Tent cities of the newly homeless are popping up around the U.S. reminiscent of Hoovervilles, the shanty-towns that appeared during the Great Depression. Every month now, over half a million workers in the U.S. lose their jobs, again reminding us of the Great Depression era of mass unemployment. It’s no wonder why people keep saying we’re in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
Our situation is getting worse and worse. The ranks of the unemployed grow every day. We can’t afford to wait for things to get better by themselves; that just won’t happen. We can’t sit and idle hoping for change from above. It’s crucial to remember that during the Great Depression workers didn’t just sit around feeling depressed, they increasingly began to organize and fight back.
The Great Depression started in 1929 and each year through 1933 it grew worse with millions upon millions losing their jobs and their homes. Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais described this experience in Labor’s Untold Story: At first, each man was alone, often sitting silently in his home, hiding his unemployment and growing poverty as if it were a shameful disease. (p. 255)
More than just despair, something else under the surface was developing in U.S. society, a growing anger and a desperate search for a way out. Boyer and Morais write: Inside and concealed from the public gaze, men and women struggled alone at first, viewing their plight as personal, private disasters, a slow and dreadful panic rising within them. (p. 256)
Soon the unemployed began organizing. The National Unemployed Council was founded in Chicago on July 4, 1930. Initiated by the Communist Party-USA, the Unemployed Council built branches in 46 states, in cities and towns all across the U.S. They organized hunger marches and mass mobilizations in the streets, and demanded from the government jobs through public works, unemployment insurance, and food, shelter, and other forms of relief.
The battles were often bitterly fought and faced brutal repression. The mass demonstrations were denounced as communist conspiracies to overthrow the government. The police were called out to tear gas and beat protesters and otherwise violently disperse the crowds. Despite the repression, the unemployed continued their heroic battles for jobs and relief.
These struggles pressured President Roosevelt to provide some relief, if only to a limited extent. Art Preis, author of Labor’s Giant Step, debunks the myth of Roosevelt’s love for the little man by pointing out that the relief and public works programs were meager at best in comparison to the wider devastation brought on by the Depression. Preis notes, however, the highest relief, the most relief jobs, and the biggest wages were in direct proportion to the number of unemployed struggles….
One of the most important organizing efforts of the Unemployed Council was the struggles against evictions. When a family faced eviction, the local council would mobilize its forces and the surrounding neighborhood to keep the family in its home.
In many cases, as deputies tried to repossess furniture the gathered crowd would physically take the furniture and put it back in the house. While this led to some skirmishes with the local police, they usually outnumbered and overwhelmed the police.
The scale of the problem required an extraordinary effort. In the eight months up through June 1932, 185,794 families in New York City received eviction notices. The Unemployed Council managed to put 77,000 of those families back in their homes.
The Unemployed Council was not the only organization of the unemployed. Various socialist groups played key roles in the struggles of the unemployed and the formation of unemployed organizations. Perhaps the most important aspect of the general movement of the unemployed was its links to the labor movement.
Employed workers were fighting back as well, striking to protect jobs and defend their wages. But the bosses countered, as they always have, by relying on the reserves of the unemployed to break strikes. Often they would exploit divisions in the working class by using black or immigrant workers as scabs when white workers went on strike.
But more and more, the unemployed organizations joined striking workers on the picket lines, strengthening the workers’ position instead of undermining it. What was becoming clearer was the idea that an injury to one was an injury to all.
In 1934, the unity between the employed and the unemployed was a vital element in victories of the Minneapolis drivers strike and Toledo autoworkers strike. In Minneapolis, the strike developed creative tactics preventing scabs with flying pickets, and relied on support of wider layers of the working class such as the wives of striking workers and the leagues of the unemployed.
The Toledo Auto-Lite strikers similarly turned to the unemployed to aid their strike. The unemployed organized mass protests in support of striking workers.
The success of these two strikes, along with the San Francisco dockworkers general strike during the same year, paved the way for a massive strike wave and the rise of industrial unionization in the U.S. Millions joined the unions, in particular unskilled labor, blacks, and immigrants who had previously been denied entrance.
The rising labor movement won Social Security and a higher minimum wage in the 30s and continued to grow throughout the 40s, emerging from the Second World War as a force to be reckoned with.
Organizing Struggles Today
While many things have changed since the 1930s, there are some basic lessons to be learned from that period. We can clearly see popular anger developing at the bank bailout and the Wall Street bonus scandals. Probably less obvious is a deepening anger and frustration amongst the unemployed. At some stage, this simmering anger will boil over.
We have to channel this anger in the right direction. Workers’ confidence in the power of their own collective action must be raised. Organizing around a clear program to defend workers will be crucial.
We have to take up the basic issues like fighting layoffs and budgets cuts. We have to demand living-wage jobs for all, improving and extending unemployment benefits and food stamps to all who need them, and public works programs to employ the unemployed. We need struggles in our neighborhoods to stop foreclosures and evictions, and campaigns for single-payer healthcare.
Crucially, these basic campaigns have to be brought together in broader coalitions that unite the employed with the unemployed, union with non-union workers, youth with older workers, immigrants with native-born workers, together in common struggle.
Without working-class unity, public-sector union workers will be accused of being privileged as a basis for exacting concessions, immigrants will be accused of taking American jobs, and other scapegoats will be used to deflect blame and divide the working class. Other workers are not to blame, its Corporate America and the bankruptcy of this system based on profits.
Organizing a fightback using some of the militant tactics of the 30s like eviction blockades, mass protests, and strikes with fighting pickets is the only way we can effectively resist.
Even if the socialist and activist base in the labor movement and U.S. society as a whole is in a much weaker state than in the 1930s, these struggles have to start somewhere and they need to be based on a fighting strategy to unite wider layers of the working class.
The Communist Party played an important role in organizing workers in the 30s but at the same time supported Roosevelt, failing to point workers towards the need for political independence. As part of building struggles, we also need to build a political party that fights for future generations by challenging this crisis-ridden system itself.