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The Great Depression — How Workers Fought Back

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The U.S. has entered into what many believe could be the worst crisis since the Great Depression. Although we’ve already seen the loss of 250,000 jobs since the beginning of the year, the full effects of the financial crisis in the real economy will continue to be felt as working people face further wage cuts, price increases, insecurity and job losses.

There has been some debate on what the government should do in the form of gas tax relief, tax rebates and other measures that supposedly help working people deal with this economic tsunami. While there is no real aid forthcoming for the millions of families that face the loss of their houses, Ben Bernanke’s Federal Reserve Bank has pumped hundreds of billions in the financial markets in one form of another to assist the big banks and big business.

Workers and young people will have to fight back to defend themselves from the attempts of Big Business to make them pay for the crisis of the capitalist system. Nothing short of massive struggles, strikes and demonstrations, new waves of union organization on the scale of the 1930s and a challenge to the dictatorship of big business will lead to success.

Like the 1990s, the 1920s were a time of an unprecedented profit bonanza for Wall Street and the capitalist class. Then as now, this wealth never made it to most workers, who faced state repression and corporate terrorism when they fought for better wages and conditions. Millions of unskilled or semi-skilled workers in industry wanted to organize but were blocked by the conservative and narrow craft-based unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) leadership. Nevertheless, those struggles produced an experienced core of radical workers that would lead the victorious strikes and movements of the 1930s.

The Crash and Initial Shock

The 1929 crash of Wall Street and the ensuing economic crisis initially paralyzed the working class into inactivity. There were a litany of bank and corporate bankruptcies, unemployment reached 25% and wages for workers by 1931 were half of what they were in 1925-devestating working class families because there was no government safety net to speak of at the time. This had a profoundly negative effect on the legitimacy of the capitalist system..

Four years into the crisis, government aid was still almost exclusively for big business while it offered a pittance to the mass of American workers and poor. The rich continued to live lavishly while the mass of workers and farmers were devastated, many suffering from starvation, malnutrition, displacement and foreclosures.

At first workers tended to blame themselves for failing to provide for their families. But as they saw more and more friends and former workmates also without jobs, they saw clearly the social nature of the attacks – how they were rooted in class. A capitalist class that was not only well-protected but making even more profits while the mass of workers were being forced to the edge of survival. There was a tremendous growth of anger at big business and the government.

By 1930, there were already protests of workers, farmers and unemployed against a fate they knew they had no part in creating. There were big marches and protests in nearly every large city organized by the Trade Union Unity League and the Communist Party. Midwestern farmers organized strikes and demonstrations. In many instances there were riots of those desperately demanding food and relief.

The Communist Party organized protests and rallies to demand relief and jobs under the slogan “Fight Don’t Starve!” Veterans, along with the unemployed and displaced camped in Washington D.C. in what came to be known as the “Bonus March.” Their camps were attacked by federal troops with bayonets and tanks. Carrying signs that said “Be a Picket or a Peasant.”

Unemployed workers councils were organized by Communists, Trotskyists and Socialists in many cities across the country. In New York and other cities tenant organizations that challenged renters evictions and house repossessions were organized, directly challenging the landlords and police.

By the beginning of 1933, the initial shock of the Depression had receded and the anger and restlessness among the mass of workers and unemployed exploded to the surface. A massive strike wave erupted in the unorganized industries of rubber, steel, packinghouses and in auto plants. A.J. Muste, a radical leader noted in 1935: “Strike followed strike with bewildering rapidity. The long-exploited, too-patient auto slaves were getting tired of the game.”

Three Strikes

While there was a tremendous upsurge in struggle that began in 1933, the tide didn’t really begin to turn in favor of the workers until the end of 1934. The watershed events were the three successful strikes in 1934: Toledo Auto-Lite workers, Minneapolis coal truck drivers and warehouse workers and San Francisco dockworkers. Each was led by determined socialists and radicals who were able to mobilize a broad section of the working class into what became citywide general strikes.

In each of these cases, the leadership emphasized the need for the workers to rely only on their own strength and solidarity and to place no trust in the government, courts or capitalist politicians. The rank and file of the unions was involved in planning the strikes and protests, and were able to face down the company goons, police and National Guard troops who were deployed to break the strikes. These strikes won union recognition and wage increases. These victories paved the way for a colossal movement that saw millions join the new industrial unions, and the labor movement, across the country.

The Rise of the CIO

When the craft-based AFL refused to give real resources to organizing the mass of unskilled yet militant industrial workers, breakaway locals in auto, mining, rubber and packinghouses formed the Congress for Industrial Organization. This ushered in a massive movement of militant strikes using tactics like mass picket lines and sit-downs (effectively factory occupations where workers sat down on the assembly line and did nothing). The picket lines were defended by mobilizing the whole community of workers and their families. In his book Prisoners of the American Dream, historian Mike Davis remarks about the “epidemic of sit-down strikes beginning in rubber in 1936, then taken up by the autoworkers in their epic GM strike of winter 1937, and finally exploding in the spring fever of the 1937 as some 400,000 workers staged 477 sit-downs. Mighty corporations seemed to fall like dominoes.”

The effect of these actions on the consciousness of the workers themselves was immense. They began to be aware of their own collective power and their respect for capitalist propaganda began to wane. Through these actions, workers and the unemployed were able to win massive reforms from big business and the Roosevelt administration – including increased wages, benefits, pensions, the right to organize, the Social Security Act and unemployment benefits.

Roosevelt’s New Deal

None of these gains were handed down to the workers from business or from the Roosevelt Administration. The reforms introduced were a concession from the capitalists to the massive workers struggles that threatened the legitimacy and rule of big business. The attitude was that it’s better to give them some milk lest they take over the farm. Neither Roosevelt nor the Democratic Party was a real friend of the workers – over a dozen Democrat governors sent the National Guard to break strikes in the mid-’30s.

Then as now, the Democratic Party sold out the workers, it used tactful guile in lining up the official leadership of the unions and the Communist Party to prevent workers from forming their own political party.

The struggles fought during the Great Depression show us the best way to defend against attacks by big business through a bold strategy of mass protests, militant strikes and mass direct action to challenge the capitalist system. Over the past three decades, much of what was gained since the 1930s has been rolled back. What the capitalists concede one day, they will take away when they don’t feel threatened. Only a complete transformation that places democratic control of society’s resources in the hands of workers and oppressed will solve the problem once and for all.

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