Organizing the Unemployed in the Great Depression

Fighting for Unity

By Len Meyers and Chris Knox. Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 73, 18 July 1975

The onset of depression in the early 1930’s posed a test of monumental importance for every working-class political tendency and for the labor movement as a whole. Mass unemployment, caused by the capitalist system itself and obviously affected by the political actions of the ruling class and its state, became a political question of the highest order. Today, as millions once again face the prospect of long-term joblessness due to another worldwide capitalist depression, revolutionaries should pay close attention to the political lessons of communist unemployed organizing in the 1930’s.

The legions of jobless and homeless were the most dramatic human manifestation of a general economic crisis which was unprecedented in its severity, duration and international extent. Of the major nations, only the Soviet Union, with its collectivised property relations, escaped the dire effects. In the United States unemployment rose continuously, peaking in 1933 at nearly 18,000,000 and creating what was increasingly understood to be a permanent mass of surplus labor. The obtuse administration of Herbert Hoover reflected the quandary of its capitalist masters by seeking to publicly deny the existence of a serious problem as long as possible. Having come to office promising a new era of permanent prosperity, Hoover ended his term in 1933 following a 50 percent decline in industrial production since 1929, with agriculture bankrupt and the entire banking system of the country closed. Lacking any form of unemployment insurance, or even adequate temporary relief, the unemployed faced total destitution.

For labor the question of unemployment was intimately connected with organizing the great mass of unskilled production workers in the big factories into industrial unions. Left to themselves, growing numbers of desperate unemployed provided a ready pool of scab labor for strikebreaking employers. The fear of unemployment alone was sufficient to have a severely depressing effect on the struggles of employed workers: in 1930 the number of strikes was 618, down from 349,400 in 1927, with an equally precipitous decline in numbers of workers involved. Mass organization of both employed workers and unemployed was needed to unite the working class in struggle against a system which by protecting the profits of a few industrial and financial moguls subjected the masses of working people to untold privations.

Leadership of the initial protests of the unemployed fell to the Communist Party, largely because of the default of the official trade-union organizations of the American Federation of Labor. Unprecedented numbers of unemployed were ready to march in political protests as early as 1930, but the hidebound AFL bureaucracy under William Green detested nothing so much as masses of workers in militant action. The AFL’s drastic decline in membership (down to three million in 1929 from an earlier peak of nearly twice that), and concentration in the skilled crafts to the exclusion of the overwhelming majority of unskilled workers, only made the union “leaders” all the more cautious and conservative.

At the very beginning of the crisis, the AFL bureaucracy pledged cooperation with the employers: at a 1929 White House conference with business tycoons and the Hoover administration, they pledged not to seek wage advances or strike during the crisis. As late as 1932, the third year of the great depression, the AFL still officially opposed the introduction of federal unemployment insurance. This “alien” scheme, said Green, was an attack on the “freedom” of the American worker.

Early CP Unemployed Organizing

At first the Communist Party dived into the job of organizing the unemployed with vigorous determination and a program which, on paper, reflected the needs of the unemployed by combining reform demands for relief and unemployment insurance with a call to unite the unemployed with employed workers in a struggle to overthrow capitalism. In March 1930 the CP press (with perhaps a bit of exaggeration) reported hunger marches in numerous cities totaling one and a quarter million workers and unemployed— 100,000 in New York and Detroit, 40,000 in Boston and Chicago, etc.—under the slogan “work or wages.” The marches were met with frenzied violence by the ruling class. In New York the entire police force was mobilized, including mounted patrols and machine gun units, and a ferocious attack launched on the marchers.

In 1931 CP Unemployed Council (UC) organizers led the first hunger march on Washington, with 1,500 delegates from around the country, to present their demands: for unemployment insurance equal to full wages and immediate relief for each unemployed worker, to be paid by government and the bosses; for the seven-hour day without reduction in pay; and for unity of the employed and unemployed in struggle against hunger, wage cuts, mass layoffs and Hoover’s “stagger plans.” The Communist Party continued to lead militant actions throughout the early 1930’s. It must be credited with first arousing American workers from their shock and pressuring enactment of the first large-scale unemployment compensation measures. The heroism, dedication and sacrifice of its cadres was brought home by incidents such as the brutal murder of four marchers, including two young Communists, by police and company thugs during a march on the giant Ford River Rouge plant in 1932.

But in the final analysis the Communist Party pursued an adventuristic and sectarian policy which isolated it from the masses of workers, both employed and unemployed, and disorganized its own movement. After a decade of factional struggle, the CP entered the 1930’s as a degenerated caricature of its former self, homogenized into a monolithic instrument of the ruling bureaucratic stratum of the USSR. This parasitic bureaucracy headed by Joseph Stalin, while preserving the economic conquests of the October Revolution, had politically expropriated the working class by eliminating soviet and party democracy in the mid-1920’s. Following the Stalinization of the Communist International, the American CP expelled its Trotskyist opposition led by Cannon, Shachtman and Abern, and then its right opposition under Lovestone.

In response to the catastrophic consequences of his earlier rightist policies— and in order to undercut sympathy in Communist ranks for the persecuted Left Opposition—Stalin now embarked on an equally disastrous adventurist and sectarian course. The CP’s refusal to fight for a united proletarian front with the Social Democrats against the mounting fascist menace produced a historic catastrophe of monumental proportions in Germany with Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 and the consequent destruction of the entire labor movement.

‘Soup Consciousness’

The sectarian turn launched by Stalin in 1929 produced a sudden about-face in the U. S. Communist Party’s already flawed program and practice, laying the basis for the later sharp right turn embodied in the “popular-front” policies of the late 1930’s. Since Stalin’s rigid schema presumed an uninterrupted course toward revolution (the so-called “Third Period”) was supposed to bring the inevitable demise of imperialism, Leninist tactics of united front and work within the established mass organizations of the workers were completely thrown out. The AFL was denounced as a “fascist” organization, and the rest of the left (such as the Socialist Party and Trotskyists) was dismissed as “social-fascist.” The CP for the most part abandoned work in the AFL unions and pulled its relatively small number of supporters out into “revolutionary” dual unions under its own federation, the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL).

Since most unorganized workers still looked to the AFL as the official union movement (many joined the AFL directly through “federal locals”), the “dual” unions stagnated in increasing irrelevancy. When an economic upturn of modest proportions in 1933 coincided with maneuvers by President Roosevelt to enhance the AFL unions (in order to head off the threat of more radical developments), the “duals” served to isolate class struggle militants from intervening in the repeated mass strikes that set the stage for the building of industrial unions. In unemployed organizing, where the key need was for uniting the jobless with the social power of the unions, the CP’s turn amounted to self-imposed isolation from the employed workers.

The impotence resulting from this isolation led the Stalinists to capitulate, almost in desperation, to the lowest forms of struggle of the unemployed. After the initial mass demonstrations of March 1930 support for mass protests trailed off considerably, down by more than 50 percent the next year. Seeking to build its own unemployed movement under the leadership of the TUUL and Unemployed Councils [UCs], and lacking a tactical approach toward the official unions, the work of the UCs degenerated to the lowest form of barter and “self-help”—what the Trotskyist paper, the Militant, described as the “planned economy of garbage picking.” The CP also fell into a one-sided propaganda concentration on its “Workers Unemployment Insurance Bill,” as a reformist panacea to the effects of the capitalist economic crisis.

The CP’s unemployed work was obviously floundering in early 1931 when Communist Party head Earl Browder called for “the direct caring for starving workers” (Daily Worker, 12 March 1931). But four months later he was complaining that the UCs had degenerated to “dragging behind the most miserable bourgeois charity policy” (Communist, July 1931). Unable to point to the cause of this impasse—the self imposed isolation brought about by Stalin’s “Third Period” policies—Browder did catalogue its effects:

“In the Unemployed Councils, while we have registered some advances, there are relatively few examples of positive achievements…. they remain narrow cadre organizations which do not have intimate day-to-day contact with the masses, which have not yet established themselves as permanent centers for work among the masses and in most cases, with the removal of 2 or 3 comrades assigned by the party, these organizations would completely collapse.”
Communist, October 1931

Socialists and Musteites

Thus Stalinist policy during the “Third Period,” despite many mass marches and militant actions, failed to build a broad unemployed organization linked to the established unions. The vacuum left by the CP was partly filled by other organizations with centrist or reformist programs, such as the Socialist Party. Starting out with “self-help” activities and a generally rightist thrust (Norman Thomas supported financier J.P. Morgan’s “block aid” plan) the SP gradually grew more militant until after 1933 it became an apparent left-wing alternative to Stalinism. The SP led the Workers Committee on Unemployment in Chicago, its biggest local base, and founded the Workers Alliance of America (WAA) in 1935.

Also occupying this terrain was the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), founded in 1929 by A. J. Muste, which later became the American Workers Party (AWP). The CPLA included many left-wing trade-union organizers (the ex-minister Muste had also organized textile workers and formed a labor college) left out of the picture by the CP when the latter pulled out of the AFL unions in the late 1920’s. Impressed by the possibilities of mass “self-help” work such as that organized in Seattle by a CPLA member, Muste turned the CPLA in the direction of militant unemployed work as a short-cut to the creation of a “mass labor party” dedicated to establishing a “workers republic.”

Lacking a coherent Marxist program for revolutionary social change, the Musteites groped their way leftward only under the persistent blows of experience. Their initial self-help orientation was modified later with the recognition that the scourge of unemployment could not be solved without addressing the question of who holds power and without organizing the working class to seize state power. Yet, capitulating to anti-communist sentiment, they continued to shy away from the conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In their unemployed work, the Musteites adapted to backward sentiment among the masses in order to enhance organizational success. Louis Budenz, the main CPLA theorist who later went over to Stalinist popular frontism, called for an “American Approach” (!) to mass work. But for this capitulation to nationalist prejudices the Musteites paid a heavy price. Their Unemployed Leagues, which were strongest in Ohio and Pennsylvania, became temporary havens for anti-communists seeking to build a bulwark against the CP. At the 1933 founding conference (on July 4th!) of the National Unemployed Leagues held in Columbus, Ohio, the leftward-moving Musteites were horrified at the display of flag-waving, religious revivalist and even fascist (KKK) sentiment their “American Approach” had netted them. The podium was seized for a time by right-wingers who had to be repulsed, and the Musteites were obliged to silence all criticism, even from left-wing delegates (notably the Trotskyists), in order to maintain control. However, the NUL was founded on a strictly anti-capitalist basis despite stylistic concessions to the “American Approach” in its founding declaration, and the rightists quickly drifted away.

The Musteite-led Unemployed Leagues [ULs] chalked up notable accomplishments. Peaking in membership during 1933, the leagues managed to halt all evictions (which were rampant nationally) in Columbus during the summer of that year. Following the leftward course of the CPLA/AWP, the ULs moved programmatically from exclusive concentration on “practical” reforms to setting the unemployed struggle in the context of the need for “the abolition of the entire capitalist system.” Seeing the limitations of unemployed work without links to employed workers, the Musteites led a militant strike struggle in Toledo in 1934, one of the three great labor battles of that year. Their Unemployed League took leadership of the foundering Auto-Lite strike and led it to the point of a city-wide general strike, blazing the way for later sit-down successes in Detroit and the formation of the first mass industrial union in auto.

Early Trotskyist Unemployed Organizing

Prior to the strikes of 1934 and a later fusion with the Musteites, the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) had suffered years of isolation enforced, often violently, by the much larger Communist Party. Attempting to warn the ranks of the official party of the CP’s disastrous “Third Period” course, the CLA argued against the sectarian attempt to keep the unemployed movement within the narrow bounds of the TUUL, calling instead for an orientation toward drawing AFL unions into united-front actions around unemployment. The need for a united-front unemployed movement on the broadest possible basis, drawing in all political tendencies, became more and more urgent as the CP, SP and Musteites each developed their “own” unemployed movements. But the CLA never called for unity at the expense of program. It attacked the opportunist errors of the CP (and other tendencies) and gave no quarter to reformist concepts.

The Trotskyists began their analysis by debunking the “Third Period” myth of a final crisis of capitalism: there would be new economic upturns, followed by renewed downturns, until capitalism was overthrown. Trotsky predicted a business upturn before it occurred in late 1933, but pointed out that because of the increasing proportion of constant capital over variable capital—increasing mechanization of industry and rising productivity of labor—unemployment was bound to remain a permanent feature of the economy (“Perspectives of the Upturn,” Writings, 1932).

Already in 1933, veteran Communist and CLA leader Arne Swabeck, in the pamphlet Unemployment and the Working Class, was analysing the CP’s swing from sectarian isolation to the opposite extreme of opportunist methods. The CP never conceived of the unemployed movement as “founded upon a united front of the whole working class,” and was now abandoning its quixotic “conquest of the streets” adventurism for a crassly reformist program of legalism and dependence upon bourgeois politicians. Instead, the Trotskyists urged a united-front policy and demands which would be “stepping stones to the revolutionary goal.”

Among these, Swabeck specified immediate relief and unemployment insurance paid by the employers and the state; a six-hour day, five-day week with no reduction in pay (the Stalinists had earlier elevated this demand to a seven hour day in order to seem more “practical”); and the extension of large-scale credits to the Soviet Union, a concrete expression of solidarity with the world’s first workers state. Most important, Swabeck pointed out that the unemployed movement couldn’t achieve success in isolation: “Its objectives must be general working class objectives, its struggle part of the general working class struggles for the revolution.”

To the best of their ability, the Trotskyists attempted to undertake mass work in the trade unions and among the unemployed even during what James Cannon termed the CLA’s “dog days” of isolation and persecution by the Stalinists in the early 1930’s. The Trotskyist Gerry Allard was a founding leader of the Progressive Miners of America (PMA), a militant union based on a 1932 revolt of 40,000 miners in southern Illinois against the bureaucratic regime of John L. Lewis in the United Mine Workers. However, the PMA quickly fell under the sway of a new set of “militant” bureaucrats who became indistinguishable from the old Lewis machine. When the UMW ignored the need to organize the unemployed in Illinois, Allard and the Trotskyists played a leading role in building the Illinois Workers Alliance (IWA) which entered the SP-dominated Workers Alliance of America at its founding as the mostpowerful state section. The IWA soon outstripped the long-established Unemployed Councils as the strongest unemployed organization in the Midwest. It stood for the abolition of capitalism, and in the middle of the decade led militant marches on the state capital against relief cuts.

On the West Coast a patient intervention into the Los Angeles Unemployed Cooperative Relief Association [UCRA] beginning in 1932 gave the Trotskyists leadership of a diverse left-wing bloc. This leadership transformed the UCRA from a “cooperative” self-help movement into an organization which militantly fought evictions, at times roping off whole city blocks to stop dispossessions. In 1933 CLA militant Jane Rose led a protest against the cutting off of free milk distributions to the unemployed by taking over the city council and delivering speeches all day on the “class nature of the unemployed question” (Militant, 10 June 1933).

The Trotskyists began to achieve successes in 1933 which increasingly lessened their isolation. Hitler’s unopposed march to power, facilitated by Stalin’s suicidal sectarianism, had a traumatic impact. Though the CP was heading rapidly toward eventual subservience to Roosevelt’s New Deal (formerly seen as “slavery”), its turn temporarily gave the Trotskyists a chance to intervene in Stalinist-led mass meetings.

Stalinists Sabotage the NFUWL

One important opportunity to form a united-front unemployed organization came at the founding conference of the National Federation of Unemployed Workers Leagues [NFUWL] in May of 1933. Chicago, where the meeting was held, had a year earlier been the scene of a successful, broad united-front movement to reverse a 50 percent relief cut. On that occasion, the Stalinists were forced to abandon their sectarianism and unite with “social fascists” around immediate demands. Now they, the SP, Trotskyists, Musteites, Lovestoneites and innumerable other tendencies met and founded the first national unemployed organization having the potential of becoming a truly mass organization.

The Trotskyists led in preventing anti-communist exclusion of the Unemployed Councils from the conference, and succeeded in getting their formulation for a united-front movement passed. This called for the NFUWL to seek “the closest relationship with the Employed workers through the trade unions” while guaranteeing “the right of minority expression and freedom of criticism” (quoted in the Militant, 20 May 1933). Graphically demonstrating its quandary, the CP delegation supported this conception after having voted against it only a few months earlier at a conference to establish a united front to free jailed labor hero Tom Mooney.

Unfortunately, however, the NFUWL was stillborn because the major tendencies were still determined to build their “own” unemployed bailiwicks in place of any united-front organization. The very next month, Stalinists and Musteites blocked at the Columbus conference of the National Unemployed Leagues to defeat a Trotskyist motion for affiliation to the NFUWL (Militant, 15 July 1933). Since the Trotskyists were still much weaker than CP and SP forces in the NFUWL leadership, they were unable to carry the broad grouping forward themselves. Meanwhile the CP continued to degenerate to the right, so that by the time a united unemployed movement was founded under the name Workers Alliance in 1936 (a year after origination of the WA by the Socialists) it rapidly became a subservient appendage of the Roosevelt government.

Although only a year before they had aided the CP in wrecking the NFUWL and opposing the Trotskyists’ efforts to build a broad united-front national unemployed organization, the Musteites’ gradual programmatic movement to the left laid the basis for their fusion with the CLA in late 1934. Both tendencies came to the fusion fresh from the field of class battle: the Musteites leading auto workers in Toledo and the CLA at the head of Minneapolis Teamsters.

Although many leading elements of the CPLA/AWP, including Budenz and Muste himself, clung to reformist notions picked up during their checkered political course, the unification was made on the basis of what Trotsky described as a “rigidly principled program.” As a result, while Budenz, Muste and others left the WP in a matter of months, the bulk of their erstwhile followers remained. The attendance of 1,200 at the founding convention of the Workers Party of the U.S. represented a significant step in overcoming the Trotskyists’ former isolation. The WP now led the National Unemployed Leagues, representing 130,000 unemployed in Ohio, another 25,000 in Pennsylvania, and a strong base in West Virginia.

Trotskyists Lead the National Unemployed Leagues

At once the WP sought to purge the NUL of remaining hangovers from the period when its course was one of limitation to immediate reform issues and opportunist capitulation to backward prejudices among the masses. A “Resolution on the Unemployed Question,” passed by a WP National Committee plenum in October 1935 specified that

“The next step in the development of the unemployed movement must be an increased educational and agitational campaign throughout to root the organizations solidly in the principles of the class struggle.”

Analyzing the different unemployed organizations, the resolution noted that the NUL was “the leading organization in the unemployed field,” having pursued a policy of mass, class-struggle militancy and “vigorous participation of the rank and file in the life of the organization.” Its weaknesses included failure to penetrate major industrial centers and consolidate organizationally, leading to “great fluctuations” in membership. In addition,

“Nuclei and fractions of revolutionists have not been built systematically within the local leagues. And the organization is not in a genuine sense national in scope.”

The resolution called for WP efforts toward solving the two major problems of the unemployed movement, that of achieving a real united front of the numerous unemployed organizations and unity with employed workers. The resolution called for orientation toward the Workers Alliance, which was making overtures to which the Stalinists were responding (and which itself represented leftward development of the Socialist Party).

The NUL also took a serious stance toward the race question and organizing in the South. Symbolic of its concern with the organizing of black unemployed was the selection of E. R. McKinney, a black National Committee member of the Workers Party and former Musteite, as vice-president of the NUL and editor of its weekly paper, Mass Action. The NUL adamantly refused to grant charters to segregated locals, and led thousands of blacks and whites in National Unemployed Day marches in 1934 in Gulfport, Mississippi, Ashland, Kentucky and other parts of the South. The NUL recognized “that a local organization may force up relief standards many times, but if it fails to overcome the racial division then it has failed fundamentally and is a menace to the Labor movement” (1934 convention minutes).

The NUL supported certain legislative action, such as the Frazier-Lundeen Workers Unemployment Insurance Bill, but not with the fixation on reformist legislative panaceas characteristic of the CP-led Unemployed Councils. The Workers Party’s New Militant (1 January 1935) denounced the Stalinists for “making only one demand—the Lundeen Bill—the single issue, [and thereby] dividing the ranks of the unemployed and workers.” The WP insisted that the fight for legislative reforms be “a class-struggle fight, not a class-collaboration lobby.” However, some slogans used by the NUL and the Illinois Workers Alliance (such as “tax the rich”) could have led to the impression that workers’ interests lie in reforming the capitalist state apparatus, and should have been left behind with the rest of the Musteite “American Approach” reformist baggage.

Small though they were, during the early 1930’s the Trotskyists had made an impressive contribution to communist unemployed work, both on the theoretical and practical levels. While the much larger CP frittered away its influence and opportunities for leadership of the masses by “Third Period” excesses, only to turn later to reformist “popular-front” betrayals, the Trotskyists had provided a correct understanding of Leninist tactics for organization of the unemployed, and realized the goals in the form of mass organization. Concurrently they won over leftward-moving centrists repelled by Stalinist sectarianism as well as by AFL and SP do-nothingism. In their struggle to forge a new revolutionary vanguard party they were in the latter half of the decade to provide additional examples of revolutionary work among the unemployed while the CP sank to the depths of its pro-Roosevelt, pro-war capitulation.

Mobilizing Union Power

By Len Meyers and Chris Knox. Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 74, 1 August 1975

In the fight to organize the great mass of jobless during the 1930’s depression, two key conceptions guided the work of the Trotskyists: the united front and unity of the employed and unemployed. During the early years of the decade the united front was the focus of struggle, as a Stalinized Communist Party refused to cooperate with other left-wing forces (whom it termed “social-fascists”) and left the AFL unions in pursuit of its sectarian “Third Period” policies. Then, from 1934 onwards a wave of militant strikes and the organization of mass industrial unions sharply posed the possibility of uniting the unemployed with the employed in a powerful working-class assault on capitalism. However, this opportunity was sacrificed by the Stalinists in the name of their new Messiah: the popular front.

As predicted by Trotsky, U.S. capitalism did not continue to fall steadily deeper into an apocalyptic “final crisis,” instead experiencing a limited upturn in 1933 and a general rise in production during 1935–37. Combined with passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), the upswing emboldened the masses and led to a flood of unorganized workers into the conservative AFL. But the recovery was hollow and short-lived. With the introduction of labor-saving machinery in industry, unemployment never dropped below 8 million during the “boom” and was probably closer to 11 or 12 million.

Hardly a “return to prosperity” for the masses, the Roosevelt New Deal was a series of conservative, even reactionary, reforms designed to cushion economic crisis and head off labor militancy. Under the wage and price codes of the NRA strikes were broken, incomes fixed and inflation allowed to run rampant. Relief was degrading and difficult to obtain. In addition, local relief budgets were accompanied by sales taxes and other measures designed to throw the burden of the crisis onto the backs of workers and the poor. In some regions there were starvation conditions, as in the South where, according to one CP estimate, relief officials expected a family to survive on as little as $7.09 a month (Communist, June 1935).

Accepted at the depth of the crisis as a necessary evil, the NRA was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1935 because its regulatory codes were considered a drag on free enterprise. In the same year, Roosevelt announced the end of all federal aid to relief, although official estimates showed only half the eligible unemployed were on the dole in the first place. Responsibility for maintaining the jobless was dumped back on the virtually bankrupt states and localities (as under Hoover), producing a new round of demonstrations in state capitals protesting the relief cuts.

‘Scab or Starve!’

Roosevelt’s next move was the establishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was supposed to compensate for the ending of federal aid by putting the unemployed to work. The WPA never took in more than one quarter of the jobless and consisted largely of useless “make-work” projects. Most important, it was a concerted attack on the living standards of the unemployed (its rates often being below those of local relief) and on union wage scales. WPA projects paid as low as $19 a month in the South and $40 in the North. One federal administrator, challenged by objections to the WPA wage rates, shot back: “Scab or starve!”

The shift in New Deal policies in 1935 was a deliberate attack on the working class, aimed at crippling the mushrooming unemployed organizations and undermining union organization. However, employed and unemployed fought back in massive protests that wrenched important concessions from Roosevelt. Many building trades locals of the AFL struck WPA projects to defend the wage scales of their unemployed members. “Flying squads” were used in New Jersey to shut down WPA sites, and 50,000 WPA jobs went begging in New York City due to an organized boycott. “Progressive” Mayor LaGuardia responded: “Take WPA jobs or go to jail” (Workers Alliance, 1 September 1935). Mass marches were called around the country by the Socialist Party-led Workers Alliance demanding $30 minimum for a 30-hour week, and by mid-1936 the administration was forced to grant, on paper at least, the possibility of increased wages according to local standards and the right of union organization on WPA projects.

The fate of the unemployed movement was directly affected by changes in global politics. With the victory of Hitler in 1933, Stalin took fright and ordered foreign Communist Parties to execute an about-face, forming “anti-fascist” alliances with “democratic” capitalist politicians in order to defend the Soviet Union. In the U.S., where the Stalinists and social democrats never came close to the strength they had in Europe, the CP had to be content with one-sidedly supporting Roosevelt, who hardly even bothered to throw it a few crumbs. By 1936 the Communist Party was giving tacit electoral support to the Democrats and leadership of militant unemployed actions fell increasingly to the left wing of the Socialist Party (SP) and the Trotskyists.

Trotskyists Unite Employed and Unemployed

Following fusion with the Musteites and the formation of the Workers Party (WP) at the end of 1934, the Trotskyists led the National Unemployed League which was particularly strong in the coalmining regions of the Northeast: 130,000 in Ohio, 25,000 in Pennsylvania and a strong base in West Virginia. The Unemployed Leagues organized relief office takeovers to protest cuts, fought evictions with militant tactics and organized workers on federal projects. A strike of government construction sites in Ohio during 1935 saw UL and WP members lead flying squads: “The pickets defied police interference and removed shovels from the hands of reluctant scabs,” wrote the New Militant (20 April 1935).

The Trotskyists constantly fought for militant unity of the employed and unemployed. When Pennsylvania cut its relief program, a united-front Joint Action Committee composed of the WP-led Pennsylvania Unemployed League, the SP-led Pennsylvania Security League and the AFL Central Trades and Labor Council organized a strike by 7,000 WPA workers throughout the state. The CP’s Unemployed Council, which had initiated the Committee, dropped out after the latter adopted the Trotskyists’ program for direct action and rejected a Stalinist plan to lobby the state legislature. The strike was victorious and Pennsylvania became the first state forced to grant a WPA wage increase and recognize a bargaining agent (the AFL Council) on the projects (New Militant, 12 October 1935).

In Minneapolis the Trotskyists set an example of working-class unity which even the Stalinists found impossible to ignore. Even before the three strikes in 1934 which established the General Drivers Local 574, under Trotskyist leadership, and transformed Minneapolis into a union town, the militant Teamsters sought to organize the unemployed. During the strikes this paid off as many of the 4,000 unemployed workers of the Minneapolis Central Council of Workers (MCCW) militantly defended the truck drivers’ picket lines.

The lull in the class struggle following the 1934 strikes brought a sharp downturn in MCCW membership, the kind of fluctuations which plagued all unemployed organizations. Nevertheless, the Trotskyists went ahead with aggressive organizing of the jobless. AFL unions initially refused to cooperate, so Local 574 set up a “Federal Workers Section” (FWS), subordinate to the Drivers Local, but with an autonomous structure and open to all the unemployed in the city. With the power of the solidly unionized truck drivers behind them, the FWS launched a series of struggles which resulted in Minneapolis having one of the highest city relief budgets in the country. FWS organized workers on WPA, and when the project wage of $60.50 per month was found to be less than the dole it forced the city to pay supplemental wages to bring up the WPA scale to the higher level.

As many as 10,000 workers and unemployed were organized by the FWS in this period, through strikes and demonstrations over relief budgets, with the Communist Party for the most part being forced to tail along. The Section’s membership expanded with each victory. The FWS also mobilized to support strikes of other unions, so that by 1936 opposition to the Trotskyist-led organizations had largely evaporated in AFL local unions. (Meanwhile the Drivers Local was reinstated into the Teamsters as Local 544.) These new allies proved useful in defeating a city attempt to drive “chiselers” off relief rolls, and the FWS became probably the most stable and well-organized unemployed organization of the decade.

The Workers Alliance of America

Despite the history of sectarian division and continued sabotage by the diehard reactionary AFL leadership, a united national unemployed organization was finally founded in April 1936, under the name of “Workers Alliance of America.” The Communist Party was now interested in reconciliation with the Socialist Party; and the SP, reflecting the radicalizing influence of the 1934 strike wave, was impelled to the left. The Trotskyists had fought from the beginning for a united unemployed organization embracing all political tendencies, and despite criticisms of the policies of the Stalinists and social democrats, Max Shachtman wrote in the New Militant (18 April 1936) that, “There can be no two opinions about the progressive nature of the merger.”

The nearly 700 delegates meeting in Washington, D.C., represented all the major unemployed organizations in the country, including many fresh from WPA picket lines and relief battles. Even the AFL couldn’t afford to overlook the unity convention andWilliam Green sent greetings and an official representative. The National Unemployed Leagues, most of which had already merged into the WAA prior to the conference, were represented by 100 delegates. Militant struggles continued following the convention, as Roosevelt had just announced a mammoth cut of 700,000 from WPA projects. The occupation of New Jersey’s legislature in Trenton captured nationwide headlines for days and WPA strikes soon gave the WAA bargaining status on New York, New Jersey and Detroit projects.

However, the newly united organization soon came under Stalinist domination and degenerated into a bureaucratic machine to promote the New Deal. Blocking with right-wing Socialists, the CP managed to freeze out left-wingers and Trotskyists. The Unemployed Leagues came away with only three seats out of 25 on the national executive board. A left-SP resolution “not to support the capitalist government of the U.S. in any war it may undertake, regardless of who its allies might be” was defeated. And when a representative of Roosevelt’s relief administration addressed the conference, informing the delegates that he “could do nothing for their hungry stomachs,” he was politely applauded (New Militant, 2 May 1936)!

A year later, at the 1937 convention of the WAA, Stalinist control became total. Full support was voted for the CP’s popular-front strategy (“a united front of progress to oppose a united front of reaction”), and the convention even went so far as to remove a clause calling for the “abolition of the profit system” from its founding declaration. Meanwhile uncritical support was given to Labor’s Non-Partisan League, the American Labor Party in New York, and other “independent” political formations which helped corral working-class votes for Roosevelt at the polls.

By 1939, CP unemployed organizer and national WAA leader Herbert Benjamin was hailing the estimate that “from 80 to 90 percent of the unemployed favor the New Deal and stand behind President Roosevelt.” The Roosevelt “hunger program” (Communist, June 1935) was miraculously transformed into “the liberal social measures that have been fostered under the New Deal in the effort to afford some relief to the victims of the capitalist crisis” (Communist, August 1939).

From ‘New Deal’ to ‘War Deal’

Communist Party support to Roosevelt in 1936–39 included uncritical support of U.S. war preparations. As it became increasingly clear to all that only a new inter-imperialist slaughter to redivide world markets could “solve” the international capitalist crisis, the “New Deal” rapidly gave way to the “War Deal.” Military budgets were drastically increased each year and, despite rising unemployment (approaching 15 million during the precipitous “Roosevelt Depression” in 1937), the administration repeatedly attempted to cut back on “New Deal” measures such as WPA. Thus in the last years of the 1930’s, unemployed struggles were directly connected to the war question and the popular front.

The Communist Party’s deeply class collaborationist policies turned the Workers Alliance into an instrument for subordinating the struggles of the unemployed to the interests of the capitalist state. Virtually ignoring those unemployed not on federal projects, the WAA degenerated into a pressure group “defending” the WPA against “reactionary attacks on the New Deal.” It also served to isolate the unemployed from employed workers in the new CIO unions in order to hold back the stormy development of the class struggle. This was done with the flimsiest of excuses. The national leadership’s report to the 1937 WAA convention declared:

“Preoccupied as they are in other fields, the leaders of the CIO have had no opportunity to give thought to the best means of including our organization within its folds.”
Communist, August 1937

The miserable record of the Stalinized Workers Alliance was summed up by the Trotskyists as “company unionism,” in which WAA leaders spent their time “fawning before government officials” (Socialist Appeal, 24 December 1938). But it was not necessary to rely on Trotskyists for this testimony. Following the Hitler-Stalin pact, when the CP temporarily zigzagged away from the bloc with Roosevelt and called for opposition to imperialist war, none other than Benjamin himself came to the same conclusions.

Admitting that the WAA “has during recent years been without a fundamental program of its own,” and that it had drastically lost membership because of the “impression” that it was exclusively a union for the rapidly dwindling number of WPA workers, Benjamin states:

“The unemployed movement found itself part of this [‘progressive people’s’] coalition together with the entire progressive labor movement and the Roosevelt Administration. Its relationship to the Administration changed from one of outspoken opposition to that of a critical ally.”
“Clumsy application and distorted interpretation of the policy of cooperation in making the Works Program creditable and successful even led in some instances to the impression that the movement was sort of a ‘company union’ for the Administration. In any case these circumstances led to an identification of the unemployed movement with the Administration program. The unemployed organization was therefore considered by some unemployed to be partly responsible for the deficiencies of this program.”
Communist, March 1940

While studiously avoiding taking responsibility for this wretched state of affairs, and defending the bloc with Roosevelt as necessary for the period, the head of CP unemployed work here confirmed the Trotskyists’ criticisms and described the pitiful results of class collaborationism.

For a Class-Struggle Program

Not long after the Workers Alliance convention of 1936, the Workers Party was dissolved as the Trotskyists entered the Socialist Party in order to reach a new wave of workers repelled by Stalinism who had been attracted by the leftist posturing of the SP. The socialists had shorn themselves of the right-wing “Old Guard,” and produced such anomalies as Norman Thomas (whom Trotsky labeled a socialist due to a misunderstanding) attacking the CP’s Earl Browder from the left in a debate before a mass audience in Madison Square Garden.

During the year and a half of entry work, the Trotskyists more than doubled their forces, ripping away the left wing of the SP and thereby removing an important stumbling block for the development of the revolutionary party. Unfortunately, however, the period of entry reduced the effectiveness of Trotskyist work in mass arenas such as the unemployed movement. Even with the necessary limitations imposed by SP discipline and the absorbing factional struggle, Trotskyist leader James Cannon pointed out that “we neglected to do as much mass work as we might have done.” In particular opportunities were missed during the early months of the CIO. But the entry also strengthened the Trotskyists’ position to undertake mass work in the future by providing them with new openings in the trade unions.

After their expulsion from the SP in late 1937, the Trotskyists founded the Socialist Workers Party in 1938. The new party determined to continue and intensify its work in the Workers Alliance despite the fact that the latter had become Stalinized and in effect “an adjunct of the Roosevelt Administration.” Resolving to “press for relief committees in the unions and work for unification of trade union and WAA committees,” the SWP made collaboration of the unemployed movement with the new CIO unions a central goal.

The Trotskyists also recognized that the organization of mass industrial unions “has suddenly replaced trade union problems with political problems in the theater of the class struggle….” The new party declared that “organizations without an adequate program will be useless,” and called for idle factories to be nationalized and operated under workers control. They also demanded that all war funds “be turned over to the unemployed.”

Stalinists Sabotage WPA Strikes

While still in the SP, the Trotskyists initiated the organization of progressive caucuses within the Workers Alliance. These groups immediately came under bureaucratic attack by the Stalinists, who were intent on making the WAA utterly loyal to Roosevelt. Seventeen locals which quit or were expelled from the New York Workers Alliance went on to form the Unemployed and Project Workers Union, with 5,500 members. The Stalinists admonished the WAA ranks to “ignore this corrupt group of Trotskyites,” and “remain faithful to the Alliance which is recognized and respected by our President and our Mayor” (quoted in Socialist Appeal, 8 October 1938). “Our Mayor” happened to be the same LaGuardia who earlier said “take WPA jobs or go to jail”!

As for the “respectful” president, following 1938 congressional elections he ordered one and a half million workers dropped from WPA rolls. The Stalinists continued to whine that the new downturn was all the fault of “Wall Street” trying to make “progressive government” and the New Deal look bad. In the midst of mounting protests against Roosevelt’s massive WPA cuts, the CP sponsored a National Right to Work Congress featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, who declared that WPA workers were government employees and therefore could not be permitted to strike against the government. The next month (July 1939), however, there was a nationwide WPA strike against the cuts.

Protest actions against Roosevelt’s post-election cuts in late 1938 included some in which the unemployed successfully linked up with the new industrial unions despite Stalinist sabotage. The Roosevelt depression had thrown many newly organized young workers in CIO unions onto the unemployed heap, and they were anxious to continue the struggle for industrial unionism. Wherever possible the SWP pushed for organization of the unemployed directly within the new unions. In Detroit, the WPA division of the United AutoWorkers soon gained a membership of 15,000. In December 1938, this UAW-WPA section threatened a city-wide general WPA strike in order to win reinstatement of fired stewards.

In reaction to mounting protests against WPA cuts in the spring of 1939, the Roosevelt regime shifted gears and attempted to achieve the desired effect by abolishing prevailing wage rates and specifically requiring skilled workers to put in as much as 130 hours in order to earn what they would have previously in 75. Known as the “Woodrum Bill” after its Democrat sponsor, this measure understandably angered building trades workers and sparked a largely spontaneous nationwide WPA strike in July. The strike was strongest in Minneapolis, where the Federal Workers Section continued its class-struggle leadership of the unemployed, and in other centers of organized militancy, but embraced hundreds of thousands across the country. The Workers Alliance played a strikebreaking role, deliberately setting a delayed date for the action after it had already begun, and defending Roosevelt’s injunction against striking against the government. The strike was defeated because of the absence of a national class-struggle leadership.

The 1939 WPA strike was the closing action in a decade of unemployed struggles in which many of the most basic lessons of the class struggle were sharply drawn. The unemployed had to learn that their destitution was not a personal failing of their own or a temporary condition, as claimed by the ruling class, but a permanent feature of capitalism which could only be eradicated with the overthrow of capitalism itself. Unemployed organizers had to learn that by themselves the unemployed are difficult to organize into a stable formation and are prey to right-wing ideologies and tempted to scab on employed workers. Leadership in the unemployed struggle must ultimately fall to the employed workers, who can utilize the economic power and organization derived from their position in capitalist production.

The commanding role of politics in the class struggle was clearly demonstrated by the disastrous effect produced by the Stalinists with their early sectarian and later popular-frontist betrayals, as well as by the positive effects of leftward motion in the Musteites and the Socialist Party during the middle 1930’s, and by the Trotskyists’ exemplary leadership of the Minneapolis Teamsters and of the National Unemployed Leagues. Militant class-struggle policies clearly had the greatest impact on organizing the unemployed when they emanated from within the trade unions, as in Minneapolis.

The conditions of the 1970’s are by no means identical to those of the Great Depression. The leadership of the industrial unions has long since become an entrenched, ossified bureaucracy, utterly incapable of unleashing militant strike action to fight mass layoffs. Socialist forces, in turn, are far weaker numerically. But as cyclical downturns produce millions of jobless, taxing the meager reforms of the 1930’s to the breaking point, revolutionists, through militant and effective organizing of the unemployed, can win supporters for the struggle against capitalism. In doing so, they would do well to study the class-struggle record of the Trotskyists in this earlier period, with their untiring struggle for the united front and employed-unemployed unity combined with thorough-going programmatic clarity.