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Organizing the unemployed: ‘Fight–don’t starve!’

As the economic cloud over the country continues to darken, the storm has already started to ravage the working class. The Department of Labor recorded 1.5 million new unemployment claims in 2008. An astonishing 586,000 people were thrown out of work just in January.

NY Times 3-7-30The New York Times on March 7, 1930, the morning after a Communist-led unemployment march clashed with the police. Indicating how reforms are won from the state, the headlines read: “Reds Battle Police in Union Square” next to “City Asked to Rush Building Projects for Unemployed.”

Equally disturbing are the foreclosures. Over 3 million foreclosures were filed last year, an 81 percent increase from 2007.

Many workers are hoping that the new Democratic administration will turn this situation around. Liberal commentators in particular have been calling for a “new New Deal,” hoping that the Obama White House follows in the footsteps of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his famous “first 100 days” in office, Roosevelt created several agencies that focused on providing immediate relief for workers hit hard by the Great Depression.

But no one in the bourgeois media has taken note of the political situation Roosevelt inherited: a period of increasing militancy, struggle and revolutionary consciousness among the working class. For activists hoping for progressive reforms, this is the real lesson to learn from the Great Depression.

The Great Depression

Economic crises always carry the possibility of becoming revolutionary opportunities. Times of economic hardship lay bare the fundamental injustice of the system. The ruling class is very class-conscious and knows this history very well.

For the U.S. capitalist class, Oct. 29, 1929, was one of the most terrifying days in history. This was the day of the Wall Street Crash and the official beginning of the Great Depression.

By 1933, it had left more than 11 million unemployed (around one-fourth of the labor force). With the flood of the unemployed, millions were forced to wander the streets for food, eat out of trash cans and even steal to survive.

Edward Rob Ellis described the severe conditions in his book “Nation in Torment.” After a teacher asked a little girl in her class if she was sick, the little girl replied “No, I am alright, I am just hungry.” The teacher then suggested her to go home and eat, but the child replied “No I can’t. This is my sister’s day to eat.”

While millions lost their jobs, their homes and were left to starve, the reactionary President Herbert Hoover largely sat on his hands, holding fast to the line that, “Joblessness should be dealt with by private and local agencies, not by the central government.”

During the Great Depression, the Communist Party-USA (CPUSA) emerged as the leading voice to press the economic and political demands of the working class. CPUSA members spent countless hours organizing, with no pay or reward, driven by their love for the oppressed and their desire to make a new society.

CPUSA-led organizations, operating from the neighborhood to the national level, made economic hardship a political issue. They agitated in the streets and proved to workers that their problems were not due to individual failings. Rather, they were endemic to the economic system and were a reason to fight.

Two of the most important struggles led by the CPUSA at the onset of the Depression were the International Unemployment Day marches of March 6, 1930, and the First National Hunger March of December 1931.

International Unemployment Day March

As the economic crisis spread through all major capitalist countries, the Communist International called for March 6, 1930 to be the day for world demonstrations for the unemployed.

The CPUSA immediately responded, urged all its members and supporters to organize for this day and demand unemployment insurance. They organized in unions, schools, street corners, sports clubs and everywhere people would listen.

Organizers made very special efforts to organize in the African American communities, where unemployment rates tripled that of white workers. As soon as it formed in 1930, the Upper-Harlem Unemployed Council’s primary objective was to mobilize Black and white workers for the March 6 demonstration.

When March 6 finally rolled around, the ruling class was on full alert. They had already spent weeks violently repressing smaller unemployed demonstrations and house meetings. The communists, however, would not be turned away.

“All police on duty to avert violence at Red rally today,” read the New York Times headline in the morning of March 6. The police attempted to scare protesters away by reporting to the media that the Communists intended to assassinate government leaders, blow up the New York Stock Exchange, and attack police officers with knives. On the day of the demonstration, the NYPD showed up at Union Square with machine guns, not to mention rifles and tear gas bombs.

Nonetheless, an estimated 100,000 unemployed workers came out that day in New York City. When they attempted to march to City Hall, the police attacked, injuring scores and arresting dozens more. Many were women and children.

CPUSA leader William Z. Foster, who went to prison for six months for having organized the march, justified their actions, “Our committee demanded a parade permit, we pointed out that the queen of Rumania, [many] military butchers, and many capitalist organizations had been allowed to parade freely, but now the class that built Broadway was being denied the right to walk along it.”    

Demonstrations were held not only in New York, but all over the country. New York and Detroit were the largest, but there were 50,000 in Boston and in Chicago, 30,000 in Philadelphia and Cleveland and more than 125,000 demonstrators in a total of two dozen other cities around the country.

Although met with repression, the marches became the launching pad for a national movement of the unemployed. The marches catapulted the CPUSA as the outstanding leader of the masses of unemployed and also put unemployment insurance in the national spotlight.

It was no coincidence that on the same day of the march, the Senate Commerce Committee finally scheduled a hearing to review an unemployment insurance bill. A little while later, the bill would pass.

The First National Hunger March

The CPUSA led a series of struggles following the March 6 demonstrations. These included hundreds of big demonstrations, hunger marches and eviction fights, as well as anti-racist struggles in the Deep South. The CPUSA led the Sharecroppers Union in Alabama, and launched a nationwide defense of nine young African Americans falsely accused of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama.

One of these efforts was the First National Hunger March of December 1931. Its main demands were long-term unemployment insurance, emergency relief, shorter work days with no wage decrease, old-age pensions and immediate payment of bonuses to World War I veterans.

The First National Hunger March was perhaps the best-organized march in the history of the U.S. proletariat movement up to that time. It was composed of 1,700 elected delegates who marched from all over the country. The march was to be carried out in four columns, staring from St. Louis, Chicago, Buffalo and Boston. The delegates traveled in trucks and autos; each truck had its captain and each column its governing committee and leader. Each column had its specific route, time and date of departure. Along the route, local Unemployment Councils organized support rallies and led their own delegates into the march.

The march traveled with machine-like precision, finally culminating with all columns meeting up and arriving in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 7. The marchers were met at gun-point by a huge police presence at the steps of the Capitol. The police outnumbered the marchers three to one.

Then the marchers proceeded to march to the White House to hand President Hoover their demands. Once again they were met with an even greater police presence. The march finally concluded with a march to the American Federation of Labor Headquarters, whose reactionary leadership backed Hoover’s policy of opposing unemployment insurance.

The First National Hunger March of December 1931 attained a great deal of national attention, and led to subsequent hunger marches over the next several years. By the time Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, such working-class mobilizations had become routine. Radicals carried the lessons and organizing experience from these marches into the labor struggles that later formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The New Deal left a lot to be desired; it reinforced racial inequality and the special oppression of Black people, and it failed to effectively remedy the economic crisis. But to the extent that it did grant helpful reforms to the working class, these changes came from struggle. Roosevelt understood the potential for greater social upheaval when he came into office. The question for activists today is not whether the White House will help us; the question is if we can make the ruling class tremble.

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