Organizations of the Unemployed – Paul Mattick


I.C.C., Volume 4 Number 4, August 1938

The tremendous growth of unemployment in the depression of 1929 created a relief problem which could not be met the existing local and state relief institutions. However, it was generally believed that the depression would be of short duration, and for a long time no serious attempt was made to adapt the relief policy to the needs of the situation. The Communities were expected to solve their local problems by an extension of their charity work. As late as 1931 President Hoover[1] was of the opinion that

“The maintenance of a spirit of mutual self-help through voluntary giving is of infinite importance to the future of America… No governmental action, no economic doctrine, no economic plan or project can replace that God-imposed responsibility of the individual man or woman to their nighbors.”

However, in less than another year, the “God-imposed responsibility” was recognized as impotent. State and local relief funds were exhausted, and the Federal government was forced to participate in the welfare work with Reconstruction Finance Corporation loans to the states and communities.

This change of policy was forced upon the “rugged individualists”. By the end of 1932 the politicians and economists were increasingly prone to express fearful prophecies to the effect that if a satisfactory solution of the unemployment question were not found soon, great sociologic convulsions would be unavoidable. The politico-social crisis could be overcome only by a sharp turn in social policy and conscious intrusions into the economic mechanism.

The radicalizing of the employed as well as of the jobless masses was making great progress: hunger marches, spontaneous unemployment demonstrations of all sorts, and even plunderings, became increasingly frequent. Unemployed organizations came into being or were formed by existing political organizations. The unrest of the unemployed became a matter of great concern, since it functioned in an atmosphere of general uncertainty and social tension. In and of itself the unemployed movement was too weak to pass the bounds in which it could be held down with the usual instrumentalities, but in conjunction with the state of mind prevailing throughout society under the impact of the crisis, it formed the seat of a general fermentation which at times promised to assume a revolutionary character.

Charity serves practical functions. It masks the cruel social relations, and it helps to clean the streets of a portion of the “human scum”. However, it becomes rather a bad joker in times of depression, when millions of “able workmen” are forced to look for help. The transformation from charity to unemployment relief becomes unavoidable. But this transformation will be postponed as long as possible. Only when enough pressure is exerted from below, will the necessary legislative steps be taken, since any change in policy is possible only by friction and struggle. The initial move for a change has always been compelled by the masses, or by the desire and needs of the “authorities” to prevent mass action. However, after this initial move is made, it brings in its wake additional reforms, which often seem to have no connection any longer with the social pressure which impelled them. The illusion is thus created that the rulers of society have the choice between the one or the other policy, and that the influencing of the rulers, that is, parliamentary activity, might be sufficient to effect changes in policy favorable to the masses. In reality, however, without the pressure of the masses, nothing of any importante has ever been given to them. To feed the unemployment, the necessary funds have to be created either by taxation or by inflationary measures, both of which involve losses for other social groups. The pressure of the unemployed for relief involves a struggle among the classes as to who is going to pay the bill. This struggle forces additional measures to compromise situations, or to defeat one or the other group, and in this way, out of a simple mass demand for unemployment relief, there may arise a whole series of political changes which, on the surface seem to have nothing to do with the action of the masses, but which can be explained only by that very same action. Of course, all other social and economic problems also play their part; nevertheless, mass pressure is most important. To be sure, such changes can be undertaken only within the framework of the present exploitation conditions, but within these boundaries a wide range of possibilities exists. The workers may be sure that the much hailed “New Deal in Welfare” did not result from the wisdow and humanity of certain politicians. These most-beloved “virtues” were rather the result of the unrest of the broad masses, and this unrest forced a new policy, together with new politicians, onto the social scene.

The unemployment organizations like to view these accomplishments as results of their own activities, and, in turn, these new accomplishments are pointed out as incentives for further struggles, for still better thing to come. Success depends, of course, upon organization; without organization nothing will ever be accomplished, but this widely shared opinion, however, still leaves unanswered the question as to what kind of organization. The answers given are really simple; each organization maintains that its particular education, specific form of organization, and exclusive emancipation program will do the trick. And it could not be otherwise; competing establishments will not admit that the commodities of the next enterprise are also worth while buying. The struggle for existence involves the struggle against competitors. To lament against such “narrowmindedness” means only to lament against capitalism; and the struggle against the latter already implies the struggle against the existing competitive labor organizations.

The question as to what kind of education and organization will serve the needs of the workers becomes still more complicated when we remember that no organization despite their assurances to the contrary, really presents a consistent structure or program. Although these organizations exert more or less influence upon the workers and society at large, they are themselves influenced even more by social life and changes therein. This fact is reflected in their political shifts, designed to maintain and serve the organization. With the establishment of the custom of collective bargaining, for example, even an organization like the IWW was forced to break with well established traditions in order to benefit by the boom in unionism, of which it was in dire need and to resort, at least to a certain extent, to the much hated contract-making with the employers. Fundamentally, to quote a second example, there is no difference between Lundeberg’s present leaning on the much hated strike-breaking A. F. of L. to save the organization from being crushed by Bridger’s strike-breaking CIO-Union, and, say, the changes of policy within the Third International since Hitler’s advent to power, or the “inconsistencies” of the Anarchists in Spain in relation to the State, or the countless “betrayals” of the “Marxist organizations” all over the world. The meanings the changes assume. In all cases the “inconsistencies” are aimed at keeping organizations alive, or to force their growth by adapting their policies to the needs or possibilities of the moment. To the question then of what kind of organization is essential to the struggle of the workers no absolute answer can be offered; the answering will be made, not by “organizations”, but by particular groups within the organizations, and in different ways at different times.

The cry for organization as such is an empty slogan, for it has not one but a thousand meanings. So far all organizational activity has been by necessity of a self-seeking character. Organization did not serve the workers; the workers were served only insofar as serving them helped the organization. Small opportunities were given to unemployed organizations, yet even in this field, because of their subordination to the political parties, the unemployed organizations did not function so much to serve the jobless, but sought to enlist the latter with the purpose of strenghtening the positions of the “mother-parties”. Capitalism however, itself a marvelous organizer of masses, is not afraid of organizations as such, it is concerned only with real activities, organized or unorganized, which interfere with its own well-being. Having made the statement that the changes in welfare policies were mainly the result of mass pressure, and this especially on the part of the unemployed, we are now impelled to investigate what role the unemployed organizations actually played in this process, what specific form of organization or policy, it any, led to success, and what conclusions may be drawn for the future unemployed activities.

Besides the varied self-help organizations[2] springing up in the years 1930-32, there also came into being during the same period a series of unemployed organizations demanding adequate relief. Some of these organizations were engaged in both self-help activities and organized attempts to get relief from the authorities, as for example, the Seattle Unemployed Citizens League, which by 1931 claimed to have 5,000 members. The collapse of self-help schemes transformed this organization, as well as others, into unemployed circles interested exclusively in obtaining relief. The organizations arose out of individual connections of workers at relief stations and labor forums, or were formed by church communities, ward healers, or individuals with an urge to help the poor. Some organizations succeeded for longer or shorter periods in attracting considerable numbers of workers, others remained discussion clubs; but none of them asserted any significant influence upon the relief situation, and most of them had ceased to exist before the New Deal had made it difficult to organize the unemployed on relief issues.

With the exception of the Unemployed Unions of the IWW, which were formed in 1932, all unemployed organizations demanded better relief, work relief, and a more efficient welfare system. Some of them came out with demands for social legislation, and especially unemployed insurance. The question of relief funds engaged other organizations in discussions of tax problems. The usual increases in “sales tax” were denounced as mediums for lowering the life standards of the masses, and a tax on the rich was requested instead. However, in this field, the voice of the unemployed was totally ignored.

Since 1932 the political labor parties engaged in the formation of unemployed organizations. In the first year of their existence the Unemployed Councils (UC) of the Communist Party (CP) were without doubt the most aggressive and effective organizations. Those groups organized with the help of the Socialist Party (SP), and best known as Workers Committees on Unemployment (WC) were the more “respectable” of the two main unemployed organizations. The latter, working in close connection with liberal welfare organizations and various church denominations, were more interested in fostering social legislation, using the unemployed organizations to demonstrate impressively the necessities of reforms. For this reason there was a competitive struggle between W.C.’s and U.C.’s, and this struggle at times forced the first to engage in unwanted radical actions. The U.C. were the dominating organization in some cities, and the W.C. in other cities. Smaller organizations continued to operate in their shade. There was nothing remarkably different about these independent organizations. Save for possible exceptions unknown to us it may be said that they were rather more conservative and less inclined to engage in struggles for relief.

The C.P. – dominated U.C. were organized in branches, districts, counties, state and national organizations. Special importance was laid upon the needs of the single man, fighting on breadlines and in shelters for their existence. This activity brought to the U.C. more aggressive elements and gave it the character of a proletarian organization, despite its professional but, whenever possible, hidden petty-bourgeois leadership. The intensive propaganda work carried on by the U.C. with the help of party funds, and especially their struggles against evictions, which were supported by many unorganized workers and also by those belonging to other organizations, gave the U.C. the character of an organization of direct actionists. Conflicts with the police in eviction struggles, hunger marches, and demonstrations made out of the U.C. the most popular organization, although its numbers were far less than those of the W.C. However, the political domination by the C.P. devaluated to a large extent the work of the U.C. The actions were not undertaken to serve mainly the needs of the jobless, but to foster the general policies of the C.P., and any conflict between the needs of the workers and the political desire of the C.P. was decided in favor of the latter. This attitude was also common to the other organizations, but not in such a consistent, single-minded fashion. There was never the slightest hesitation on the part of the C.P. to split or destroy any organization, including their own, to eliminate or hamper any kind of activity out of harmony with the party needs. But as long as there was no contradiction between the aims of the party and the needs of the U.C., most the credit for organized unemployment has to go to the U.C. The struggle of the U.C. against evictions was connected with attempts to force the lowering of rents with renter’s strikes, which, however, largely remained empty threats. In its election platform of 1932 the C.P.[3] had already incorporated the demand for unemployment insurance. In distinction to later requests, this early program contained the illusory demand “that the insurance and relief system be administered by the workers themselves.” The Federal Government was supposed to

“Institute a system of insurance, on the basis of full wages, for all unemployment and part-time workers, the necessary funds to be paid entirely by the employers and the State and to be raised by the allocation of all war funds, a capital levy, increased taxes upon the rich, etc.”

Much stress was laid upon hunger marches to state capitals and to Washington. The participation of reliefers in these marches was minimal. These attempts could be considered only as more or less successful publicity stunts, which lost their value in repetition.

The socialist-controlled W.C. called and participated to some extent in hunger marches, demonstrations, or action at the relief stations. The political control of the W.C. b the S.P. was less rigid than that exerted by the C.P. over the U.C., but not because of the greater wisdom of the S.P. leaders, but because the S.P. was not especially fond of being identified with radical activities. Being an extemely capitalistic minded organization, the S.P. advocates Socialism in the same maner as the Church preaches the goodness in man. It is also more interested in the salvation of the soul than in the welfare of the body. In short, it is an organization designed to make an interesting living for some of its members, and to provide entertainment, education, and hope, for the rest of them. The work of the Socialists within the W.C. was largel restricted to educational measures and, by arranging W.P.A. – classes in the “social sciences”, served practically the educators hired by the government when the latter took over the ducation of the unemployed movement, that is, the tendency towards direct action, essentially fostered the “respectability” later adopted also by the U.C. and the C.P., which allowed the organized unemployed movement then to become a “government-recognized” institution designed to serve some lobbyists in Washington. Save in phraseology, the legislative program of the W.C. did not differ from that of the C.P. The W.C. also was organized into locals, county organizations, state and national bodies. However, the organization was more flexible than that of the authoritarian C.P. In some cities a house of delegates brought representatives of locals of both organizations together.

In relief work the main function of these and other organizations was the installation of grievance committes, calculated to assist workers in getting the established relief rates. At certain places these grievance committees were welcomed by the relief authorities and, at others, they were opposed, so that the struggles of the unemployed were, for a time, centered around the question of the rights to grievance committees. Principally no one had anything against such committees. R. L. Johnson, welfare director of Pennsylvania wrote, for instance[4]:

“I set up in the state headquarters a bureau whose sole function was to deal with the organized unemployed. We established in each county, committees of three to represent the people on relief and to meet weekly, either with the county administrator or his representative, to go over grievances. In all my dealings with the unemployed, I was guided by the firm conviction that the best way to lick the problems of Fascism and Communism and to minimize the dissatisfaction and misunderstanding among the unemployed was to give them and opportunity, at least once a weak, to air their grievances, which certainly are heavy, before someone authorized to correct any injustice.”

However, the original grievance committees were of another character; they were combined with the continual threat of mass action at the local stations and functioned, not with specific rules, but in accordance with the militancy of the workers. To remove the “obstructive” character of the committees, the authorities established central bureaus to consider grievances, and thereby took away responsibilities from the local stations and reduced the committees to mere servants of the case-workers. The unemployed organizations did not succeed in their attempts to stop this emasculation of the grievance committees.

The aforementioned Unemployed Unions of the I.W.W. were of the opinion that relief could not solve the unemployed question, and that it was necessary to put the jobless back to work by shortening the working day for all workers to 4 hours. Their policy was the “picketing of industries” to impress upon the employed workers the need for opening the factories to the jobless. To foster the understanding necessary to fulfill their program, they advocated the participation of the unemployed in the strikes of the employed. They did not propose any immediate relief demands, and in actuality the Unemployed Unions were nothing more than agitation committees for the I.W.W. However the U.U. did not grow, and they were later abolished. The unemployed were advised to enter the regular Industrial Unions. Regardless of their special philosophy the Wobblies like all other workers organized or unorganized, participated in all the daily acitivites of the unemployed, demanding and fighting for better relief, even though “relief could not solve the problem.”

Though it is not possible to connect the solidarity between employed and unemployed with the insufficient propaganda of the insignificant unemployment activity of the I.W.W., this solidarity was demonstrated in many strikes during this period, as, for example, in the Detroit Autoworkers strike in January – February 1933, and in the street car conductors strike in Milwaukee in the same year, and in many other instances. This fact is the more remarkable, as, “more than in other countries, it was always comparatively easy in the United States to get unemployed to act as strike breakers[5]“.

Since the first beginnings of the organized unemployed movement, attempts were made towards national coordination. In November 1932 the Unemployed Citizen League of St. Louis and the Chicago Workers Committee on Unemployment called a conference in Chicago, out of which resulted the first national Federation of Unemployed Workers Leagues. 44 delegates from 30 different organizations from Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Iowa, New York and Texas were represented. They rejected, although not very consistently, the various self-help schemes, and demanded unemployed insurance, adequate relief in form of cash allotments, prevailing wage rates for workers on public projects, and the right to grievance committees. Besides these immediate demands, there was a rather vague declaration in favor of Socialism as a permanent solution for the ills of the time. The Federation claimed 150,000 members, though these claims are not provable. Although the majority of the federated organizations were influenced either by the C.P. or S.P. ideas, or by still more reactionary ideologies, some of the smallers units were orientated towards a more consistent proletarian attitude. Especially noticeable here was the Workers League of Chicago[6]. This organization, not controlled by any political party although it had communistically orientated members in its ranks, resulted from spontaneous meetings of unemployed, who at and near relief stations protested against the insufficiency of relief rations. Their program was concentrated upon direct demands for the momentary needs of the unemployed, and advocated the necessity of concerted action of all the jobless, regardless of party interests. Although this organization could not organize more than a few thousand members, its attitude won it a broad following among the unemployed. It activized the workers in more fruitful directions by helping to avoid political bickering, and frustrating to a certain extent the struggle of the parties for domination in the unemployed field. It helped considerably in bringing about large-scale actions, powerful mass demonstrations, which enforced the withdrawals of relief cuts. The Workers League of Chicago was largely responsible for the creation of the first National Federation, but it was also the main reason for the collapse of that organization. The S.P. and C.P. soon recognized that it would be impossible for them to control the National Federation, because of the existence of the Workers League. After Browder and Benjamin had convinced themselves by a visit to the Chicago Executive that it was impossible to change the balance of power position of the Workers League in the Federation, they decided, that had already also been decided by the S.P., to end the life of the Federation by withdrawing from it. Later, in the East, the now defunct Conference for Progressive Labor Action had succeeded in forming unemployed organizations, or in gaining control of others which already existed, and which had been in loose connection with the Chicago Federation. These connections were severed in order to form a new national federation together with the U.C. of the C.P., an organization which was soon again dissolved, till, in 1936, the W.C. of the S.P., which previously had changed its name into Workers Alliance of America (WA), combined with the much disintegrated U.C. Today, the Workers Alliance is the only unemployed organization of any importance, although smaller groups here and there still function independently without, however, differing essentially from the W.A. and its activities.

Considering the whole organized unemployed movement from the onset of the depression to the New Deal, it cannot be said that the organized movement had at any time enough power or sufficient following to be able to force local, state, or national authorities to grant concessions. There is no doubt that all organizations together had some influence upon the unemployed masses, but neither the organized activity nor the support it actually got from the broad masses can be regarded as the decisive moment which brought about the change in welfare relations. The turn in governmental unemployed policy can be explained only out of the whole cloth, not out of a specific aspect of the crisis condition, the aspect of unemployment and its organizational expressions. Certainly the actual pressure exerted by the unemployed and their organizations would have forced any government to give and to increase relief. Certainly it is not possible to starve large, concentrated masses to death without inviting troubles more costly than the necessary relief allotments. However, as long as the unemployed represent a relatively small minority within the total population, and as long as only a minority of them is actually impoverished, it is difficult for the unemployed to enforce more than the most meager relief rations, for outside of riots and disturbances they do not possess real weapons to enforce their demands. But the use of such ultimate weapons presupposes a general crisis situation and a general atmosphere of unrest of a large scope then had existed.

People often wonder why it is so difficult to organize the unemployed. This difficult, however, is not mysterious at all; it indicates only that the workers recognize quite wel the limitations of unemployed organizations. They cannot help but recognize the power of capital and its institutions, and they have a difficult time accepting the ideia that these forces could be successfully opposed with no more than demonstratins and protests, which actions are possible only as long as the authorities allow them. For the same reason they believe that the individual approach will have the best results, because he who cannot fight must either scheme or beg. This also causes them to prefer the more reformist organizations and the professional leaders, for these organizations and persons do exactly what seems to the majority of workers the most sensible thing to do – the attainment by political scheming of what cannot be achieved by struggle. Only when relief is denied altogether does the need for radical action come to the fore and influence organizations. But as soon as institutions for relief are created, the unemployed, and with them their organizations, will tend to make them more effective, which however, is possible only by a certain amount of cooperation. Even those relief institutions resulting from struggles of the unemployed give rise to new attitudes as soon as they become permanent, and foster political bargaining rather than political action. The transformation of the once relatively militant unemployed organizations into the present semi-governmental Workers Alliance is not, as is often argued, only the result of treacherous changes of policies on the part of the political parties, but, more so, the result of the changing attitudes of the masses, effected by the general change of governmental policy. That “accidentally” this change coincided with changes of policies within the C.P. is only a lucky break for the latter, but has no further bearing on the question. Even if the C.P. would not have become a government-supporting agency, and if all other issues would have remained the same, the unemployed movement would still be what it is today, with the C.P. out of the picture. Though the W.A. is controlled by the C.P. and influenced by the S.P., it cannot be said that the members or the unemployed masses are behind these two political organizations. They are behind Roosevelt’s government because, recognizing their present lack of power, they hope that a friendly government will give them freely what they cannot get by force; therefore they are friendly to the government. What holds true for the unemployed also holds true for the W.P.A. workers. Being a little better off than the reliefers, they are mainly interested in keeping this favorable position. They know quite well that a strike for better positions has little chance of success, since they cannot, as in private industry, destroy profits has little chance of success, since they cannot, as in private industry, destroy profits, but can only cause some savings for the government. The power of the government to close projects at will is enough to cause the workers to think that their organizing would mean only unneccesary costs to operate functionless organizations. Although they are often willing to act on the job against the atrocities of their immediate superiors, they cannot yet be organized successfully for struggles of a larger scope.

As regards the New Deal in Welfare, it must be considered, as we have already observed, as only one item in the total re-organization process which began amidst the crisis and was forced not only by the unemployed but by the majority of the population, including capitlaistic layers, to overcome the depression with a program of public spending that was made possible by inflationary measures. That is, the New Deal sought to secure profitability for a portion of the capitalists by sacrificing the interests of others. This program was of necessity an employment program, and it divided the unemployed into reliefers and W.P.A. workers. Where the first are concerned, nothing has changed for them. Their situation is just as miserable as it was five years ago, the only difference being that their possibilities for action are still further reduced because of this division in their ranks. The Workers Alliance is by this very same situation not only induced to be mainly interested in the extension of the spending program, but forced to be so, and therefore must support the government, which claims and inclination to favor the same philosophy. But is is impossible to support on the one hand a government against its adversaries who entertain different plans as to how the social problems should be solved, and, on the other hand, to attack this very same government by calling for actions on the part of the unemployed. And so the organized unemployed movement, which set out to enforce its will upon the government, has sofar succeeded only in advancing to a position, were it serve the government.

(To be continued in the next issue).

[1] Address on Unemployment Relief. Oct. 18, 1931.

[2] Compare: What Can The Unemployed Do? – Living Marxism, No. 2; pp. 59-61, and No. 3; pp. 85-92.

[3] W. Z. Foster. Toward Soviet America. p. 248.

[4] Saturday Evening Post. March 28, 1936, p. 97.

[5] Twentieth Century Fund, Labor and the Government, p. 316.

[6] In later issues of Living Marxism we will deal with some of the unemployed organizations in greater deatil. We will deal also with the relations of trade unions to unemployed and unemployed organizations, and, furthermore, with the present tasks and possibilities of the unemployed.

All transcriptions were done by Felipe Andrade. Did you find any mistakes? Suggestions? Send e-mail to:
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