The Job for Unemployed Workers and Their Allies

Prepared by Trudy Goldberg, Chair, National Jobs for All Coalition. (2012).

Four Years of Mass Unemployment

Today, over four years after the U.S. economy crashed, nearly 28 million people are either jobless or working part-time, even though they want and need full-time work. That’s about the same number as the combined total populations of the states of New York and New Jersey. Try to imagine that many people. What if only about 10 percent of them were to march to Washington demanding jobs for everyone who wants to work. That would be over two million people, many more than the greatest marches of the Civil Rights Movement.

In addition to unemployed and underemployed workers, another 17 million who do have full-time work-earn too little to live on. These low wages can be charged partly to unemployment–to a labor market with so many extra workers that bosses can get away with paying much less than a living wage.

With the economy leaving so many of us at the short end of the stick and so many others frightened of unemployment or falling wages, why aren’t more of us doing more about it? Compare the response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Only five months after the stock market crash of 1929, there was a nationwide mobilization of the jobless in dozens of cities throughout the country.

It’s true that today some jobless people have unemployment insurance to pay part of their bills, yet less than half of them get these benefits. For many who are covered, unemployment benefits don’t pay enough and don’t last as long as they’re out of work. Further, states are cutting the number of weeks jobless workers can collect benefits. Many unemployed people and the working poor get food stamps, but food stamps don’t pay for the rent or other necessities. And, as we all know,unemployment isn’t a matter of bread alone–it literally makes us sick, physically and mentally. Jobless people often feel ashamed, worthless, alienated, unable to contribute to their communities or support their families. All too often they blame themselves for losing their jobs when it’s the economy that’s to blame. That’s one reason why they may feel they don’t “have the right to demand jobs” unless they are helped to understand that it’s the economy that fails to deliver, not the workers who lose their jobs.

The Unemployed Weren’t Always Silent

Today’s unemployed, underemployed and underpaid workers–despite their numbers and the duration of this crisis– have been pretty silent for four years. But that hasn’t always been the case when people were thrown out of work. The largest organization of unemployed workers and the one that got the most in the way of relief and jobs was organized during the early years of the Great Depression. However, such protests in the United States–which has a long history of depressions or deep recessions–back at least to the middle of the 19th century. In 1857, a financial collapse threw thousands out of work and, in the growing urban centers, it was harder than it was on the farm for these city workers to sustain themselves without a wage. As a response, President James Buchanan, in a State of the Union Address, referred to “thousands of useful laborers thrown out of work and reduced to want”. In Philadelphia, 20,000 of the unemployed protested to their state representatives. As a result of demonstrations by these unemployed laborers, the City Council that had first cut back public works, reversed its decision, and some of the unemployed got jobs building reservoirs and culverts.

The worst U.S. depression in the 19th century–and the worst ever, except for the Great Depression–hit the country in the 1890s. According to one scholar, unemployment ranged from 12-18% for five years. There were violent strikes in the wake of this depression and the first significant popular protest march on Washington by unemployed workers in our history. The marchers were known as Coxey’s Army, named after Jacob Coxey, the Ohio businessman who led them. What the marchers called for were jobs such as building roads and other improvement projects. There were quite a few related marches, also called armies, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, one of which commandeered a train in order to travel to Washington. It enjoyed the support along the way of many sympathetic better-off people–until it was stopped by federal troops. Neither President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, nor Congress met the marchers’ demand for jobs, but it is thought that this unrest led Democrats in a number of cities to support labor reforms.

Coxey’s Army is reflected in literature and popular culture. One example of that is The Wizard of Oz, whose author observed the march and created characters who stand for various disadvantaged workers as well as public figures–the scarecrow for farmers and the tin woodman for industrial workers, the humbug wizard for President Cleveland who didn’t do anything to solve unemployment.

Organization of the Unemployed in the 1930s: Some Successes

Organizations of the unemployed staged demonstrations in cities and states all over the country during the first three years of the Great Depression. The activities of these organizations or councils included lobbying for legislation like unemployment insurance which was enacted in 1935 during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term. In providing benefits to unemployed women and men, the U.S. government, for the first time in its history, acknowledged that jobless people were in that situation through no fault of their own–instead of the earlier view that they were lazy or shiftless. In fact, we often refer to unemployment benefits as compensation, a word that means one deserves or has earned what he or she gets.

The unemployed councils organized sit-ins at local relief or welfare offices in order to get more help for those without work or wages. By putting pressure on local officials, they sometimes succeeded in getting help for hungry and homeless people. Unemployed councils would organize squads of jobless workers who traveled to neighborhoods to halt evictions; they would put furniture that had been dumped on the street back in the apartments of evicted tenants. Another action of these squads was to reconnect gas and electric lines that were shut off because jobless workers couldn’t pay their bills.

These various forms of protest and advocacy by organizations of the unemployed influenced the Roosevelt administration to provide massive direct relief to the unemployed. The federal government had never before given such aid to unemployed people, but with local and state governments broke and private charity able to offer almost nothing, Washington was the only source of help for millions of hungry and destitute Americans.

Organizations of the unemployed had demonstrated and lobbied for jobs as well as for food and clothing. As a result, the U.S. government employed millions of jobless men and women for the rest of the depression. In these programs, the largest of which was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the unemployed got work and the country benefited enormously from their labor. Jobless workers built bridges, roads, schools and libraries, put on plays for people who had never been to a theater–and much more.

It is very important to bear in mind that the unemployed councils that gained benefits for unemployed and destitute people during the Great Depression needed the support and resources of organizations of the left, including the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and A. J. Muste’s Conference for Progressive Labor Action (the “Musteites”). Money, leadership training and skilled organizers were important. It was, for example, organizers supplied by these leftist sources who were skilled in developing strategies of protest. It was they who helped the unemployed to stop blaming themselves and being ashamed for losing their jobs. Helped by these organizers to regard unemployment as an economic failure, jobless workers began to develop the necessary indignation and determination to engage in militant, organized action on their own behalf–to demand jobs and relief. On the other hand, these external resources often came at a price–failure to encourage the development of local leadership and initiative. |

Unemployed veterans of World War I also organized and advocated for their rights. These veterans and their families–43,000 strong–marched to Washington in the spring and summer of 1932 to demand immediate disbursement of bonuses that were not scheduled for payment until 1945. The organizers of the march called it the Bonus Expeditionary Force to associate it with the U.S. army in World War I, the American Expeditionary Force. President Herbert Hoover grew impatient with this “Bonus Army,” refused aid to the nation’s unemployed veterans and ordered the military to break up their encampment. When a smaller bonus army marched to DC at the start of the Roosevelt Administration, the President offered them work in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a program that employed jobless workers on such environmental projects as planting trees, prevention of soil erosion, flood control …. In 1936, Congress granted World War I veterans early payment of their bonuses. So these unemployed protesters eventually got what they came to Washington for.

The Missing Ingredients

For four years the United States and millions of its people have been plagued by mass unemployment. Whereas public officials had to deal with mass protest by the unemployed and their allies during the Great Depression, the Obama administration has had no such pressure to reduce unemployment during the Great Recession. There has been plenty of organization and protest from the other direction, and that has blocked a concentrated attack on unemployment along with others measures vitally needed to reduce poverty and extreme economic inequality.

These right-wing campaigns have been richly financed by the elites that stand greedily to gain from them. If unemployed workers are once again to organize effectively and win jobs and other benefits, they will need the help of many organizations whose members, though not currently unemployed, suffer from a labor market and a society with excess workers, stagnating wages, insufficient purchasing power and the family and community problems caused by unemployment. Help must come from progressive advocacy organizations and political parties, from a labor movement perennially weakened by excess workers and the failure to support the unemployed and unorganized, the religious community, progressive foundations and individual donors and activists. Sponsors and providers of resources, moreover, must encourage and nourish local leadership and control– as long as their organizations work toward the goal of living- wage jobs for all.

The only policy that can solve mass unemployment is direct job creation by the federal government. Everyone knows that our roads need repair, our bridges are unsafe, our children need more teachers, parents lack affordable child care, seniors lack elder care, and we must green our economy. All of these needs can be met by a federal program that resembles those of the 1930s that not only employed millions of jobless Americans but made a lasting contribution to our nation. Fortunately, bills recently introduced in Congress call for job creation modeled on these programs, and they can be paid for by reduced defense spending, rescinding the Bush tax cuts and a tax on financial security transactions–the “Robin Hood Tax.” One such bill is H.R. 4277, the Humphrey Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act that establishes a tax on large scale Wall Street securities transactions to fund 2.5 to 4 million community jobs within the first two years of its passage.

The unemployed, joined by allies who recognize that mass unemployment harms all of us, can march, demonstrate, lobby and petition our elected representatives on behalf of H.R.4277 and similar bills that can be used to educate the American public about the extent of the jobs crisis and about the availability of a solution that would benefit the whole nation as well as the unemployed. Such legislation can be the rallying cries for mass organization of and for the unemployed and on behalf of the right to a job for all who want to work.

During the Great Depression organizations of elderly Americans gathered millions of signatures on petitions in favor of retirement benefits. Members of Congress were inundated by petitions circulated by the Townsendites, named for a California doctor who proposed a pension of $200 a month for all older people–providing they spent it that month, thereby increasing consumer demand and stimulating the economy. Neither the Congress nor President Roosevelt felt they could ignore the mass pressure of millions of petitions. One result was the programs for the elderly in the landmark Social Security Act of 1935. Towsendites and other advocates for the elderly continued to organize, agitate and pressure public officials, achieving major improvements in Old Age Insurance in 1939 that made it into a family program, not only for workers but for their survivors and dependents as well. Petitions on behalf of “jobs for all” and in support of legislation like H.R. 4277 that would take giant steps in that direction have been drafted. A large-scale, national petition campaign could once again make it impossible for our leaders to ignore the needs of millions of Americans–this time the right to a living-wage job.