Militant organizing by unemployed workers during the 1930s demanded genuine relief from the poverty of capitalism. Today, we need the same.
The social, political, and economic crisis currently unfolding, shaped by a global pandemic, is a damning indictment of modern capitalism. In its first two months, more than 30 million people in the United States have lost their jobs. While business leaders cavort with the Trump administration and right-wing states’ rights advocates demand to reopen the economy, the crisis will only deepen. Indeed, many economists predict that the fallout will be the worst since the Great Depression.
The crisis of the 1930s culminated in the rise of fascist power in Europe. In the United States, it ushered in the New Deal coalition and the expansion of the welfare state. But, by the end of the decade, only the slaughter of World War II finally jumpstarted the global economy through sheer barbarism and unrestrained weapons production.
Like Donald Trump and the rest of today’s ruling class, leading capitalists of the 1930s had little to offer the majority of people after the stock market crashed in 1929. Unemployment, poverty, hunger, and homelessness mushroomed. As the crisis deepened, the industrial overlord, notorious anti-Semite, and failed presidential hopeful Henry Ford advised poor people to take up sharecropping to feed themselves. With paid advertisements in newspapers across the country Ford claimed, “Stocks may fail, but seedtime and harvest do not fail.” Meanwhile, ecological catastrophe devastated the dustbowl-ravaged Great Plains and displaced more than 3.5 million people. By 1934, the Yearbook of Agriculture announced:
Approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land have essentially been destroyed for crop production. . . . 100 million acres now in crops have lost all or most of the topsoil; 125 million acres of land now in crops are rapidly losing topsoil.
While millions went hungry, Ford partnered with the growing Nazi war machine. During the first six months of 1932, Ford’s meagre operations in Germany struggled to make money. Although the plants were ridiculed as “foreign” by the wave of German nationalism, Ford swooned over Hitler’s new plans to shift automobile manufacturing into overdrive, fueled by government cash. By 1937, Ford was a certified manufacturer of trucks and cars for the Nazi regime’s military.
Back in the United States, Ford summoned the police and National Guard against unemployed workers. During the spring of 1932, three thousand unemployed workers protested outside Ford’s behemoth River Rouge complex in Detroit demanding relief. Police attacked the protesters, injuring dozens. Four workers were shot and killed, including Joseph York, a twenty-three-year-old unemployed worker. The following day, York’s girlfriend, Mary Grossman, faced down the murderous cops:
Yes, I was there. I’m not sorry. I did it for starving millions. Blame capitalism which is the cause of all suffering. Now don’t talk to me!
Similar protests erupted in cities around the world, often organized and led by Communist Party members and other radicals. Politicians and media outlets routinely decried the reds and riots of unemployed. International headlines of the time read: “Spanish Jobless Riot,” “Canadians Attack City Hall,” “British Hunger Army Ready to Invade Commons,” “Police Battle Reds with Tear Gas at Detroit Factory,” “Police Protect President from Hunger Parade,” “German Jobless Charge Cabinet, Plunder Dole,” “Red Rebellion Flares in Spain,” and “Batons of Police Halted Red Mob in Washington Riot.”
Yet, as the American Civil Liberties Union noted at the time, “It is a matter of common knowledge among relief workers that vigorous demonstrations—so-called ‘riots’ by the unemployed, produce an almost miraculous effect in loosening the public purse-strings.”
Chicago’s Unemployed Rebellion
During the first month of 1928, nearly two years before the stock market crash of 1929, the entertainment industry magazine Variety expressed its anxiety for Chicago’s theater business. Unemployment, the article noted, was the highest since 1922. And theater-goers had reason to be uncomfortable: “The horde of ’boes and panhandlers infesting the Loop makes New York Times Square parasites seem like a coterie of philanthropists in comparison.” Still, the article remained naively optimistic. “Because of sound financial qualities, it is believed by authorities here the unemployment wave will be relieved considerably this year.”
Instead, the number of unemployed Americans surged from 3 million to 15 million. By 1932, half of Illinois’s workers were jobless. In Chicago, where 60 percent of the state’s unemployed lived, a deep social crisis was underway. One report noted at the time,
There are several Chicago garbage dumps, some of which are under city supervision and some private. About a dozen places where garbage is dumped were visited by different members of the committee; and in every place where “soft” garbage, such as the remains of food, were found, people were reported to be picking it over and eating from it at the dump or taking it home to cook.
The influence of communists and revolutionaries helped galvanize the unemployed into a fighting force, and authorities grew panicked about the increasing militancy and organization of the movement. While cops beat marchers in Detroit and New York City, Chicago police ransacked offices of unemployed and radical organizations throughout the city. Despite the repression, 50,000 workers mobilized in Chicago streets on March 6, 1930, for a national day of action billed as International Unemployment Day.
Less than a week later, three policemen were shot and eleven “communists” were arrested at the north end of Michigan Ave during a “riotous demonstration.” Those arrested included Bryan Moss, Ben Koblentz, Mrs. Anna Rejba, Martin Rich, Evelyn Weiner, William Bart, Frank Cordisco, William Bart, Morris Krivin, Anna Grossman, and Ida Mittelman. Their defense lawyer was Albert Goldman, an antifascist organizer who later emerged as a leader of the fledgling US Trotskyist movement, lead counsel for the Teamsters during the 1934 Minneapolis strike, and a mayoral candidate in Chicago. Ultimately, a “communist parade” preceded their acquittal, “in which several thousand men and women, half of them Negroes, participated.”
The following July, the Communist Party’s Trade Union Unity League initiated a call for a national conference of unemployed councils. More than 1,300 delegates from CP-affiliated organizations and unions met in Chicago. Black workers comprised an important number of the representatives and the conference highlighted racial justice demands in the unemployed movement.
As unemployed workers flooded into Chicago from the Midwest and South in search of jobs, unemployed councils blossomed in neighborhoods across the city. Rent strikes, anti-eviction blockades, and street mobilizations occurred across the city and demonstrations targeted the role of cops in carrying out the evictions and repression. One Chicago Tribune article described a typical action;
300 men and women gathered outside the stations. Policeman Dominick Varsetto, assigned there, closed the door. Members of the group pounded upon it until they broke the glass, but no further damage was done. At that moment Liet. Make Mills of the industrial squad and Capt. Phil Parodi of the Maxwell street stations arrived with eight police squads. Leaders of the crowd made soapbox speeches before the gathering dispersed. Liet. Mills arrested five alleged ringleaders: Joseph Shoster, no address; Edward Van Horn, 642 Liberty street; Joseph Bebko, 1717 West Madison street; and James Adams, no address.
Still, aid to one hundred and forty-three thousand Chicago families was cut by 25 percent, and perishable food supplies were slashed by half in 1932. In neighborhoods across the city, Chicago’s poor rebelled in a firestorm of organizing and riots.
On a cold, rainy Halloween, 2,500 unemployed gathered at the corner of 22nd and Wentworth. On the city’s West Side, 3,000 gathered at Union Park. In Washington Park on the South Side, 2,000 protesters gathered. Along with thousands from other parts of the city, they converged in the Loop, wearing red armbands, red dresses, and carrying red umbrellas and red flags. One journalist reported,
As the singing, shouting, hunger armies moved toward the meeting place from north, west and south, their forces were constantly increased. Detachments joined on the end of the lines until, by the time the three groups were a few blocks apart in the loop, a total of some 15,000 persons was moving.
Military veterans carried a banner that read, “Wilson’s heroes; Hoover’s hoboes.” Other contingents included a group of Italian antifascists and “a platoon of children, 7 to 10 years old, carrying empty milk bottles.” Unemployed Black workers highlighted the case of Scottsboro and pressed the issue of racial justice.
Less than a month later, “a genuine united front of working class organizations was constituted” in Chicago to fight the 50 percent reduction of relief. Unemployed organizations from across the city, along with the Communist Party, Socialist Party, and the Workers League, organized the event. As one participant described:
The call for the conference signed by the three organizations met with a huge response everywhere. The masses reacted as never before, and the conference bore testimony of this fact. 750 delegates representing 350 organizations made up the conference. Included in the conference were over 40 church organizations composed entirely of unemployed workers, the Farmer-Labor Party, the A.F. of L., fraternal organizations, the TUUL.
The city’s authorities responded with a wave of repression, arrests, and deportations of unemployed and radical organizers. While the Chicago Police Department flaunted its racism and brutality routinely, the frequent deployment of cops also provided opportunities to exhibit their bumbling idiocy. On a Saturday afternoon in 1934, just four days before Thanksgiving, four thousand Chicagoans marched to City Hall with demands for unemployment and relief benefits. Nearly two hundred cops were stationed inside the building “in case trouble developed.” When none developed, one of the jackass cops “tossed a few firecrackers under the feet” of a Black cop. A frenzy of gunfire erupted inside the building and seven cops were shot in the barrage of friendly fire.
Like Henry Ford’s sharecropping schemes, government and business leaders had no genuine relief to offer millions of poor and hungry workers. Genuine programs, of course, were organized and advocated by the unemployed themselves. In Pennsylvania, insurgent rank-and-file coal miners pressed their demands for the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the unemployed council organized militant, interracial demonstrations in support of the bill. In Chicago, hundreds of delegates from the Illinois Workers Alliance, Emergency Workers Union, and other organizations of the unemployed—representing about 750,000 workers—endorsed the bill in the fall of 1934.
The Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill was unveiled by the Communist Party in the summer of 1930 and quickly won the endorsement of three thousand five hundred local unions. As Chris Wright described the bill,
In the form it would eventually assume, it provided for unemployment insurance for workers and farmers (regardless of age, sex, or race) that was to be equal to average local wages but no less than $10 per week plus $3 for each dependent; people compelled to work part-time (because of inability to find full-time jobs) were to receive the difference between their earnings and the average local full-time wages; commissions directly elected by members of workers’ and farmers’ organisations were to administer the system; social insurance would be given to the sick and elderly, and maternity benefits would be paid eight weeks before and eight weeks after birth; and the system would be financed by unappropriated funds in the Treasury and by taxes on inheritances, gifts, and individual and corporate incomes above $5,000 a year. Later iterations of the bill went into greater detail on how the system would be financed and managed.
The bill was eventually co-opted and presented to Congress by the self-described “La Follette Republican” Ernest Lundeen of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, a rabid isolationist and Nazi sympathizer. Like the homegrown fascist radio personality Father Charles Coughlin he railed against the crimes and inequality of capitalism. But his neck swelled over the threat of communism and its advocacy for racial justice.
Nevertheless, the groundswell of action and organizing by socialists, communists, and unemployed workers—Black and white—ensured that Lundeen’s bill would “extend to all workers, whether they be industrial, agricultural, domestic, office, or professional workers, and to farmers, without discrimination because of age, sex, race, color, religious or political opinion or affiliation.” Indeed, a New York Post poll showed that 83 percent of its readers preferred the more radical Lundeen bill over the Social Security Act.
The strength and popularity of the unemployed movement and genuine relief coincided with a massive strike wave that reached from San Francisco to Minneapolis, Toledo, and the textile mills of the South. While sectarian squabbles often counteracted the potential for solidarity in other areas of work, the Communist Party and Socialist Party both appealed for common, united front approaches to unemployment. For the CP, their united front demands included:
- Decisive wage increases and reduction in hours, supporting a bold strike movement to win them
- For the immediate enactment of the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill
- For the immediate enactment of the Farmers’ Emergency Relief Bill to secure for the farmers the possession of their lands and tools, and to provide abundance of food to the masses
- For the immediate enactment of the Bill for Negro Rights
- For the united struggle against war and fascism
- For the broadest possible united action in localities, in factories, in trade unions, and on every question affecting the workers and toiling masses, to win better conditions
Ultimately, the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill was defeated in favor of Roosevelt’s watered-down policies of the second New Deal. But it was not a foregone conclusion that something more radical—genuine relief—was within the grasp of the unemployed movement.
And, the current crisis of unemployment and poverty will not be magically solved by today’s politicians. Only our own self-activity can win genuine relief from this most recent and profound crisis of capitalism.
 “Henry Ford on Self-Help,” advertisement prepared and paid for by the Ford Motor Company as a contribution to public welfare, Chicago Tribune, June 1, 1932, 14.
 “15 Arrested After Police Slay Four in Unemployed Riot,” The Pantagraph, March 8, 1932, 1.
 Quoted in Edgar Bernhard, Ira Latimer, and Harvey O’Connor, Pursuit of Freedom: A History of Civil Liberty in Illinois, 1787–1942 (Chicago: Chicago Civil Liberties Committee, 1942), 158, accessed at: http://hdl.handle.net/10111/UIUCOCA:pursuitoffreedom00chic.
 “Chicago’s Heavy Breadline Tells of Unemployment,” Variety, February 1, 1928, 12.
 Quoted in Edgar Bernhard, Ira Latimer, and Harvey O’Connor, Pursuit of Freedom: A History of Civil Liberty in Illinois, 1787–1942 (Chicago: Chicago Civil Liberties Committee, 1942), 157, accessed at: http://hdl.handle.net/10111/UIUCOCA:pursuitoffreedom00chic.
 “Jurors Acquit 11 Alleged Reds; Fired by Judge,” Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1932, 19.
 Solomon, Mark, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 148.
 “Seek to Raise Cash Pending U.S. Relief Loan,” Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1932, 2.
 “Relief to 143,000 Chicago Families Is Cut 25 Percent,” Alton Evening Telegraph, October 27, 1932, 1.
 Robert T. Loughran, “Radicals Parade under Guise of ‘Hunger March’,” Freeport Journal-Standard, October 31, 1932, 1–12.
 Albert Glotzer, “Stalinists Make Right About Face in Chicago Unemployed United Front,” The Militant, Vol. V, No. 28 (November 26, 1932), 1–2.
 “Hunger March is Peaceful but 7 Policemen Hurt,” Jacksonville Daily Journal, November 25, 1934, 8.
 Walter Howard, Anthracite Reds Vol. 2: A Documentary History of Communists in Northeastern Pennsylvania During the Great Depression (iUniverse, 2004), 152.
 Gregory S. Taylor, The History of the North Carolina Communist Party, University of South Carolina Press, 2009, 73–74.
 Chris Wright, The Hidden History of American Radicalism: The Campaign for the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill” Counterfire, April 25, 2020, https://www.counterfire.org/articles/history/21138-the-hidden-history-of-american-radicalism-the-campaign-for-the-workers-unemployment-insurance-bill.
 B.W. Hart, Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2018).
 M. Poole, The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 22.
 United States Congress House Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty-Fourth Congress, Second Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1956), 231.
Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. He is the author of White Bred: Hillbillies, White Trash, and Rednecks against White Supremacy, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.