The Unemployed Struggles of the 1930’s, the Working Class Must Draw the Lessons

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In this two-part series of articles about the employed and unemployed workers’ struggle of the 1930’s we have looked at what seem to us to have been the strengths and weaknesses of that movement. We think that this kind of assessment is important in the context of the present economic crisis and the struggles that it has given birth to, especially regarding the development of protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street. In this first part we will look at the present attacks against the working class, and especially the unemployed. Then we will start the examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the movement of the 1930’s. In the next article, we will focus more in detail on its weaknesses and broach the question of what lessons to draw for the present and future struggles of the class.

Unemployment in the XXI century - the bourgeoisie hides the reality

The ruling class finds reason to believe that the recent release of statistics regarding unemployment can give its lie about the economic ‘recovery’ a boost: apparently, the unemployment rate has dropped from hovering above a stubborn 9% national average to 8.6%. The working class, by contrast, has every reason to continue to feel skeptical of the ruling class’ reassurances as to the ‘recovery’ which supposedly started two years ago, and of any rosy perspectives for the future. Such drop does nothing to quell the uncertainty and anxiety about the future of one’s employment and it does nothing to console the throngs of those who are still collecting unemployment benefits, have given up looking for a job altogether, are currently working part-time jobs for lack of anything better, or are about to enter the labor force, either as young college graduates, returning war veterans, or retirees whose pension or social security checks cannot keep pace with the rate of inflation or need to help pay for their unemployed children’s student loan or credit card debt or mortgage. Behind the rhetoric that peddles the lie about the ‘recovery’ there are several calculated manipulations of the statistics. For example, it is not a secret that the method used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to calculate the official unemployment rate is bogus. There was a time when 3% unemployment rate was considered ‘acceptable’, but with the explosion of the economic crisis in the 70’s that number was pushed up to 5%, which was then called ‘natural unemployment’. It is not unlikely that, as the present recession seems to be taking on a permanent character, that figure will be ‘adjusted’ once again. Already, states whose unemployment rate currently drops to 6.5% no longer qualify for benefits, demonstrating how the ruling class has started de facto to regard that rate as ‘natural unemployment’. The current rate calculation excludes those who have stopped seeking work, those who settle for part-time work when they would rather work full-time, and the military. By an alternative measure of unemployment that the same Bureau produces, the unemployment rate jumped to 15.6% as of last November 2011 when those who have looked for work in the past 12 months and those who work part-time even though they would like full-time jobs are included. We can rest assured that even that estimate is conservative. The picture becomes all the more grimy when we add that 43% of all unemployed – 5.7 million people – have been out of work for more than 27 weeks.

Congress has passed extensions on the limit of unemployment coverage several times since the onset of the economic crisis, amidst bitter disputes between Democrats and Republicans. Over the last two years, members of Congress repeatedly have clashed over continuing the current 99 weeks of extended benefits. Although Congressional leaders relented in December to a two-month extension of the current 99 weeks of benefits, there has been no support for providing additional help for those who have exhausted their aid. As part of its ongoing campaign about the ‘recovery’, the ruling class also has to justify the cuts to benefits it is forced to pass. The bourgeoisie has fashioned a venomous attack against the jobless by portraying them as ‘loafers’, shiftless people who “live off other people’s money”, and who rely on government’s handouts because they do not want to take the ‘opportunity’ of the ‘new jobs’ that have supposedly been created during the ‘recovery’. Clearly, for the ruling class there must be joy to be drawn from the humiliating and dehumanizing situation of dire economic need which forces millions to stand in the unemployment lines and welfare offices, once the handouts afforded to them by the capitalist state are over. This demagogy aims at dividing the jobless from the employed, and scapegoats the former for the huge deficits of the federal and states’ governments. It also reveals the racism of the ruling class, which it uses as a dividing tactic to pit black and while workers against each other. But behind their quite blunt racism we find the rabid scorn the bourgeoisie has for the entire working class, for fear that one day it will unite against its rule. This reactionary ideology is the other side of the same coin. While the reactionary faction openly advocates draconian cuts to benefits, the more ‘liberal’ faction of the ruling class score points on the issue of tying the workers to the state by posing as the champions of the exploited, who are unable to do more for them because of their reactionary brothers, and not because capitalism is rotting on its feet.

Behind this shameful posturing and mud-slinging, the necessity to reduce benefits in the face of the economic crisis, the need to divide the workers among themselves, and the necessity to keep them mystified as to the reality of unemployment are very real. In the words of an unemployed worker, “The recently passed two-month extension to unemployment benefits (UE) is a maneuver to further manipulate the statistics regarding the real number of unemployed people. Since the extension does not apply to people that have used the maximum 99 weeks allowed under the present extension program, many of those unemployed people will not be counted as unemployed, and will simply… disappear” ( This is clearly an attempt at further manipulating the statistics regarding the true numbers of jobless workers. At the end of February, when the current two-month extension expires, it is certain that if any other extension is passed, it will be with all sorts of strings attached. Proposals are made ranging from requiring unemployed workers to have a high school diploma in order to be eligible for benefits, or meet with caseworkers for “re-employment assessments”, to making permanent changes to the structure of the program. These changes would loosen federal restrictions on how states administer the benefits. Under a Republican proposal, states could opt to use federal unemployment insurance funds for something other than benefits. As the two-month extension is passed, a number of states, strapped with cash after several cuts to their budgets, look for ways by which they can avoid or restrict the amount of money the unemployed could collect. Here are a few examples:

• In South Carolina unemployment rate is 9,9 percent and has not been below 9 percent in three years. The average unemployment benefit payment there is $235, ranking 45th nationwide. The maximum someone can receive is $326 weekly, which equates to a salary of less than $17.000. Under a new policy, the longer someone is unemployed, the lower the salary they must accept in a job offer. After four weeks, they must take a job offering 90 percent of what they were making. The percentage drops every four weeks, to 70 percent after 16. After federally paid extensions kick in at 20 weeks, it would eventually drop to minimum wage. Another policy change cuts length of benefits for employees let go for absenteeism, poor attitude, violating policies or poor work quality. Yet, Maj. Gen. Abraham Turner, the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce’s director, said, “We’re trying to prohibit that person drawing unemployment from sitting back and not aggressively going after the jobs. The jobs are there.” In his view, continued benefits just discourage people from looking for jobs, and two years of jobless benefits should be enough for someone to find a job. Never mind the unemployment rate and the fact that there are, on average, four workers looking for any job advertised nationwide.

  • In Minnesota soon it will no longer be possible to be eligible for 13 weeks of extended jobless benefits. The loss of benefits has to do with the state’s unemployment rate. The state’s three-month unemployment rate dipped below 6,5 percent making it no longer eligible for the Federal-State Extended Benefits. Minnesota is among nine other states that no longer qualify. Statewide, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates 7.000 Minnesotans will be impacted by the change. Locally, Southeastern Minnesota Building and Construction Trades President Mike Krahn said an estimated 30 to 40 percent of his union’s members are unemployed.
  • In California, the number of jobless workers who have exhausted their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits is approaching 600.000, the state Employment Development Department reports. By EDD’s latest count, more than 599.000 had been booted off the unemployment rolls as of Jan. 10.

From the point of view of the working class, it is necessary to openly denounce the recently released statistics about the ‘drop’ in unemployment, the continued mystification around the economic ‘recovery’, the latest two-month extension of unemployment benefits, and the revolting racist demagogy of the ruling class for what they are: attempts to fog the rising consciousness of the exploited regarding the obsolescence of capitalism, its inability to offer any perspectives for the future, and the urgency to do away with this moribund social system and build a new world. It is vital for the working class to go back to its own history and draw the lessons from its past struggles and clearly understand how and why they were defeated. What were the weaknesses and strengths of those struggles? What did the ruling class do to confront the militancy of the working class? What can the working class do today to avoid the traps of the past and forge a more coherent, better prepared way forward in the context of the present economic crisis and the attacks against the unemployed and unemployment benefits?

The last time the ruling class was faced with mass unemployment, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the workers and unemployed waged courageous and very militant battles in defense of their economic interests. However, as we will see, the historic moment and situation were not in favor of a development of a strongly politicized movement which could put in question the continued existence of the capitalist mode of production. To a large extent, the struggles of the 1930’s limited themselves to a call for relief. This is the fundamental reason why the state was able to blunt the class struggle through the creation of programs and unemployment benefits, until then non-existent. Today the perspective is no longer toward the establishment of programs such as the Works Progress Administration or National Recovery Act, but rather toward a drastic reduction of existing benefits, no matter what the present campaign by the liberal faction of the bourgeoisie wants us to believe. The struggles of the unemployed and employed workers of the 1930’s were fatefully impaired by the world-wide failure of the revolutionary wave that had started in Russia in 1917 and the ensuing counterrevolution. We cannot get into an explanation of this here, but the ICC has written extensively on the Russian Revolution, the causes of its failure and the international repercussions on the working class and its struggles. Our readers may want to refer to our articles on our website. The ruling class today looks back at those times to draw the lessons of how to deal with possible or contingent social unrest, but it cannot ‘invent’ a historical defeat of the proletariat such as this had experienced in the 30’s. This historic fact can potentially play in favor of the working class. However, the ruling class’ weapons will be strongly ideological. Its preferred weapon will be that of divide and conquer, a tactic that the U.S. ruling class has great experience with. It will also try to strengthen the presence of the unions within the ranks of the workers, as it did in the 1930’s. We cannot here write about why we think that the unions are the ruling class’ shop-floor police and the working class’ hangman, notwithstanding the idiosyncratic tendency of certain factions of the bourgeoisie to be at times vehemently against the unions. We invite our readers to read the many articles we have published on this issue. These are not the only obstacles the workers are confronted with. It is then of the utmost importance that, as the working class looks back at its own history and struggles, it draws all the lessons to make it powerful to confront the traps its exploiters lay. The fact that the working class has not suffered an ideological and historical defeat as in the years following the failure of the revolutionary wave that had started in Russia in 1917 certainly makes it more difficult for the ruling class to manipulate the consciousness of the workers with nationalist ideology. But this will not help the working class much unless it will be able to surpass the other wrenches the ruling class throws in the works of the class struggle and the development of consciousness that can result from it, and unless the workers learn from their own past shortcomings.

The historic background to the struggles of the 1930’s: the role of the American workers’ movement

While it isn’t the aim nor the scope of this article to show the historic origins of the workers movement in the U.S., or to develop an in-depth analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, familiarity with it is indispensible to place the struggles of the 1930’s in their proper perspective. We then invite our readers to read our series of articles on the history of the workers movement in the U.S. which we published in International Reviews 124 and 125. Here we will merely summarize some important points to help us better understand the historic context in which the struggles of the 1930’s developed.

First and foremost, we recognize the IWW of the years between its founding in 1905 and its disbanding in 1921 as the most important and serious organization of the workers movement in the U.S. The historic context of the founding of the IWW in 1905 is discussed in the International Reviews afore mentioned. Here, we want to draw attention to the international context of the time, which placed the formation of the IWW at the watershed between capitalism’s ascendance and decadence. In large part, its internal debates, divergences, and sometimes contradictory positions were the reflection of the effort to understand the implications of how the change in historic periods impacted the political positions and forms of a revolutionary organization. Its response to these changes was its practice of revolutionary syndicalism. (See our series of articles on revolutionary syndicalism in International Reviews 118 and 120). It was a reaction to the opportunism of the socialist parties and the unions which had infected Social Democracy abroad and the AfoL here.

Certain historical ‘specificities’ of the development of capitalism in America must be taken into account. For example:

  • the Frontier, which provided opportunities for the ruling class to diffuse social discontent about the conditions of exploitation by dispersing the working class over a vast geographical area
  • the immigration and racial questions, which the ruling class used from very early on to divide the exploited among themselves
  • the particularly vicious and brutal use of repression by the ruling class against the working class’ mobilizations and struggles, which led the IWW to regard political action futile and subordinate it to the economic.

These conditions help explain the difficulties of the birth of a unified working class in America and accompanied the IWW’s reluctance toward political action and its theorization that the form of class organization should be revolutionary syndicalism, i.e. the idea that the industrial union should be one with the unitary organization of the workers and that of the revolutionary militants and agitators – or the party. Fundamentally, the IWW’s conception of itself as a mass unitary organization, and not a political party, made it vulnerable in the face of the repressive onslaught the U.S. ruling class unleashed as it prepared to enter World War I. Instead of focusing on closing ranks and preparing for clandestine work, the view of a majority of the General Executive Board in the voice of Haywood, was that the war was a distraction from the important work of union building. Its focus on union-building to the detriment of the theoretical development of political principles and organizational forms and practices left it unprepared and hesitant as to the direction to take in the face of WWI at a time when other revolutionary organizations abroad were drawing the theoretical implications of the entry of capitalism in its decadent phase, taking a clear internationalist position against the war, and helping the class wage its most daring attempt to date at seizing power. The American working class was left virtually leaderless and without clear orientations during the revolutionary wave that was sweeping Europe and Russia in the first part of the century and in the face of the terrible counterrevolution that was to follow the failure of the revolutionary attempts of 1917 in Russia and 1919 in Germany. When the massive wave of unrest and struggles by the unemployed and employed struck in the 1930’s, the working class was to pay the price of the workers’ movement weaknesses. The weaknesses of the workers’ movement in America and the defeat, at the international level, of the great revolutionary wave that had started with the Russian Revolution, help us understand why, notwithstanding the tremendous militancy which the American working class displayed in the struggles of the 1930’s, it could not properly confront the reformist and democratic traps that the Roosevelt administration laid in front of it. Without a clear political orientation, the working class could not assert its own historic project of overthrowing capitalism by seizing political power and only got petty reforms which were immediately wiped out at the slightest relaxation of workers’ militancy.

The unemployed and workers struggles of the 1930’s – their power

The years of the Great Depression saw the largest mobilization of the unemployed in the history of the U.S. The first step in this mobilization was overcoming the ideological and demagogic weight of the bourgeois credo according to which there is shame in being jobless. In this view, joblessness is itself a condition born of one’s own deficiency or laziness, not of the anarchy of capitalist production, the competition that drives this mode of production, and the crises that it inevitably engenders. At the time of the Great Depression, there was no unified or centralized structure or program to provide relief to the indigent. Whatever handouts were given, mostly provided by charities, ‘philanthropists’, or in any case in a very fragmented manner, they were difficult to qualify for – only orphaned, widowed, and the crippled could get it – and were very meager. If one happened not to be orphaned or widowed or crippled, but plain and simple destitute, in most cases one would be incarcerated in almshouses and workhouses. It was not rare that orphans would be indentured on condition of providing whatever labor they could in exchange for being fed. These practices are no longer in place today, but as the examples offered above of proposals to restrict access to jobless benefits suggest, the bourgeoisie is still concerned with both: 1. How to mystify the workers as to the real reasons for their poverty, and 2. How to make use of the indigence created by the capitalist mode of production and the humiliation meted out by capitalism’s mode of relief to terrorize the rest of the working class into submission to the barbaric laws of laboring under capitalist exploitation. Indeed, while it is true that the prospect of joblessness can be a disincentive to enter open struggle, it is also true that a continued, persistent economic crisis lays the foundation for mass unemployment, which makes it difficult today for the bourgeoisie to legitimize its continued existence. This is why it has to resort to demagogy, mystification, and the tactic of divide and conquer. This was true in the 1930’s as well. The exceptional hardship created by the Depression was bound, inevitably, to cause social unrest. This possibility was echoed many times by several politicians and union leaders. In September 1931, the American Legion announced that “...the crisis could not be promptly and efficiently met by existing political methods” (1). The idea that communist ideas were getting a hold of the masses was widespread. The Republican governor of Washington declared, “We cannot endure another winter of hardship such as we are now passing through” (2). Edwrad F. McGrady of the AFL told the Seante Subcommittee on Manufacturers, “ I say to you gentlemen, advisedly, that if something is not done… the doors of revolt in this country are going to be thrown open” (3) and John L. Lewis even pronounced, “The political stability of the Republic is imperiled” (4). The social situation was indeed explosive. In all major cities of the U.S., from Chicago to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland… the earliest uprisings occurred among the unemployed. As unemployment rose, many families found it impossible to pay their rent. In New York City some 186.000 families were served dispossess notices during eight months ending in June 1932. In Philadelphia in 1933, 63% of the white families and 66% of the black were in arrears. San Francisco did not fare better, and in five industrial cities in Ohio eviction orders were issued against nearly 100.000 families between January 1930 and June 1932 (5). This explosive social situation was happening at a time when the ruling class had not yet had a need to mobilize the capitalist state through a myriad of programs, bureaucratic practices, and, above all, the unions apparatus to contain social unrest. In other words, the capitalist state was not prepared to confront this novel situation. This helped create the conditions for the birth of unemployed councils which formed more often than not on the spur of the need of the moment and which had the aim of preventing marshals from putting furniture of evicted families on the streets, or going to the relief offices to request immediate release of cash. This ad-hoc, spontaneous form of the struggle, as we know, is the embryonic form of the workers’ councils, which were formed in 1905 and then again in 1917 in Russia and elsewhere during the revolutionary wave. These forms of organization are the living proof of the fact that, as we shall see in the next part of the article, the formation of permanent mass organizations in the current period is always the prelude to their incorporation in the state or the democratist ideology of the state. The state repression which was often unleashed on the committees and demonstrations or marches, was a burning reminder of the necessity to maintain the ad-hoc form of organization.

In the beginning, rather than discouraging the unemployed from creating their councils, state repression inflamed them even more, resulting in ever wider protests. From the onset, the earliest expressions of unemployed unrest took on a mass character, with marches and demonstrations at times so threatening that the mayors of some cities were forced to promise the collection of funds to be distributed to the unemployed. Unemployed groups also supported and united with striking workers, whose numbers also were swelling under the pressures of the economic crisis. The most well-remembered examples of this tendency toward unifying the struggles of the working class are the Toledo Auto-Lite strike and the Milwaukee Streetcar strike of 1934. In both instances, the support of thousands of unemployed was crucial in breaking the bosses’ resistance. In Toledo it was A.J. Muste’s radical Unemployed League who helped reinforced the employed workers picket lines with large numbers of unemployed. When the auto parts company obtained a court injunction limiting picketing and barring the League from picketing, the League, along with some local Communists, violated the court order and instead called for mass picketing. The striking workers were inspired by the solidarity and militancy shown by their jobless brothers and sisters, and their numbers started to grow. Auto-Lite hired 1.500 strikebreakers and Toledo police, unwilling to have a direct showdown with the workers because of the great sympathy for the strikers even among the police ranks, deputized special police paid for by Auto-Lite. The resistance was so fierce that, the Ohio National Guard was called in to evacuate the strikebreakers from inside the factory, which had been surrounded by 10.000 workers and their sympathizer. Notwithstanding the intervention of the Ohio National Guard with machine guns and bayonetted rifles, the killing of two people and the wounding of scores , resistance continued, with workers gathering again and coming back the next day for a pitched battle against the National Guard. The crowd, armed with bricks and bottles would not disperse. Workers started to threaten a general strike, and finally Auto-Lite agreed to a 22 percent wage increase and limited recognition for the union.

(…to be continued)

Ana, January 2012

1Poor People’s Movements, Why They Succeed, How They Fail, by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward. Vintage Books edition, 1979.






Historic events: 



Crisis and unemployment