Movements of the Unemployed

Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992

Dianne Feeley

Impatient Armies of the Poor:
The Story of Collective Action by the Unemployed, 1808-1942
By Franklin Folsom
University Press of Colorado, 1990), cloth $35.

FRANKLIN FOLSOM’S BOOK is an historical overview of the U.S. unemployed movement from the nineteenth century until World War II. Roughly half the book describes the lessons and experiences of unemployed people up to the point of the Great Depression; the other half details the national actions, demands and local organizing of the three political tendencies that led the unemployed movement.

The snapshots that capture the early struggle also capture many early demands of the unemployed movement:

* the obligation of the government to help people who are not able to find work

* a shortened work week

* a moratorium on utilities or rent for those who are unemployed

* a state or national insurance that provides funds for those who are unable to work because of accident, injury, sickness, old age or lack of employment

* the collection of statistics about work and unemployment so that we know the truth about the state of the U.S. economy

What becomes clear is that in each period of mass unemployment, people have banded together to find collective solutions. These solutions are often innovative. Lucy Parsons, for instance, advised a sit-in tactic in 1905, at the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. It was not used during that period of time, but pops up as a tactic during the 1930s, first at relief stations by the unemployed, then by workers striking for union recognition and better conditions on the job.

But still other solutions are clearly reactionary, such as Dennis Kearney’s call for the abolition of Chinese labor. As a native of San Francisco, I’ve wanted to make sure that when working people are running this country, Kearney Street (in downtown San Francisco) is renamed. The anti-Chinese agitation of the 1870s is strikingly reminiscent of today’s Japan bashing. Just as the Chinese laborers (who built the railroads) were not the enemy, neither Japanese workers at home or immigrant workers are our enemy today.

In the epilogue, Folsom makes clear that he has been working on his book since his participation in the Unemployed Councils in the 1930s. He chronicles both past history and the movement he experienced as an advocate of social change. He carefully examines just how unemployed people challenged, and changed, the circum<->stances of their own unemployment.

Struggles Then And Now

My own interest in the unemployed movement arose out of my experience with the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee. The MVUC arose out of the cutback in the steel industry, and was originally backboned by laid-off steelworkers. We were interested in looking back at the 1930s for ideas about strategy and tactics.

For me, the highlights of the 1930s were the Toledo Autolite strike of 1934 and the close collaboration between the Minneapolis teamsters–who had succeeded in building a militant union–and the unemployed workers on WPA. Both examples involved workers and the unemployed synchronizing their demands and maximizing their power.

In Toledo it was the unemployed movement that came out en masse to defend the right of workers to strike. That is, there were few scabs because the unemployed were massively organized in a solidarity action. In Minneapolis, the close relationship between the successful teamsters and those working for WPA meant that

“Through its Federal Workers Section (FWS), the local, with its established structure, was able to mobilize large numbers of the jobless to help in truckers’ strikes. In return, the truck drivers gave real, stabilizing help to relief workers as they went about handling their grievances.” (413)

Folsom mentions these struggles, although in trying to chronicle the entire movement, he spends much more time on detailing the national marches, and even some of the more important local actions. He also weaves into his story portraits of middle-class reformers and politicians. For this reason there are chapters on the Townsend Movement, End Poverty in California (EPIC)–Upton Sinclair’s race for governor as a Democrat–and Huey Long’s Share the Wealth Movement.

From this montage, then, the last half of the book builds a case that the depression of the 1930s was a political crisis of great proportion. The ruling class was able to restabilize because the Second World War put the workforce back to work the way no other half-implemented proposal had. Additionally, the concessions that were put in place by the Roosevelt government (adoption of unemployment insurance and social security) were able to defuse the situation sufficiently.

Folsom mentions the fact that the unemployed organizers went on to become some of the best organizers of the newly established Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO). This meant that the most effective unemployed organizers and activists brought their talents to a trade union movement that desperately needed their energies. Although most of them were later incorporated into the trade union bureaucracy or driven out of the union by the witch hunt of the late 1940s and early `50s, their enthusiasm revitalized a trade union movement for a generation.

A Movement’s Culture

Folsom also records the songs and stories people in the unemployed movement sang and told. These give a texture to the movement. One was written by Maurice Sugar, a movement lawyer from Detroit, others were written by Joe Hill or other Wobblies. Bitter, humorous, sometimes very antireligious, they were usually sung to popular tunes or hymns. But they present a picture of people with imagination.

Jack London recorded a similar scene, when he rode the rails in 1894 to join up with thousands of others who were trying to get to Washington, D.C. and demand jobs. He wrote:

“All the rest of the day we rode through blizzard, and to while time away it was decided that each man was to tell a story. It…must be a good one, and furthermore it must be a story no one had ever heard before. The penalty for failure was the thrashing machine [that is, the process of being tossed around–F.F.] Nobody failed. And I want to say right here, never again have I sat at so marvelous a story telling debauch. Here were eighty-four from all over the world–I made eighty-five, and each man told a masterpiece.” (163)

Impatient Armies of the Poor is an excellent resource book for today’s working people, who are under attack by a process of restructuring in a global economy. Today’s solutions cannot be mere repetitions of old formula, but neither is one generation’s experience exactly a pattern for the next one. Rather solutions emerge out of a collective searching, just as they have before.

July-August 1992, ATC 29