Unemployed Movement of the Thirties

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Depression, with private charity overwhelmed
and the government continuing
to follow a laissez faire course, the
millions of unemployed were forced to
rely on their own resources and selfactivity.
Little government welfare existed
before the summer of 1933 and the major public works
programs we associate with the New Deal only began to
take hold in the mid-thirties. In this situation, workers
without work found ways to sustain themselves through
collective efforts. Coal miners in the anthracite region,
thrown out of work and faced with a cold winter without
heat, set up“bootleg mining operations,” providing energy
for their families and friends and marketing the pilfered
coal on a small scale in Philadelphia and other cities.
Skilled workers bartered skills, with a carpenter doing
repairs in exchange for a haircut, or an electrician turning
the power back on in exchange for some garden vegetables.
Young people in particular
road the rails in their millions
in order to take the burden
off their families and to
find some companionship and
adventure on the road.
By far the most impressive
efforts were the unemployed
movements that burgeoned in
the early thirties. The earliest
and largest movement was
organized by the Communist
Party. The Communist International
declared March 6,
1930 Unemployed Day, calling
for huge demonstrations
throughout the world. On that
day millions marched in Paris,
London, and Berlin, but also in New York, Chicago, and in
smaller industrial communities throughout the United
States. In the wake of the demonstrations the Party established
the Unemployment Councils of the USA to provide a
structure and leadership for movements that were popping
up spontaneously in the neighborhoods of American cities.
The Unemployed Councils organized major marches
on state capitals and on DC to demand unemployment
insurance (a major factor in the eventual passage of the
1935 Social Security Act) and greater spending on welfare.
They also organized large demonstrations around the
country. Their most important achievements, however,
were likely much more modest actions in working-class
neighborhoods where they protested welfare cuts and
evictions, sometimes simply moving the displaced families
back into their homes. The neighborhood structure of the
councils made it easier for them to mobilize quickly and
some of the most effective councils were in the immigrant
and Black neighborhoods of Chicago where the movement
was so successful that Mayor Cermak was forced to declare
a moratorium on evictions in 1931. While the radicals
within the movement did raise broader political issues, the
main focus was on the everyday problems facing the
unemployed. The councils met regularly and were led by
unemployed people within the various neighborhoods.
Despite the importance of the Communist movement,
similar organizations derived from a variety of other political
organizations, religious communities, and spontaneous
groupings of all kinds. Priests, rabbis, and ministers
took part, as did small businessmen, housewives, and others
who saw the effects of unemployment within their
communities. In 1936 many of these groups came together
in the Workers’ Alliance, a broad front organization led
by an alliance of socialists and communists which protested
cuts in welfare and public works, lobbied on behalf of
the unemployed, and represented employees on WPA and
other public works projects. While there is no doubt that
the New Deal programs alleviated
much of the sufferings of
the unemployed and also provided
an environment in
which employed workers
were able to build powerful
unions, the continuing existence
of the unemployed
movement provided a basis
for protest and lobbying as a
more conservative Congress
cut social spending and rolled
back New Deal programs in
the late thirties. The election
of a relatively more progressive
government in late 1932
only increased the need for
independent organization on
the part of working people. Without the organized unemployed
movement and the powerful industrial unions created
in mid-thirties, the meager welfare state measures of
the depression might have been quickly dismantled in a
conservative reaction. Instead, these movements mobilized
their members in the streets and voting booths and
New Deal measures were preserved and modestly expanded
during and after World War Two, creating a safety net
for the unemployed and a modest redistribution of the
nation’s resources toward its working-class families. There
are many lessons for us in the history of the unemployed
movement but given our current situation, this notion of a
movement that can both press a responsive government
for greater attention to the unemployed and also protect
legislative and budget change when it finally comes, this
might be the most important lesson.

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