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A.J. Muste

New Trends in the Evolution
of the Unemployed Movement

Problems Arising from the Washington Unity Convention

(2 May 1936)

From New Militant, Vol. II No. 17, 2 May 1936, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The recent unification of all the leading unemployed organizations into the Workers Alliance of America marks a definite period in the evolution of the movement. It is important that the militant workers in the field should understand the road that has been travelled, the trend which now prevails, and the policy which they must themselves adopt for the coming period.

To date the unemployed organizations have accomplished a number of important results. Their pressure has helped to keep relief standards from being scrapped completely. They have established and asserted the right of the unemployed to organize. They have corrected innumerable grievances of individuals and families. They have contributed some notable pages to the history of labor struggles in the United States. They have worked out the tactics, first applied on a large scale, in the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, of active participation in strikes of employed workers to an extent known in no other country. Through their work in connection with concrete needs of the unemployed and their educational activities, they have to a remarkable degree prevented Fascist or near-Fascist outfits from making inroads into the unemployed masses.

From “Self-Help” to Class Struggle

In the early months of the crisis when under the influence of various kinds of liberals and academicians many of the unemployed organizations were of the “barter” and “sell-help” type, no results were obtained. A system of exchange among those who had nothing, still left them with nothing in the end. Conditions became worse and worse. It was when the unemployed began to “raise hell,” built organizations on a basis (conscious or unconscious) of class struggle that some results were obtained. Not the least important result was that the unemployed learned the power of organization, realized their own strength, developed a fighting psychology. When the unemployed marched on Washington or other centers in 1932 to 1935 they were usually met by police on the outskirts of the city and prevented from entering or else so treated within the city limits that serious disturbances ensued. The some six hundred delegates at the recent unity convention of the unemployed in Washington in which the Workers Alliance of America absorbed the former National Unemployment Councils, National Unemployed League and a number of lesser organizations, convened in the spacious and imposing auditorium of the U.S. Department of Labor and their sessions were much more sedate than those of last fall’s A.F. of L. convention! Much about the evolution and the present position of the unemployed movement is revealed in this contrast.

The Most Urgent Problem

The fusing of many organizations of relief recipients and project workers into a relatively stable national body at this date – seven years after the beginning of the Great Depression, and three years after the advent of the New Deal administration – confirms Harry Hopkins’ recent utterance that “unemployment is still the most urgent problem before the nation” and suggests that the President’s statement in his Baltimore speech to the effect that “no man who is sensitive to human values dares to accept the continued existence of a vast permanent army of unemployed” is the expression of a pious wish.

Yet the unemployed and their organizations are not the immediate and dramatic “menace” which they constituted a couple of years ago. Objective factors in the general economic and political situation play a part here. The upturn in business, such as it is, has eased the tension. Relief payments and project wages are pitifully inadequate. Harassed by the inadequacies of appropriations, administrators are constantly resorting to schemes to cut down payments to the workers. The threat of removal from the rolls hangs over the beads of tens of thousands. There remain plenty of grievances on which to build and hold together the unemployed unions.

Changed Situation

Nevertheless, the situation is less desperate than in those days when prosperity was supposed to be just around the corner, unemployment a passing phenomenon, and the only source of relief either the overburdened private charities or bankrupt city, county and state treasuries. Then too the temper of the masses was more inflammable in those months when for the first time the ground was slipping out from under their feet, “upstanding Americans” were forced to undergo the humiliation of applying for relief, were evicted from homes they had built, etc., than it is now when they have become in greater or lesser degree adjusted to a new status and a lowered standard of living. Another factor in producing a more stable situation is the fact that the Roosevelt-Hopkins policy of recognizing the “right” of the unemployed to organize but insisting that they behave in a “responsible” manner, as against the Tory attitude of flatly denying the right to organize, is percolating all the way down into the heads of at least a large percentage of the local administrators and foremen.

Such conditions tend to develop an organization devoted mainly to “collective bargaining” between workers and management (in this ease local, state and federal authorities) and lobbying for legislation in the interest of the group, rather than to agitation and “revolutionary” objectives. The establishment of the enlarged Workers’ Alliance of America definitely marked the ascendancy of this trend in the unemployed movement. The W.A.A. and its units will perform the function of “trade unions for the unemployed.”

The chief leaders of the W.A.A., Socialist and Stalinist, consciously encourage conservative trends rather than resist the tendency to conservatism in the movement. There were interesting illustrations of this during the convention. They displayed the greatest anxiety that delegations to Congressmen and the W.P.A. offices should behave like gentlemen, though they were actually going without meals and beds, and the authorities politically insisted nothing could be done about it. Foremost among the speakers who addressed the convention were liberal representatives and senators such as Lundeen, Marcantonio, Amlie and Frazier, some of whom are sponsoring social insurance and relief bills, and a personal representative of Harry Hopkins who calmly informed the delegates he could do nothing for their hungry stomachs and was politely applauded at the conclusion of his remarks. The Lasser-Benjamin leadership should hung its head in shame, if it is capable of that emotion, for permitting tills insulting and degrading performance. Until recently no convention of unemployed would have submitted to it. It should never be permitted to happen again.

Secretary Frank Morrison of the A.F. of L. represented President Green, but there was no speaker from John L. Lewis’ Committee for Industrial Organization! It is true that Norman Thomas and Mother Bloor also spoke but, doubtless in line with more or less direct hints from the officers, they refrained from putting forward the Socialist or the Communist parties respectively. All the recognized leaders spoke for a Farmer-Labor party to include also liberals and progressives, and the incoming National Executive Board is instructed to “explore the possibilities” of forming such a party on a national scale in 1936.

Power in United Body

The lowering of the temper of the unemployed organizations in recent months has been accompanied, significantly enough, by a considerable slump in membership. The W.A.A. grew stronger because of the accession of previously existing units, rather than the formation of new ones, and thus gained relatively to the Councils and the Leagues, but its strongest state organization, for example, the Illinois Workers’ Alliance, experienced the same decline in membership and activity as was manifested in most other organizations.

Setting up of a single national organization of unemployed in which Socialists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, etc., participate is in an important respect a progressive achievement. It will give considerable impetus to the organizing movement in the immediate future, though conflict among diverse political tendencies will not by any means be entirely eliminated. Until some substantial change occurs in the general economic and political situation, possibly after the election, the policy of the W.A.A. is likely to reflect the general line and temper of the unity convention. This will he the aim of the Stalinists under their present undisguised and unrestricted opportunism and social-patriotism.

Only Struggle Effective

What this line means for the unemployed is already plain to everybody. A terrific drive to cut down appropriations in order to “balance the budget” is under way. Thousands are being dropped from projects. Except where vigorous fighting organizations exist, all kinds of devices for worsening conditions are resorted to. No amount of flirting with the Green-Woll outfit in the A.F. of L. or with liberal congressmen, no amount of gentlemanliness in dealing with the clever politicians of the Roosevelt machine, no amount of polite lobbying by unemployed who have no money to bring into the lobbies, no amount of “resoluting” about fine-sounding but fake Stalinist farmer-labor or people’s parties, will change this situation.

Whatever the unemployed got in the past, they got because they had strong organizations which went on the war-path. Building or reviving such organizations and carrying them into action is the job of revolutionists and militants today. A constant struggle with the state, with governmental agencies, is involved in the very nature of the unemployed situation and of any unemployed movement worthy of the name.

Link with Union Militants Needed

It follows, also, that the unemployed organizations cannot gain by being drawn down to the low level of militancy in many of the unions. On the contrary, the working class movement as a whole can gain only if the unemployed help to heighten the militancy of the unions. Consequently, the tie-up which the unemployed must seek is with the industrial as against the craft-unionists in the A.F. of L. who have never evinced the slightest interest in the unemployed masses; and basically the tie-up must be not with bureaucrats at the top but with the militant-progressive forces in the unions – a tie forged and constantly made stronger in the daily struggles of employed and unemployed alike.

Since it is impossible in an unemployed organization to establish a very strict centralized control from the center, nothing prevents the fighting spirits in city, county, state organizations from getting busy at once with building along these lines; with invading such reactionary strongholds as Tampa, Florida; with support of militant strikes as the Project Workers Union in Akron stood ready to give the Goodyear workers recently; with large-scale local and state demonstrations. Thus will the W.A.A. be made into an important progressive force in the class-struggle in this country.

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