
The Social Security Act
The Social Security Act is widely considered to be the New Deal’s crown jewel. According to his Secretary of Labor, “[President Roosevelt] always regarded the Social Security Act as the cornerstone of his administration . . . and . . . took greater satisfaction from it than from anything else he achieved on the domestic front.”
Roosevelt appointed a Committee on Economic Security in July 1934 with the charge to develop a social security bill that he could present to Congress in January 1935 that would include provisions for both unemployment insurance and old-age security. An administration approved bill was in fact introduced in January and Roosevelt called for quick Congressional action. The bill was revised in April by a House committee and given a new name, “The Social Security Act.” After additional revisions the Social Security Act was approved by overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Congress, and the legislation was signed by the President on August 14, 1935.
The Social Security Act was a complex piece of legislation. It included what we now call Social Security, a federal old-age benefit program; a program of unemployment benefits administered by the states, and a program of federal grants to states to fund benefits for the needy elderly and aid to dependent children. It was a cautious beginning, as explained by Edwin E. Witte, the Executive Director and Secretary of the President’s Committee on Economic Security:
Because we were in the midst of a deep depression, the Administration and Congress were very anxious to avoid placing too great burdens on business and also to avoid adding to Government deficits. It was these considerations that resulted in the low beginning social security tax rates and the step-plan of the introduction of both old-age and unemployment insurance and also in the establishment of completely self-financed social insurance programs, without Government contributions–to this day a distinctive feature of social insurance in this country.
Before examining the way Roosevelt’s concerns for the well-being of business placed limits on the timeliness, coverage, and support provided by these programs, it is important to recognize that, as with the WPA, Roosevelt’s commitment to social security was a response to the efforts of the Communist Party (CP), which authored a far more progressive bill, one that would have significantly shifted the balance of class power towards workers.
The CP began pushing its Workers Unemployment Insurance Bill in the summer of 1930, and it, as well as the Unemployment Councils, worked hard to promote it over the following years. On March 4, 1933, the day of Roosevelt’s inauguration, they organized demonstrations stressing the need for action on unemployment insurance.
Undeterred by Roosevelt’s lack of action, the CP authored a bill–the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill–that was introduced in Congress in February 1934 by Representative Ernest Lundeen of the Farmer-Labor Party. In broad brush, as Chris Wright summarizes, the bill:
provided for unemployment insurance for workers and farmers (regardless of age, sex, or race) that was to be equal to average local wages but no less than $10 per week plus $3 for each dependent; people compelled to work part-time (because of inability to find full-time jobs) were to receive the difference between their earnings and the average local full-time wages; commissions directly elected by members of workers’ and farmers’ organizations were to administer the system; social insurance would be given to the sick and elderly, and maternity benefits would be paid eight weeks before and eight weeks after birth; and the system would be financed by unappropriated funds in the Treasury and by taxes on inheritances, gifts, and individual and corporate incomes above $5,000 a year. Later iterations of the bill went into greater detail on how the system would be financed and managed.
Not surprisingly, the bill enjoyed strong support among workers, employed and unemployed. Thanks to the efforts of unemployed and union activists it was soon endorsed by 5 international unions, 35 central labor bodies, and more than 3000 local unions. Rank and file worker committees also formed across the country to pressure members of Congress to pass it.
When Congress refused to act on the bill, Lundeen reintroduced it in January 1935. Because of public pressure, the bill became the first unemployment insurance plan in U.S. history to be recommended by a congressional committee, in this case the House Labor Committee. It was voted down in the full House of Representatives, 204 to 52.
Roosevelt strongly opposed the Lundeen bill and it was to provide a counter that he established his Committee on Economic Security in July 1934 and pressed Congress to approve the resulting Social Security Act as quickly as possible. Roosevelt’s Social Security Act fell far short of what the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill offered, and it was strongly opposed by movement activists and organizations of the unemployed.
The part of the bill that established what we now call Social Security suffered from five main weaknesses. First, it was to be self-financing because of administration fears of deficit spending, a decision which placed downward pressure on benefit levels. Second, it was to be financed by contributions from both workers and employers. Thus, workers had to shoulder half the costs of the program.
Third, the system was not universal. The act covered only workers in commerce and industry, about half the jobs in the economy. Among those left out were farm and domestic workers.
Fourth, the act provided for monthly retirement benefits payable only to the primary worker in a family when they retired at age 65 or older. Moreover, the amount received depended on the value of wages earned in covered employment starting in 1937.
Finally, the act mandated that monthly benefit payments would not begin until 1942. A 1939 amendment did allow benefit payments to begin in 1940 and added child, spouse, and survivor benefits to the authorized retirement benefits.
In sum, this was a program that offered too little, too late, and to too few people. And while improvements were made over the years, the current system pales in comparison to the kind of security and humane retirement workers would have enjoyed if the workers’ movement had been powerful enough to secure passage of its preferred bill.
The unemployment system established as part of the Social Security Act was also structured in ways unfavorable to workers compared with the proposed benefits of the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill. Rather than set up a comprehensive national system of unemployment compensation, as workers desired, the act established a federal-state cooperative system that gave states wide latitude in determining standards.
More specifically, the act levied a uniform national pay-roll tax of 1 percent in 1936, 2 percent in 1937, and 3 percent in 1938, on covered employers, defined as those employers with eight or more employees for at least twenty weeks, not including government employers and employers in agriculture. Only workers employed by a covered employer could receive benefits.
Covered employers were given a federal credit on up to 90 percent of the tax if they paid their credit amount into a certified state unemployment compensation fund. The act left it to the states to decide whether to enact their own plans, and if so, to determine eligibility conditions, the waiting period to receive benefits, benefit amounts, minimum and maximum benefit levels, duration of benefits, disqualifications, and other administrative matters. It was not until 1937 that programs were established in every state as well as the then-territories of Alaska and Hawaii. And it was not until 1938 that most began paying benefits.
In the early years, most states required eligible workers to wait 2 to 4 weeks before drawing benefits, which were commonly set at half recent earnings (subject to weekly maximums) for a period ranging from 12 to 16 weeks. Ten state laws called for employee contributions as well as employer contributions.
Just like with social security, over the following years the program was expanded in a number of positive ways, including by expanding coverage and benefits. However, the unemployment program established by the Social Security Act fell far short of the universal, progressively funded social safety net that workers were demanding.
The National Labor Relations Act
In the spring of 1934, Senator Robert Wagner introduced a bill to establish a new labor relations board that, unlike the one established by the First New Deal’s National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), would have enforcement authority. Few in Congress supported the bill; President Roosevelt also opposed it.
Wagner reintroduced a revised version of his bill a year later and to a dramatically different outcome. In May 1935 it received unanimous support in the Senate Labor Committee, followed by strong support in both the Senate and House. As reported by the editors of Who Built America?, President Roosevelt remained opposed to the bill up until the very end:
“It ought to be on the record,” his labor secretary noted, that the bill was “not a part of the President’s program. It did not particularly appeal to him when it was described to him.” But when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the NIRA in May and Wagner’s National Labor Relations bill was passed by one house of Congress, FDR finally endorsed the bill.
In broad brush, the National Labor Relations Act established a set of laws and regulations designed to guarantee the right of private sector workers to peacefully organize into trade unions of their choosing and engage in collective bargaining and actions such as strikes. The act also created the National Labor Relations Board to organize and oversee the process by which workers decide on whether to join a union as well as determine whether collective bargaining agreements are being fairly bargained and enforced.
The turnaround in support for the NLRA owes much to the growing militancy of workers, and the threat that this militancy posed to the established order. Section 7a of the NIRA had promised workers that they would “have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing . . . free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers.” Unfortunately, with no mechanism to ensure that workers would be able to exercise this right, after a short period of successful union organizing, companies began violently repressing genuine union activity. By 1935, growing numbers of workers were calling the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which had been established to oversee the NIRA, the National Run Around.
However, it was not the corporate campaign of violence directed against workers that was the catalyst for the change in government policy. Rather it was the explosion of powerful left-led worker victories in three major labor struggles in early 1934. The first was in Toledo, Ohio, where American Workers’ Party sponsored unemployed organizations joined with striking auto workers seeking to unionize a major auto parts manufacturer. The workers battled special deputies and National Guard troops for weeks, maintaining an effective strike. Fearful of the possibility of an even larger strike, the Roosevelt administration finally sent federal mediators to Toledo, forcing the company to recognize the union and agree to significant wage increases.
At almost the same time, an even bigger struggle began in Minneapolis. A Trotskyist-led Teamster local, fighting to unionize a number of trucking and warehouse companies, effectively shut down commercial transport in the city. Days of violence followed as police and special deputies tried to break the strike. Faced with a growing threat of a general strike, federal mediators again were forced to intervene, and again forced the employers to recognize the union.
A general strike did take place in San Francisco. Led by Communist and other radical rank and file activists, San Francisco longshoremen rejected a secretly negotiated deal between the national leadership of the International Longshoremen’s Association and the waterfront employers. Their strike was quickly joined by dockworkers in every other West Coast port as well as many sailors and waterfront truckers.
Police attempts to break the San Francisco strike led to a full-scale battle and the death of two strikers by police on what became known as Bloody Thursday. In response, the labor movement declared a general strike. Some 150,000 workers went out, essentially bringing San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and other nearby municipalities, to a halt. Again, federal intervention was required to bring the strike to a halt, with a victory for the workers.
These struggles, all with important left leadership, showed a dramatic growth in worker militancy, solidarity, and radicalism that sent shock waves throughout the corporate community as well as the government. And it was to head off the further radicalization of the labor movement that the Congress and Roosevelt agreed to support the NLRA and its mechanisms to regularize the unionization process. In the words of Steve Fraser:
The Wagner Act helped institutionalize a form of industrial democracy that steered clear of any frontal assault on the underlying political economy. It legitimated collective bargaining, imposed responsibilities on both management and trade union officialdom, and worked to establish peace on the shop floor.
Union leaders were to police their members, instilling a disciplined commitment to the terms of the contract. Control of life on the shop-floor remained with management. Militants who thought otherwise were soon enough reigned in. The much-maligned (not without cause) trade union bureaucracy was, after all, the fruit of a mass movement, an institution, created where there had been nothing, the slowly solidified residue of fiery desires.
For a few years, it appeared that worker militancy, a willingness to directly challenge corporate rights with no concern for issues of legality, would continue despite the NLRB’s existence. For example, in early 1936 rubber workers in Akron, Ohio disregarded both union leadership and a court injunction to surround the eleven-mile perimeter of a Goodyear plant with pickets. They shut down the plant in protest over recent wage cuts and layoffs of activists and rejected federal attempts at mediation. When word came that the sheriff might come with armed deputies to open the plat, the strikers armed themselves. Finally, after four weeks, Goodyear settled, agreeing to reinstate the fired workers, reduce the workweek, and recognize the authority of union shop committees.
Not long after, inspired by the rubber workers, auto workers began staging walk-outs and strikes at several different Chrysler and GM plants over firings and unionization. The biggest action came at the end of 1936 with the Flint sit-down strike. The workers held the plant for 44 days, during which time they fought off attempts by armed police to evict them and ignored injunctions issued by the courts demanding that they leave. In the end GM agreed to recognize the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for all GM workers.
The number of strikes grew dramatically from 2,014 in 1935 to 4,740 in 1937, with workers increasingly winning unionization not through the machinery of the NLRA, but through direct action. For example, the number of sit-down strikes lasting more than a day grew from 48 in 1936 to some 500 in 1937.
Unfortunately, this upward trajectory of militant, class conscious activity would not be sustained. The reasons are complex. One part of the explanation concerns the evolving political orientation of the CP. Responding to the new strategic orientation of the Communist International, which stressed the importance of building coalitions with all progressive and liberal forces to check the rise of fascism, the CP began pursuing an anti-fascist popular front policy that included support for Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election and the New Deal more generally.
This new orientation also translated into an increasingly conservative line regarding labor activism. Party activists were encouraged not only to support the new CIO union leadership but also to oppose militant organizing tactics. As Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward describe:
The Communists, by now well into their Popular Front phase and some of them into the union bureaucracy as well, endorsed the call for union discipline. Wyndham Mortimer issued a statement early in 1937 saying: “Sit-down strikes should be resorted to only when absolutely necessary.” And the Flint Auto Worker, edited by Communist Henry Kraus, editorialized that “the problem is not to foster strikes and labor trouble. The union can only grow on the basis of established procedure and collective bargaining.”
At the same time, corporate leaders were taking direct aim at the new labor reforms. One of their first big victories was a 1938 Supreme Court ruling that said companies had the right to hire permanent replacement workers when workers went on strike. The following year it ruled sit-down strikes illegal, even if undertaken in response to an illegal corporate action.
States also joined in. In 1939, as Piven and Cloward report:
state legislatures began to pass laws prohibiting some kinds of strikes and secondary boycotts, limiting picketing, outlawing the closed shop, requiring the registration of unions, limiting the amount of dues unions could charge, and providing stiff jail terms for violations of the new offenses. By 1947 almost all of the states had passed legislation imposing at least some of these limitations.
Finally, corporate leaders also launched an anti-Communist attack against union activists, especially those in leadership positions in the newly created unions of the CIO. Their efforts were amplified by House Un-American Activities Committee hearings which began in 1938. The 1947 Taft–Hartley Act codified all these developments, outlawing wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing, and closed shops, as well as requiring union officers to sign non-communist affidavits as a condition for their union to secure NLRA rights.
In sum, as left and union leadership began to rely ever more heavily on the NLRA to win gains for workers, corporate and political elites began aggressively narrowing the acceptable boundaries of legal action. As a consequence, although there would still be periods of worker militancy, the frequency of rank and file-led actions, open rebellion against the law, and moments of cross-union and class solidarity became increasingly rare. Thus, the NLRB succeeded, as its supporters hoped, in creating a more stable system of labor relations that was consistent with and supportive of the needs of capitalist production.
The Movement’s Decline
The workers movement of the 1930s was a mass movement that, thanks to left leadership, encouraged class solidarity and support for a program of radical social change. The movement was, as described in this and past posts, powerful enough to force the Roosevelt administration into adopting successively more progressive programs that, although flawed, did improve working and living conditions for many.
However, even as its different political tendencies began to unify, creating a national organization of the unemployed, the movement began to suffer a loss of militancy and vision that left it unable to further influence political developments. As a consequence, the reforms of the Second New Deal came to define the limits of change.
In 1934 the Communist Party organized Unemployed Councils tightened their organizational form, finally adopting a written constitution. In early 1935, Socialist Party organized unemployed organizations and a number of Musteite organized Unemployed Leagues joined together to create a national organization of the unemployed, the Workers Alliance. The following year, the Workers Alliance reached agreement with the Unemployed Councils and several other small unemployed organizations to form a new, larger national organization of the unemployed, the Workers Alliance of America (WAA). This unity was possible in large part because of the CP’s newly adopted popular front policy which led it to seek alliances with other political tendencies and groups that were seen as anti-fascist. This included the Socialist Party and Muste’s Conference for Progressive Labor Action and their associated movements of unemployed.
The Workers Alliance of America, critical of the WPA, continued to fight for the unemployed and those on relief. For example, when the Roosevelt administration announced planned cuts in WPA employment for 1937, the organization organized a number of sit-ins and demonstrations at city relief offices throughout the country. The President, under pressure from big city mayors, rescinded the cuts.
However, defending an existing program is not the same as winning a new, improved one. And this the movement could not do for several reasons. One is that the rank and file base of the unemployed movement was shrinking because of the growth in the economy and the expansion in relief opportunities. Another is that many of the movement’s most experienced activists were now employed as organizers in the growing trade union movement.
A third reason is that changes in the relief system undermined the movement’s ability to mobilize the unemployed and win gains through collective action. The system had become professionalized, with relief officials in city after city establishing rules about the size of delegations that would be allowed in offices and the number of times each week that delegations could seek meetings with officials. Moreover, relief office workers were instructed not to meet clients if they were accompanied by a delegation or grant relief if a delegation was present in the office.
This left local unemployed organizers in the position of either accepting the new ground rules to ensure that their members received relief or continuing their mass activity hoping that their old strategy would be more effective in winning gains. Increasingly, members advocated for the former, leaving organizers with no choice. In fact, as a sign of the growing sophistication of the New Deal relief effort, a number of relief offices actually offered jobs to local activists with the unemployed movement with the promise that they could help make the system work more efficiently and effectively for those seeking relief. In many cases, those offers were accepted.
Perhaps the most important reason for the movement’s growing political weakness was the Communist Party’s decision to pursue an alliance with the Roosevelt administration as part of its anti-fascist popular front policy. This led the party to organize support for Roosevelt’s 1936 election and his New Deal policies, and to deemphasize oppositional and militant mass actions in support of social transformation in favor of more established political activity such as petition drives and lobbying for improvements in existing programs. In fact, hoping to win Roosevelt’s good will, the CP often organized rallies designed to show worker support for the WPA and other New Deal programs. Roosevelt was actually invited to give the main speech at the WAA’s second annual convention. When he turned down the invitation the honor was given to the WPA’s Director of Labor Relations. In 1938, WAA locals even campaigned for pro-New Deal candidates.
Increasingly the WAA became integrated into the New Deal. As Piven and Cloward point out:
The [WAA became] recognized as the official bargaining agent for WPA workers, and alliance leaders now corresponded frequently with WPA administrators, communicating a host of complaints, and discussing innumerable procedural questions regarding WPA administrative regulations. Some of the complaints were major, having to do with pay cuts and arbitrary layoffs. Much of the correspondence, however, had to do with minute questions of procedure, and especially with the question of whether WPA workers were being allowed to make up the time lost while attending alliance meetings. Alliance leaders also wrote regularly to the president, reviewing the economic situation for him, deploring cuts in WPA, and calling for an expansion of the program.
The WAA continued to make demands on the administration, drafting their own bills calling for greater public spending and employment at union wages, advocating for their own far more sweeping social insurance program, and calling for the establishment of a national planning agency to oversee a permanent public works program. But the movement no longer threatened Roosevelt, and its demands were largely ignored. The WAA dissolved itself in 1941.
The labor movement, riding the growth in the economy, soon replaced the unemployed movement as the most powerful social force for change. However, for reasons noted above, it also underwent its own moderation despite the efforts of rank and file activists. For example, CIO leaders established Labor’s Non-Partisan League in 1936 to support President Roosevelt’s reelection and his New Deal program. World War II; the post-war vicious anti-communist attacks on all critics of capitalism, especially in the labor movement; and the strength of the post-war economic expansion finally buried the promise of a radical transformation. There would be no transformative Third New Deal.
The New Deal experience holds a number of important lessons for those advocating a Green New Deal. First, the existence or even recognition of a crisis cannot be counted on to motivate a change in government policy if that change threatens the status quo. It took years of mass organizing to force the federal government to acknowledge its responsibility to respond to the devastating social consequences of the Great Depression. The challenge will be even greater today since, as opposed to the 1930s, the capitalist class continues to enjoy lucrative opportunities for profit-making.
Second, a broad-base mass movement that threatens the stability of the system can force a significant change in government policy. The driving force for change in the 1930s was the movement of unemployed, and its early power came from the Communist Party’s ability to establish a network of local Unemployed Councils that provided unemployed workers with the opportunity to better understand the cause of their hard times, build class solidarity through collective actions in defense of local needs, and become part of broader campaigns for public policies on the national level that were directly responsive to their local concerns.
It is likely that activists for a Green New Deal will have to engage in a similar process of movement building if they hope to force a meaningful government response to our current crises. Despite the fact that we face a number of interrelated social, economic, and ecological crises, activists must still find ways to weave together different local organizations engaged in collective actions in defense of their local needs into a nation-wide political force able to project a vision of responsive system change as well as define and fight for associated policies.
Third, government responses to political pressure can be expected to fall far short of movement demands for transformative change. The Roosevelt administration’s First New Deal programs fell far short of what working people demanded and needed. It took sustained organizing to win a Second New Deal, which while better, was still inadequate. It the movement for a Green New Deal succeeds in forcing government action, it is safe to assume that, much as in the 1930s, the policies implemented will be partial and inadequate. Thus, movement activists have to prepare participants for a long, and ongoing campaign of mobilization, organizational development, and pressure.
Fourth, because of the importance of government policy and the natural attraction of wanting to exert personal influence on it, movement activists must remain vigilant against becoming too tied to the government bureaucracy, thereby losing their political independence and weakening the movement’s capacity to continue pushing for further changes in state policy. WAA leaders understandably wanted to influence New Deal policy, but their growing embrace of the Roosevelt administration, pursued for broader political objectives as well, ended up weakening the movement’s organizational strengthen and effectiveness and perhaps even more importantly, vision of a more egalitarian and democratic society. Green New Deal activists can be expected to face the same kind of pressures if a progressive government comes to power and begins to initiate its own reform program and movements must be alert to the danger.
Fifth, and finally, movements have to be careful not to become too policy oriented. The New Deal included a number of different programs each designed to address different problems. This created a natural tendency for the different organizations that comprised the broader social movement to narrow their own focus and concentrate on finding ways to respond to the policy shortcomings that most affected their members. Thus, while the unemployed, those on relief, and those fighting for unionization initially shared a sense of common struggle, over time, in large measure because of their success in winning reforms, they became separate movements, each with their own separate concerns. As a consequence, the overall power, unity, and commitment of the broader social movement for massive societal change was weakened.
This is a challenge that the movement for a Green New Deal can expect to face if it is successful enough to force meaningful government reforms, especially given the multiplicity of the challenges the country faces. The only way to minimize this challenge is to ensure that movement organizing, from the very beginning, encourages participants to see the need for the broader transformative change inspired by the notion of a Green New Deal, and to draw from their struggle an ever more concrete understanding of how that change can be advanced and how real improvement in their lives depends on its achievement.