The last chapter of my dissertation on the unemployed in Chicago during the Great Depression is, I think, more interesting than the others; unfortunately, it's inordinately long, too long to paste into one blog post. Here's the first section of it, and what follows is the second section, on the Unemployed Councils and the Workers' Committee on Unemployment. I'll post the third and last section later. It's striking how relevant the events of that time are to our own, and to our coming years of struggle.
Activism in Chicago
Had there been a political party in the U.S. with the resources and competence to sustainably organize the rebellious masses, March 6, 1930 would have been a very good omen. The Comintern had designated this date as International Unemployment Day, which would be marked by demonstrations across the Western world organized by the various Communist parties. The American CP made elaborate preparations for the actions: in Chicago, for example, 200,000 leaflets, 50,000 stickers, and 50,000 shop papers were printed and distributed in the last few days before March 6, and open-air meetings, lectures, and small demonstrations raised awareness of what was to come. The results exceeded even the Party’s expectations: while its claim of well over a million demonstrators around the country was an exaggeration, its boast that in the aggregate the protests constituted the single largest workers’ demonstration in U.S. history may well have been accurate. Even the New York Times reported that 75,000 people participated in Detroit and 35,000 in Union Square in New York. The numbers in Chicago were more modest, between 5,000 and 10,000, with thousands more onlookers. In many cities the day’s events ended in sanguinary mayhem, as police forces charged, trampled, and beat up the crowds.
For such a small political party, the events of March 6 were quite an achievement. Party membership in the 1930s is listed in the table below, which includes only those members who had paid their dues in full. (Numbers are unavailable for certain years.)
It is true that, nationally, hundreds of thousands more people, most of whom were not Communists, participated in dozens of such “auxiliary” organizations as the International Labor Defense, the Unemployed Councils, the Young Communist League, the John Reed Clubs, the Young Pioneers of America, and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. The Party itself, though, remained small—in part because of its insufficient finances. A Congressional investigation in the late 1930s determined that the total deposits in 43 bank accounts held by the CP and all its subsidiaries, auxiliaries, and publishing houses were a little over $10 million, in itself an impressive sum (far more than the Party possessed before its Popular Front phase) but quite inadequate considering how thinly it was spread. The Illinois budget, for instance, was only $35,000 in 1938, and in huge stretches of the country—including most of its Western half—there was virtually no Communist presence at all. Dues were often not collected, and when they were they sometimes were not turned over to the district office because the lower-level body wanted to keep them for its own needs. Especially in the early 1930s the CP had an acute shortage of organizers and frequently could not afford to pay its functionaries. In the Chicago district, even such basic necessities as mimeograph machines were sometimes luxuries.
Nevertheless, during the thirties the party did manage to recruit almost 250,000 people, according to historian Harvey Klehr. The problem was that most of them eventually dropped out. Between 1930 and 1934, 60,000 joined the party, but the total increase in membership was only about 16,000. The reasons for this disappointing record had nothing to do with ideology: they had to do with organizational problems and the inner life of the party. For one thing, thousands of people who signed application cards or even paid initiation fees were simply lost, never followed up with. Bureaucratic mismanagement was rife within the CP. Those who were assigned to a local unit, whether a street unit (based on geography) or a shop unit (based on industrial concentration), faced the next hurdle: tolerating the drudgery and dreariness of unit meetings, and the superhuman workload that was imposed on them. The weekly meetings, full of carping criticism and sterile discussion, could last for three or four hours; new members were rarely made to feel welcome. “I can’t be everywhere all at once,” one member complained. “I must sleep sometimes. I have spent enough energy at inner meetings to overthrow the whole capitalist system. My wife won’t stand for it either.” Another member pithily summed up the problems: “until our movement…realizes that its members are human being [sic] and want to be treated as such and not just a cog in the wheel, our movement will remain small, no matter how many members we attract and recruit.”
All these handicaps did not, however, prevent the CP from facilitating the emergence of Unemployed Councils in dozens of cities already in January and February 1930. While one would not have known this from reading the mainstream press—or even subsequent historical accounts—urban areas of the country were in ferment a mere three or four months after the stock market crash. Almost every day the Daily Worker reported mass meetings and marches on city halls in cities from Buffalo to Chicago to Chattanooga and beyond, by the spring spreading even to the Deep South. Large-scale actions continued after March 6, for instance on May Day, which the Federated Press reported saw its largest nationwide turnout in forty years. By the summer, Chicago had twelve Unemployed Councils with a thousand active members and many more peripheral followers, who were regularly carrying out the actions for which councils soon became famous: resisting evictions and protesting at relief stations. While CP leaders were frustrated with the halting progress of the party’s unemployed organizing—“[there is] an agitational meeting in a neighborhood or before a factory today and then nothing for a month,” Clarence Hathaway reprimanded his comrades—the momentum of the work picked up again in late 1930 and early 1931. The jobless masses were hungry for leadership, and they were perfectly happy to have Communists provide it.
For the next couple of years, the continual protests and disruptions that the Daily Worker reported—which were inevitably only a fraction of the total—belied intellectuals’ impression at the time, transmitted to posterity by historians, that the unemployed (and partly employed) masses were acquiescent and apathetic. In fact, contrary to Irving Bernstein’s periodization, the Hoover years were arguably the most “turbulent” of the decade, in some respects more so than the New Deal years. “Hardly a day passed,” the historian Albert Prago says, “without some major demonstration [in fact, many] taking place in some town, city, or state capital.” It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that society was in upheaval, indeed so riven by rebellion that soon the business class was able to clamor for the hitherto unfathomable: federal unemployment relief and a major public works program. Such a departure from what had been considered the bedrock of capitalists’ class interest, namely privatization and social atomization, could only have come about from a general perception that the working class was on the verge of mounting the ramparts and had to be appeased. Moreover, elite panic did not recur on such a broad scale in the later years of the thirties, despite the birth of the CIO: after 1932, the mayor of Chicago never again came close to pleading for federal armed intervention in his city, as Cermak had. It was the radicalized discontent of those without work that most threatened the foundations of the social order, not the (retrospectively more celebrated) unionizing ambitions of industrial workers.
The occupying and theft of property, for example, were epidemic in the early Depression. Historian Gary Roth describes some of the direct action that was going on in Chicago by 1931 and ’32:
…The unemployed began to use abandoned storefronts for their own purposes. Locks were broken, and the stores became meeting places, with chairs taken from deserted movie houses. [Paul] Mattick estimated that there were fifty or sixty such locales in Chicago, serving as the [unemployed] movement’s equivalent of neighbourhood settlement houses. In some areas, there were one or two such places on every street. Mimeograph machines were installed for the production of leaflets and movement literature. Paper was contributed by those still employed, who stole office supplies from their workplaces.
Among the unemployed were many skilled workers, and they procured electricity for the storefronts by running wire from the street lamps. Gas lines were tapped without setting off the meters—something that the plumbers knew how to do, and the gas was used for heating and cooking. Others solicited food in bulk quantities from nearby fruit and vegetable markets, food shops, bakeries, and meat stores, sometimes by threatening the proprietors. Makeshift kitchens were set up in the storefronts and meals cooked around the clock. The homeless also used the storefronts as rudimentary sleeping quarters.
Eviction protests have not always been considered in this light, but what they amounted to was the basically socialist principle that a community was entitled to seize private property to ensure the welfare and dignity of its members. In Marxian language, they expressed class solidarity, even a type of “class consciousness,” if by that term we mean not some abstract intellectual awareness of the essence of production relations but rather something more significant, viz., the sort of consciousness that infuses the practice of aggressively defending workers and the poor against the predations and depredations of the rich (or of authorities in league with the rich).
Blacks, not surprisingly, “constitute[d] the most active section of [Chicago’s] Unemployed Council” already in mid-1930, according to the Daily Worker. From before the beginning of the year Communists had been conducting house-to-house canvasses, literature distribution campaigns, street-corner conversations, and mass meetings in the industrial and lower-class sections of the city, not least on the South Side. Interracial marches on the city hall, met by police violence, featured demands for “Work or Wages” (“wages” meant unemployment insurance at full wage-rates), “Immediate Relief,” and the seven-hour day and five-day week. The unemployed of multiple nationalities attended huge meetings in Musicians’ Hall, Ukrainian Hall (in the Back of the Yards neighborhood), and Ashland Auditorium; when the police arrived and arrested scores of participants, Mexicans and Blacks were reported to be the most aggressive in resisting the attacks. (Some of the meetings in fact were organized to protest police brutality—only to elicit more brutality.) Blacks on the South Side were also the most aggressive in fighting evictions, probably for three main reasons: their deprivation was worse than that of other ethnic groups; their racial consciousness sharpened their anger and awareness of grievances; and in general they were not well-integrated into the dominant white society, which made them more willing to collectively violate norms of property and propriety.
As Randi Storch and other historians have related, eviction demonstrations sometimes began at Washington Park, where crowds of fifty to five thousand listened every day to speakers denounce the injustices of capitalism. Whether here or at the neighborhood Unemployed Council headquarters—a meeting hall where men were always gathered whiling away the hours in conversation—someone would show up and inform the others that a person was being evicted blocks away. They would rush over, being joined regularly by hundreds of people. “Whole neighborhoods were frequently mobilized to take part in this mutual assistance,” a participant recalled years later. The sociologist Horace Cayton observed one such action in 1931: while eating in a restaurant in the Black Belt he “chanced to look out the window and saw a number of Negroes walking by, three abreast, forming a long uninterrupted line,” solemnly marching to a house where a family was being evicted. Frequently confrontations with the police ensued, which were apt to be violent and bloody. The most important of these was in early August 1931, when a crowd of several thousand Blacks and whites marched to protect the home of a woman who lived near Washington Park. Police hurried to intercept them and arrested several of the leaders, as two patrol wagons blocked the crowd in its path. The course of events is uncertain, but the police ended up drawing their revolvers and started shooting, resulting in general tumult. “Thousands of terrified people scattered,” a contemporary wrote, “rushing for their lives, tripping, stumbling, stepping on one another. Others fought, slugging with fists, hurling sticks and stones at the police.” By the end of the melee three Black men lay dead and scores of demonstrators were injured.
Within a day of the riot Chicago was thrown into panic and headlines around the country shrieked of the nefarious influence of Reds. Fears of Communist insurrection in Chicago and race riots ran rampant. Scores of squad cars were sent to patrol the district; Mayor Cermak returned early from his yachting vacation; and in the following days enormous meetings of white and Black workers were held in Washington Park to protest the killings. As far as the city’s elite was concerned, if the event “had been an out-and-out race riot it would have been understandable,” according to the authors of Black Metropolis. “But here was something new: Negroes and whites together rioting against the forces of law and order.” The Renters’ Court immediately suspended all eviction proceedings for an indefinite period, which turned out to be several months long. In fact, that summer tenants across the South Side had already been flatly refusing to pay rent, declaring that the Communists would protect them. Landlords had accepted this situation in part because, according to bailiffs, 60 percent of Blacks who were evicted simply looked around the block for the nearest vacant room, broke the locks, and moved in. “Although they are without lights, gas, or water,” a bailiff reported, “the squatters remain in their new quarters until evicted again, when they find another vacant flat or are reinstated by the communists. Under these conditions landlords are willing to waive the rent to keep their properties occupied.” The hundreds of eviction demonstrations constantly occurring on the South Side that summer had effectively given tenants power to partially dictate the terms of their occupancy.
Meanwhile, the Unemployed Councils and the Communist Party organized a mass funeral and an open-casket viewing of the three fallen men. An estimated 25,000 people filed past the bodies during the two days they were on display—on a stage under a huge photograph of Lenin, the walls adorned with large paintings of a Black and white worker clasping hands—and afterwards, perhaps twice as many marchers (almost half of them white) followed the coffins in a slow procession down State Street. As in the many other marches that Chicago saw in these years, placards with such slogans as “Fight Against Lynching—Equal Rights for Negroes!” and “They Died for Us! We Must Keep Fighting!” were generously scattered throughout the parade. In the three weeks that followed the August 3 riot, the Unemployed Councils on the South Side received 5,500 new applications for membership.
While eviction demonstrations were particularly common in the Black Belt, few areas of Chicago were entirely free of them in the early Depression years. We can only guess at how many occurred, but if their frequency in New York City is any indication, there were many thousands: according to one study, of the 185,794 families that received eviction notices in New York in the eight months before June 30, 1932, 77,000 were saved from temporary homelessness by the efforts of the organized unemployed. Chicago’s West Side, for example, had numerous Unemployed Councils by 1931, such as the one on 14th Street near a Greek Workers Club on South Halsted Street. Its proximity to Greektown guaranteed its vitality, for Greek workers were exceptionally militant, as the activist Steve Nelson recalled. “Some were furriers and garment workers, and a few worked in the stockyards, but most were waiters, cooks, and busboys in the city’s restaurants. Almost all were single and very militant. Actually, they knew what to do better than I.” If they heard of an eviction, they raced over to stop it. The Communist organizer Katherine Hyndman remembered a revealing incident worth describing at length, the sort of event that happened continually in these years when “all you had to do was distribute a leaflet and you’d have thousands of people show up…not frightened by the police or anything”:
I was on my way to meet the people at the Greek Workers Club when I happened to see a woman and her children. They’d been evicted. They’re out there, their furniture, all out in the street. So I hurried over to the Greek Workers Club and got a whole number of people to help break down the door, put in the furniture, and so on… As soon as we got there the police had been in hiding around different buildings, [so they] come there and surround us. And I tried to go up into this small house… So one of the policemen jumps up on the steps of the house with a sawed-off machine gun…and he says, “The first son of a bitch that sets foot on these stairs is going to have his head chopped off.” Well, you can’t let that go unchallenged, you know. So I stepped forward, a young white man steps forward, and a Negro couple… When we four went on the stairs the people came out of their houses. They came swarming out and they surrounded the police. And this policeman…just held his gun uselessly in his hand. And the four of us stood triumphantly up at the top of the stairs and were kicking at the door. The policeman who was in charge said [to his fellow officers], “Now, look. We’ve had hundreds of people arrested [at this one location]. It’s enough. I’ve had enough.”
The landlord, who had been hiding with the police, decided the family could move back in if a collection were taken up to provide at least a fraction of their rent. So one of the officers passed around his hat, and the family was allowed to return to its home.
In neighborhoods on the North Side where people were paying mortgages on homes, or on the Near North Side where it was most common to live in rooming houses, it was much less easy to organize eviction demonstrations. Instead, as elsewhere in the city, people rallied around demands for less dehumanizing relief. The most dramatic form of activity was the group march on relief stations in response to the ill treatment of, or denial of relief to, a family, or to protest a particular policy. Sometimes the group would occupy the station and refuse to leave until its demands were met; other times it would be less belligerent or would leave in response to threats to call the police. Relief caseworkers’ practice of asking invasive and humiliating questions about the private lives of their clients was especially resented, and many demonstrations protested this policy.
Examples illustrate protesters’ tactics and police responses. In late August 1931, 400 people marched on the United Charities office at 4500 South Prairie Avenue. By the time they reached the office the crowd was 1,500 strong, and it proceeded to storm the station. After a police squad arrived, a “general riot” ensued. In March 1932 several thousand people converged on the Humboldt Park relief station to demand that the “box relief” system be changed to cash relief. Hundreds of police opened fire, though no fatalities ensued. (Soon afterwards, the state relief administration announced that it would henceforth give relief in cash.) In early July 1932 hundreds of steel workers and their families stormed a relief station in Kensington because the supply of food had been completely cut off. Police arrived, but the workers broke through their lines and hurled bricks at the windows. “Five more squads of police and a large group of motorcycle reinforcements came up,” the Daily Worker reported, and “after a vicious battle the men with their women and children were forced to retreat.” In September 1932 a huge demonstration of several thousand occurred at a relief station in Pullman, at which the following demands were made: any three members of the Unemployed Council were always to be recognized as legitimate representatives of relief clients; the police were to be removed from the relief agency’s premises; and rent was to be paid for clients. As was often the case, hundreds of women and children were present; police arrested many of them and clubbed women and girls of all ages. Such spectacular clashes happened most frequently between the summer of 1931 and the early spring of 1933.
Apart from the practical activities of day-to-day struggle against miserable relief, evictions, and the shutting off of gas and electricity in people’s homes, the Councils put forward a series of far-reaching political demands. The millions of people who embraced or shared these demands had an “ideology” that was radical indeed, necessitating a total transformation of American capitalism. The centerpiece of the Councils’ program was the demand for unemployment insurance, which was raised as early as January 1930. We’ll discuss this in more detail later, but judging just by the turnout on March 6, 1930, a large proportion of the unemployed very quickly adopted the Communists’ extreme conception of unemployment insurance: full union wages paid by the government with no discrimination against any group, financed by taxes on inheritances, gifts, and individual and corporate incomes of $5,000 a year and over, administered by representatives elected by workers and farmers. Other Council demands, advertised in millions of leaflets, pamphlets, and newspapers, included the seven-hour day and five-day week, free speech and assembly, prohibition of child labor, free employment agencies under workers’ control, and demolition of slums and construction of workers’ dwellings to be owned by the city. That these demands were attractive to millions of Americans is hardly surprising.
If Communist Party membership is any indication, the unemployed were sometimes more militant and radical than the employed, despite the very real hardships of the latter. In 1931, about 50 percent of members in Chicago were unemployed; and in a not atypical two-month period in that year, 80 percent of new recruits were without work. This trend was particularly pronounced on the South Side, where in 1933 79 percent of party members were unemployed. Nationally, in 1934 Earl Browder estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of the membership was jobless. On the other hand, the numbers were not so disproportionate in later years of the decade, when the Popular Front and the CIO attracted increasing numbers of employed workers to the CP.
The foreign-born, too, were disproportionately drawn to the CP, to the dismay of party leaders. In 1931, two-thirds of the national party and half of Chicago’s had been born abroad. In Chicago, Eastern Europeans were overrepresented in the party, while Germans and Italians were underrepresented. Jews were especially prominent: they constituted 22 percent of Chicago’s CP in 1931, and 19 percent of the party nationally. Between 1930 and 1935 the CP published daily newspapers in eight foreign languages, in addition to weeklies and the many pamphlets, leaflets, flyers, and shop papers that were constantly being distributed. Some indication of the influence of Communist publications in immigrant communities is given by the percentage of total daily newspaper circulation that was Communist. According to Nathan Glazer, in 1930 half of the circulation of dailies among Croats, Finns, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians was Communist, and about a third among Hungarians, Russians, and Slovaks. This suggests substantial sympathy among these groups for Communist views (particularly since newspapers were likely to be passed around after one person had read them). In Chicago, the CP’s many foreign-language federations—principally Workers’ Clubs (Jewish, Irish, Italian, Polish, Scandinavian, etc.)—amplified its impact in immigrant communities.
Again, the most striking support for Communism was found in the Black Belt. While it is noteworthy that in 1931 24 percent of Chicago’s CP members were Black, more telling are contemporaries’ descriptions of the enthusiasm non-members displayed toward the radical left. Much as in Harlem, as Mark Naison has described, Communism became a dominant force among Blacks in Chicago under the impact of both the Depression and the Scottsboro campaign to save nine boys in Alabama falsely accused of raping two white women. A series of Daily Worker articles by the writer Michael Gold in September 1932 testified to the hegemony the CP had by that time achieved over much of the Black Belt’s lower class. With some exaggeration, Gold wrote, “Everyone on the south side knows and sympathizes with the work of the [unemployed] councils. It has penetrated everywhere.” He gave a couple of illustrations: “In a little barbecue restaurant, five truck drivers were at lunch… I heard their talk: they were discussing that morning’s editorial in the Daily Worker on Germany. On a wooden stoop at sunset sat a group of tall jobless men and their wives. One giant in overalls fingered at a guitar; another was reading aloud to the serious little group out of a pamphlet by Lenin.” Observing the crowds at Washington Park and Ellis Park, he wrote, “fathers, mothers, grandmothers from the deep south—all the generations were at the forum, this Communism has become a folk thing. They have taken Communism and translated it into their own idiom.” Two months earlier he had witnessed a CP convention at Chicago’s Coliseum, 14,000 whites and blacks from around the country attending, and heard dozens of speakers sound the same theme. “‘I love the Communist party,’ said Mrs. Laura Osbee, a gaunt stockyards worker in a green shirtwaist, ‘because under its banner we are not fighting for a lousy fifteen dollars a week, but for equal rights. This is the comrade party, the others are the boss parties. We Negroes love the Communist party.’”
Such statements invoking freedom and equal rights, which could be multiplied many times over, serve as a salutary reminder that despite the truth of James C. Scott’s assertion that “‘bread-and-butter’ issues are the essence of lower-class politics and resistance,” the role of idealism in animating members of the lower classes should not be discounted. “If we must die,” an old man said in Washington Park, “we will die for Communism and a great cause, not like stuck hogs.”
Ordinarily idealism and moral consciousness, even revolt against social and economic degradation, found expression in religion. One might think that religion and Communism would be in contradiction, but this was not always the case. It is true that speakers in Washington Park, according to one observer, were “constantly” decrying religious fantasies as being the opiate of the masses, and that under the influence of Communism large numbers of Blacks embraced atheism. Some ministers were so disturbed by the growing materialism of their former flock that they ventured into enemy territory, giving lectures in Washington Park to hostile audiences on such subjects as “Christianism and Communism.” The minister of the largest church in the Black Belt did so on one occasion in 1931: when asked by the unfriendly crowd to “explain his presence and to state why he didn’t stay in his church, he made the damaging admission that his congregation wasn’t coming to his church.” His attempts to reconstitute the congregation were fruitless.
The common attitude on the South Side, as well as in other working-class districts and among men in flophouses and shelters, that everything was a “racket,” that ministers and politicians and other public authorities cared only about the almighty dollar and not at all about the woes of the working man, was itself due in no small part to the agitation of Communists, who were preaching exactly that viewpoint. In some ways the popular attitude may even have been more radical than the Communist, for it approached anarchism in its indiscriminate skepticism of all authority (including, sometimes, left-wing authorities like the CP). Religious authority, however, was the easiest target, and old IWW songs like the following, called “Pie in the Sky”—which mocks a preacher’s reply to a request for bread—were popular:
By and by, by and by,
Sweat all day, live on hay,
’Cause you’ll get pie
In the sky
By and by.
On the other hand, it was the usual policy of CP members not to direct their ire at religion but at economic, social, and political injustices. Many Blacks in fact transferred their religious enthusiasm to Communism, and doubtless did not necessarily sense an incompatibility between the sacred and the secular. As Michael Gold said, “At mass meetings [Blacks’] religious past becomes transmitted into a Communist present. They follow every word of the speaker with real emotion; they encourage him, as at a prayer meeting, with cries of ‘Yes, yes, comrade,’ and often there is an involuntary and heartfelt ‘Amen!’” One woman recalled that at least a third of her church at this time was Communist. Prominent ministers began to declare themselves sympathetic to Communism, no doubt primarily for public relations purposes (because of Communists’ popularity in the community). In mid-1934, for example, Reverend J. C. Austin of Pilgrim Baptist Church, in alliance with the International Labor Defense, invited Angelo Herndon to speak at his church. Herndon was a young Party organizer who had become nationally known during his imprisonment in Georgia under the state’s old insurrection law, and his visit attracted an interracial crowd of 3,000 people “from every section of the city.” Herndon’s speech drew wild cheers, but the audience saved its loudest applause for the reverend’s remarks. “From all I have learned of Communism,” Austin said, “it means simply the brotherhood of man, and as far as I can see Jesus Christ was the greatest Communist of them all… Just a week ago I stood in this church and talked to my congregation from the subject ‘Russia, the hope of the Negro.’” A reporter wrote that “fully five minutes” of a “deafening” ovation followed his words (addressed to Communists), “Come here anytime you want to hold a meeting. Not only that, but you will find me always ready and willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with you, preach with you, pray with you, march with you, and, if necessary, die with you for the common good of us all.”
Another illustration of how deeply certain habits and ideas of Communism had penetrated the community is a Party leader’s remark, in an internal discussion in 1932, that “the word ‘comrade’ is as popular on the South Side as it is in this Plenum. A Republican and Democratic politician going from house to house collecting signatures on petitions asked Negro workers, ‘Will you please sign the petition for comrade so and so?’” Admittedly a trivial detail, the use of this term even by non-Communist politicians reveals the temper of the time.
Popular adoption of the Communist creed extended to the point of continual participation in interracial meetings and actions, despite Chicago’s long and violent history of racial and ethnic conflict. It is almost superfluous to give examples, since inter-ethnic and interracial solidarity were soon the norm rather than the exception. As early as January 1930, Blacks and whites of various ethnicities were marching en masse on City Hall. May Day that year saw a huge march in the vicinity of Haymarket Square, in which thousands of Blacks and hundreds of children participated. In early August a large crowd attended an anti-war demonstration at Washington Square, at which the Black and white speakers urging interracial cooperation received enthusiastic cheers. “White workers in particular,” reported the Daily Worker, “cheered the slogan of the speakers that it is up to the white workers to demonstrate to their Negro fellow workers that they will really take up the fight for the Negro workers and fight against lynchings and segregation.” In February 1931 a “mammoth” hunger march (as described by the Chicago Defender) that proceeded down State Street from 31st to 50th Streets began with a ratio of twenty whites to one Black but ended in a rally that was split evenly between the races, at which speakers cried, “Down with the bosses” and for an end to discrimination against Black workers.
Many Unemployed Council locals united ethnicities that had traditionally been mutually hostile. The Back-of-the-Yards council had several thousand members, who gathered bread from bakeries and other food from stores, even meat stolen from packinghouses, to feed more than 500 people a day. The most spectacular hunger march in this district occurred in April 1932, when thousands of employed and unemployed workers marched to the stockyards to present a list of demands to representatives of the Armour, Swift, and Wilson companies. A quarter of the demonstrators were Black, and hundreds of Mexican and Polish workers marched side-by-side with the American-born. One participant recalled the significance of such experiences. “Polish, Lithuanian, Catholic, Protestant, or whatever, it didn’t matter who you were, just that you needed help. Sure some of the old suspicions were there, but they fell away once people saw what they could do together.” Mexicans were especially active in Packingtown’s unemployed movement, in part because the Catholic Church there did virtually nothing to reach out to them, thus making it easier for them to join left-wing, non-Mexican organizations. Still, they sometimes let caution dictate their moves. In October 1932, members of the University of Chicago Settlement’s Mexican Club of Unemployed Men voted against joining over 25,000 other workers in a hunger march protesting cuts in relief, out of fear that police would label them as Communists and hand them over to immigration officials.
Needless to say, it was not only men doing the organizing and protesting. In Chicago, 15 percent of CP members were women, half of them working and half unemployed. Chicago’s party never put its resources into organizing women, but it seems that many did not require much of an external stimulus to activism in any case. To some degree they were held back by the sexism that even egalitarian-minded CP members could not always rid themselves of. An internal party discussion in early 1932 testifies to this fact: “In some of our unemployed branches in Chicago,” a member writes, “the women constitute the most active elements in the unemployed branch, yet we find that at a meeting of the City Committee of the Unemployed Councils only one woman delegate is present. The tendency in the unemployed councils is that women can do the technical work, distribute leaflets, fight evictions and appear before charities for relief, but women are not eligible as delegates to the City Committee from their respective unemployed branches.” Often women were organized in women’s councils and mothers’ leagues, instead of being drawn into unemployed branches or the block committees that attracted the most militant people in the neighborhood. These female-centered groups engaged in such struggles as demanding pots and pans, bed linen, and clothing from relief agencies and organizing neighborhoods to picket shops that charged high prices.
The various social pressures that militated against women’s active involvement in the Communist Party did not prevent them from participating en masse in marches and rallies (an act, we should remember, that was always significant because of the threat of police brutality). On the one hand, women with children did not always have much time to devote to organizing or party activities, and the exigencies of trying to keep a family alive and healthy tended to fix their gaze almost exclusively on issues of relief that many Communists considered relatively trivial. Margaret Keller, the CP’s director of women’s work in 1933, complained, “it is terrible difficult work among the women, they are very narrow, due to the majority being housewives and can’t see anything else but the relief, we hope through education to convince them this is a political struggle.”
On the other hand, evidence of women’s determination in both employed and unemployed struggles is abundant. Historians have amply shown that women workers and wives played active, even essential, roles in strikes throughout the 1930s, but they have devoted less attention to such collective action in the context of unemployment. One has but to peruse newspapers of the time, however, to learn that women were not infrequently more militant than men, sometimes even more aggressive in resisting police. In late July 1932 a meeting of employed and unemployed workers was called to protest the expulsion from Douglas Park of people who had no other place to sleep. Led by Chicago’s infamous Red Squad, police tried to break up the meeting, driving motorcycles across the sidewalk and into the crowd of men, women, and children. When they seized the speaker, “women led the struggle to get their leader back from the police,” which they did successfully. At eviction protests they acted similarly, exhorting crowds to “act like men”—“Hold your places, comrades!”—when attacked by police. Black women were especially prominent in these protests, as in parades and rallies, where they lustily led the singing and chanting.
In December 1934 a correspondent reported in an issue of the CP’s Working Woman that women from coal mining families in Hillsboro, Illinois had organized to demand adequate relief. They “held meetings, traveled through the countryside, raised money, and, in defiance of the male leadership of the Progressive Miners’ Association, led demonstrations. As one march began on City Hall, the male demonstrators ‘made vain efforts to keep their wives from the front ranks.’” Just as collective action birthed class consciousness among unemployed men, so it birthed an incipient feminist consciousness among their wives, a sense of female power and a willingness to defy gendered expectations.
By mid-1932 Chicago had about eighty Unemployed Council locals with ten or fifteen thousand members at a given time, in addition to the many block committees and neighborhood committees that sent delegates to these locals. An article in the Daily Worker about a “typical” unemployed branch in Chicago (in Lawndale, on the West Side) illuminated the inner life of the councils, in particular the challenges they faced in building a sustainable mass movement. In the two-year history of this council, many hundreds of names had been on its membership books, but at no time more than two hundred. Usually less than fifty attended the branch meetings. “These meetings,” the author wrote, “consist mostly of dull routine. Most of the time the agenda has too many points, sometimes as high as 21… The deadly monotony is often broken by squabbles and disorder.” The best people were driven away by the long meetings and unnecessary arguments. Moreover, American-born workers were viewed with suspicion—90 percent of the members were Jewish, mostly of foreign birth—and “the talk of stool-pigeons, especially by a Party member, [had] create[d] an atmosphere of distrust.” Nearly all the families helped by the council drifted away because there was “no organizational machinery to keep in touch with them and to overcome the influence of the charities which bribe and frighten them away from us.” Altogether, the branch was “headless and demoralized.”
Party members complained alternately about the absence and the too-strong presence of Party control over councils. In late 1933, CP leader Israel Amter stated in the Party Organizer that there was too much “mechanical” Communist control of the councils. “We think we can remove and appoint and do exactly as we please. The organizers that we put in are responsible to the Party but have no responsibility to the masses.” Herbert Benjamin had registered a similar complaint a year earlier: “Party organizations instead of mobilizing the membership for participation in Unemployed Councils and committees, themselves take over the functions of these united front organizations. Where non-Party workers are attracted to our movement in such cases, they find themselves excluded from all participation in the actual work of planning and leading actions.” On the other hand, internal documents from the CP’s Chicago district periodically lamented the absence of functioning Party fractions in councils.
In this context of obstacles to the unemployed movement’s growth, one must also mention, again, the essential role of police terror. Had there been no police at all, of course, it is likely that a majority of people, not fearing legal repercussions, would have revolted against their rulers, invading stores and warehouses and taking what they wanted. Humanistic scholars, perhaps under the influence of Foucault and his “discourse”-centered philosophy, tend to underestimate the role of sheer violence (and its threat) in upholding business rule. And violence, as we have seen, was something the Chicago police excelled at. Party member Harry Haywood’s retrospective remarks were accurate:
The city administration’s answer to this growing [unemployed] movement was unbridled police terror. A tool of the corrupt city government and allied with gangsters, Chicago’s police force undoubtedly held the record for terror and lawlessness against workers. They were unsurpassed for sadism and brutality, regularly raiding the halls and offices of the Unemployed Councils, revolutionary organizations and the Party—smashing furniture, beating workers in the halls, on the streets and in the precinct stations.
The Red Squad (the special police force devoted to terrorizing radicals and rebellious workers) constantly surveilled Communists, sending undercover agents to Party meetings and periodically stealing or destroying Party records. By 1940 the squad’s leader, Lieutenant Make Mills, had amassed a file of index cards that included 5,000 local Communists and 75,000 names around the country; the cards specified each person’s occupation, nationality, age, and leadership role.
Police tactics changed over several years, but at all times the use of violence as a deterrent, a punishment, and an effective interrupter of protests was crucial. In 1930, with one exception every outdoor demonstration (and many indoor meetings) that Communists organized was cut short by the police. This tendency continued for much of 1931, but eventually it was judged to be simpler and less politically costly (given the continual displays of frenzied brutality) for the police to allow demonstrations, requiring only that a permit be obtained first. When it was denied but the event proceeded anyway, the ensuing police violence could be justified on the basis of the demonstration’s “illegality.” Participants in such illegal actions sometimes armed themselves with sticks and clubs and filled their pockets with stones; those who did not might follow the CP’s instruction to at least use their fists or to try to snatch clubs from police officers and use them on the police (in order to protect whoever was speaking). Usually, however, as in the innumerable relief-station demonstrations and most eviction protests, the demonstrators were unarmed. This did not stop the police from behaving as they did, for instance, at a March 1932 rally in front of the Japanese Consulate on Michigan Avenue, in protest against Japan’s invasion of China and Manchuria: “From Ohio Street,” reported the New York Herald Tribune, “came the mounted police and machine gun squads. They galloped up the sidewalk, hurtling their mounts into the thick of the crowd. They clubbed left and right with all their strength”—incidentally hitting fellow officers on foot—“while the horses trampled the fleeing demonstrators under foot.” As officers shot at demonstrators, bullets ricocheted off the sidewalk and injured passersby.
Spectacular police violence, while less frequent than between 1930 and 1933, continued into the later years of the decade, as the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre attests. In 1935, a South Side demonstration of 10,000 people against Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia required between 750 and 2,000 police (accounts vary) in order to be broken up. The Red Squad especially discouraged interracial interaction, even in harmless contexts, as was clear from an interview Make Mills gave to (white) University of Chicago students in 1934. After being briefly taken into custody for talking to Blacks on the South Side (the police lectured them about being in a “nigger” neighborhood, telling them to stay out of the Black Belt), they visited Mills to ask if he approved of arrests for such a reason. Evidently he did. “Anytime you go into a nigger district you’ll get hit with a club… You’ve no right to go into any nigger neighborhood.” With only slight exaggeration, the Chicago Defender commented that “it is the duty of [Mills’] squad to cruise around the city in search of ‘Reds,’ as evidenced by a group in which black and white people are found together as friends and not fighting each other. Whenever these squads find such gatherings, they immediately pounce upon the offenders, beat men and women over their heads with clubs, haul them off to stations and put them through ‘the works,’ which usually consists of photographing and fingerprinting them.”
Investigations by the ACLU illuminated the various other means that authorities used to discourage and suppress unemployed radicalism. As a report stated,
[The unemployed] run up against refusals of permits for meetings and parades, bans by mayors on meetings and parades, refusals of the use of tax-supported meeting places such as school-halls, police orders to landlords to refuse to rent halls, misapplication of ordinances against the distribution of advertising matter by hand bills, refusal of permits to post notices, and rarely, injunctions. Sometimes the welfare authorities themselves are responsible for attempts to hinder or disrupt the organization of the unemployed. Cases are not infrequent where persons active in organization work have been cut off the relief rolls…
In short, throughout the decade the civil liberties of the unemployed were systematically, though not universally, denied. In the words of one article, “Clients protesting inadequate relief [and] workers on relief projects organizing against wage reductions find themselves arrested and in the courts charged with, ‘Disorderly Conduct,’ ‘Malicious Mischief,’ ‘Assault,’ ‘Riot,’ ‘Anarchy,’ ‘Treason,’ ‘Criminal Syndicalism,’ or even ‘Conspiracy to Overthrow the Government.’” Most common was the charge of disorderly conduct, which could cover everything from leafleting to being in Chicago’s Black Belt while white.
But the fact that enormous numbers of the jobless were eager to organize and demonstrate even in the face of legalized repression and police brutality left it to more “benign” authorities to bring about the decline of the Unemployed Councils. As Randi Storch has related, in January 1933 the relief administration declared that it would no longer accept complaints from organized groups at relief stations, instead setting up a Public Relations Bureau downtown where unemployed organizations could register their grievances. Demonstrations were held at the stations in defiance of the new ruling, but the police strictly enforced it. This simple shift in policy did far more than police violence in itself ever could to undercut the Councils, because now that adjudication occurred in a relatively routinized manner downtown it was harder for the CP to illustrate to the community the efficacy of mass pressure. Illegal demonstrations grew less frequent, and over the course of 1933 councils in some parts of the city were “almost completely wiped out of existence,” according to an internal Party letter. “The workers were looking for ACTION,” it stated, “[and] when they did not see the actions, they quit the councils.”
The other main blow to the Councils was the election of Franklin Roosevelt. As Melvyn Dubofsky states, “By frightening the ruling class into conceding reforms and appealing to workers to vote as a solid block, Roosevelt simultaneously intensified class consciousness and stripped it of its radical potential.” Internal CP discussions in 1936 acknowledged that the Party and its mass organizations had had difficulty adapting to Roosevelt, for instance making the mistake of attacking the Civilian Conservation Corps as fascist and militaristic despite its popularity with the public. But even had radicals been more savvy in their protests against Roosevelt, the fact is that FERA and the various federal work-relief programs did improve conditions for millions of people. While maximal demands were not met—of munificent social insurance, the wholesale ending of evictions, government guarantee of employment, and no discrimination against Blacks—enough demands were answered in the middle years of the decade for the turbulence of earlier activism to subside somewhat.
One might plausibly argue, therefore, that the decline of the Councils and their turbulent modes of protest signified their success as much as their failure. Unemployed activism forced government to intervene in society and the economy on a hitherto unimaginable scale, and by so doing it undermined the very conditions of its own existence. And yet despite the immense political importance and success of such activism, it is still possible for the volume on the Great Depression in Oxford’s History of the United States to include but a single sentence on the Unemployed Councils (and nothing about other organizations). Such is posterity’s continuing condescension towards radical groups of this era.
A minority of Chicago’s jobless remained quite militant even after 1933. The parks remained full of speakers and crowds, and of thousands of fists held in the air when, e.g., a speaker shouted, “A revolution is what we need. A revolution against white bosses and black bosses!” The League of Struggle for Negro Rights continued to be instrumental in stopping evictions on the South Side—although both evictions and protests became less frequent. Despite the prohibition of demonstrations at local relief stations, many continued to occur the whole decade, although the paucity of sources clouds our historical vision. Harry Haywood casually mentions speaking at a relief-station demonstration in late 1934, as if such demonstrations were still happening rather frequently. Earlier that year the Hunger Fighter reported that Unemployed Council Local 25—and there were still dozens of councils in the city—had organized a small number of people to demand (successfully) their delayed Civil Works Administration checks, clothing, and shoes at the local relief station. A year later, it was reported that locals had recently been winning many grievance cases for relief and were doing such things as organizing neighborhood libraries, performing theater pieces their members had written, and organizing study clubs. It was mentioned in the last chapter that the pace of relief-station demonstrations and sit-ins picked up again starting in 1937, with the aid of the Workers Alliance and the CIO.
In fact, during relief crises, the Unemployed Councils revived on a citywide basis, for a brief time approaching their earlier vitality. In the June 1935 issue of the Party Organizer, for example, a correspondent reported that councils in several parts of the city were growing, and overflow meetings were being held on a united front basis (with Socialists and other groups). “Many Sections [of Chicago],” he said, “have correctly linked up the struggle for the opening of the [relief] stations and against the sales tax with the struggle against the high cost of living. In Sections 4 and 11 neighborhood committees are conducting struggle against the high cost of living, participating in all actions for relief and against the sales tax.” Demonstrations were also organized in front of the homes of state representatives.
In short, Unemployed Councils existed in Chicago most of the decade, their fortunes waxing and waning in the context of broader political and economic currents. They competed and cooperated with other organizations, most notably the Chicago Workers Committee on Unemployment, to which we now turn.
Workers Committee on Unemployment
The story of the Workers Committee on Unemployment (WCU) lends support to Hallgren’s belief, indicated earlier, that if Communists had had the “courage” to discuss revolution in straightforward American terms, far more people would have rallied to their banner. Founded in the summer of 1931, within a year the WCU had grown to encompass almost 15,000 people divided into 49 local units “meeting in all sections of the city,” according to Robert Asher, a young historian who participated in it. Soon it was to have at least 60 locals. Asher emphasized the political radicalism of its members: “The organized unemployed say they are fed up with the Republicans, the Democrats and the system they represent. They are ready [in September 1932] for a complete new deal and will back to the limit any political party with a radical economic program. With this in mind they have made the establishment of a planned economy, in which social security and the right to work shall be placed above the interests of private profit, one of the principal planks in their platform.” The rest of their demands, likewise, were similar to Communists’: adequate medical, dental, and hospital care, public housing, free public employment exchanges, the five-day week and six-hour day, and unemployment insurance. Had the WCU possessed more resources, its membership could have expanded to far more than the 25,000 people it included by early 1933. But even this number was a substantial achievement for an organization only eighteen months old.
The Workers Committee was founded in July 1931 by a group of fifteen or twenty members of the Socialist Party and the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) who were fed up with the SP’s inaction on the issue of unemployment. Under the leadership of Karl Borders, executive secretary of the Chicago LID, this group of social workers, preachers, professors, and union leaders first agreed on a political program and then set about establishing locals. The Reverend W. B. Waltmire, pastor of the Humboldt Park Methodist Church, organized the first local with fifty unemployed men from his neighborhood, a number that quickly increased to almost three hundred. This group consisted mostly of Scandinavian immigrants; a second local, consisting of Poles, was established at Association House, a settlement house nearby. Three branches were formed at Northwestern University Settlement, and more spread to Chicago Commons, Onward Neighborhood House, and churches on the northwest side of the city. Before long there were ten branches (containing Greeks, Italians, English-speakers, and others), and it was decided that delegates from each should meet every two weeks at Association House to discuss their specific problems and work out joint solutions. The original group of Karl Borders and his fellow founders, which had continued to meet downtown, became the Central Committee for the whole organization, and worked together with delegates from the locals to plan activities.
Overwhelmingly, the men (and it was mostly men) who joined the Workers Committee were manual laborers. In many cases a few men in a different part of the city heard about the original locals, decided to organize their neighborhood on a similar basis, and then affiliated with the Committee. “Sometimes the initiative came from a Socialist, a LID member, or a minister,” Roy Rosenzweig writes, “but most often the unemployed themselves provided the organizing talent. A member of an existing local might, for example, be evicted, move to a new neighborhood, and form a local there.” Without the support of settlement houses, however, the movement could hardly have gotten started. They provided facilities, intellectual leadership, connections with political and relief authorities, speakers to periodically address the locals, and morale-boosting encouragement to the discouraged jobless. Frank W. McCulloch, who became one of the leaders of the Workers Committee, remarked later that “the cooperation of the Commons was so constant, its leadership so central a factor in the establishment and maintenance of the CWCOU…that I suspect many of us took the Commons—and other settlements—too much for granted.”
Indeed, an important reason why Workers Committees were most successful in Chicago and (to a lesser degree) New York City was that settlements there had the political independence necessary to support such a “radical” movement. Unlike in other cities, they were not funded by a central Community Chest, an institution that was dominated by conservative elements from the city’s professional and business (particularly banking) elite. The Chest board, in effect, controlled every agency it funded, and could prevent settlements from supporting groups of the unemployed and other such class enemies of businessmen. In Chicago, on the other hand, any particular agency might have either a conservative or a liberal board; and if the board was liberal, a settlement could sometimes get away with providing facilities even for Unemployed Council meetings. Chicago Commons and others had such liberal boards—often because one influential liberal who sat on them could outweigh the voices of conservatives. Thus, it was only a slight difference in the policies of repression between Chicago and other cities that opened up the institutional space for a significant unemployed movement to flower there.
Throughout its existence the “higher echelons” of the Workers Committee, with the participation of the rank and file, concentrated on publicizing the plight of the jobless and pressing for legislative action. They worked with the Governor’s Commission in 1931 to raise funds for relief, lobbied for a special session of the legislature to deal with unemployment, organized a series of public hearings in 1932 and 1933, represented the unemployed in continual intercessions with relief authorities at local and state levels, and cooperated with other groups to push for state and federal unemployment insurance. On occasion the Workers Committee formed a united front with the Unemployed Councils, but Communists’ behavior in the October 1932 hunger march was so sectarian that it poisoned relations for years. The Speakers’ Bureau of the WCU arranged debates and open forums, and sent speakers to locals every week in order to stimulate discussion on contemporary issues. For six months in 1933 a newspaper was also published, the New Frontier, which had a style and content almost as radical as the Unemployed Council’s newspaper the Hunger Fighter.
As the unemployed themselves took over increasing control of the Workers Committee in early 1932, the actions that locals engaged in became more militant, focused on immediate problems and not only legislative solutions. (The militancy of the rank and file calls to mind Communists’ need sometimes to dampen the energy of UC members, by discouraging group looting of supermarkets and violence against property.) Locals established grievance committees that presented cases to relief offices, demanding better treatment of clients. Whatever emergency arose in the neighborhood, Workers Committee members would rush over to remedy it. For instance, they were useful in the case of the “petty persecutions” that landlords resorted to in order to get nonpaying tenants to leave of their own accord. Gertrude Springer, a settlement worker, gave examples in January 1933:
Mrs. Russo’s landlord takes down the door to her flat and carries it off. Come a couple of carpenters from the local with a knocked-up packing case and presently Mrs. Russo has a door that answers every practical purpose. Mrs. Kelly’s little boy reports breathlessly that his mother’s kitchen is flooded—a mysterious hole in a water-pipe and the landlord won’t do anything. A plumber, doing his tour of duty on the emergency squad, solders up the hole, obviously punched with a chisel. Mrs. Cohen is being smoked out, “Come a’runnin’.” Shock-troopers climb up to the roof, remove a rough and ready layer of bricks from Mrs. Cohen’s chimney top, and life goes on.
Such were the tactics of a kind of primitive class struggle, which were supplemented by the grander tactics of mass meetings and large demonstrations. Interspersed with these forms of protest were other types of working-class self-activity, including (as with Unemployed Councils) the sponsoring of Christmas parties, dances, picnics, sewing clubs, bands, numerous educational programs, slide shows, a library, and a “Workers’ Training School,” all of which led Workers Committee locals to become “part of the fabric of community life, much like the local saloon, church, or fraternal lodge,” to quote a historian.
In early 1933 a student at the University of Chicago wrote a case-study of a Workers Committee local in South Chicago that describes the trajectory of a typical unit. In March 1932 seven unemployed men drew up plans for a local: they announced in the Daily Calumet that the first few meetings would be held in the Bessemer Park clubhouse and invited anyone to attend. A month later the group still had only 45 members, so they mimeographed and distributed over a thousand handbills and printed more advertisements in the Daily Calumet (which ran two or three front-page headliners on the group). So many people began to show up that they had to start using a large auditorium for their weekly meetings, at which speakers from the WCU’s Central Committee made presentations on unemployment and the necessity of building a nationwide movement. More than three hundred people of various nationalities regularly attended the lectures, though not everyone was accepted as a member because “no one present could vouch for them.” After a few months there was a crisis: Communists started showing up to disrupt the proceedings, on one occasion taking possession of the platform to denounce leaders of the WCU as traitors to the working class, etc. As so often in those years, the Communists could not have been more successful at undermining the Left had they been FBI provocateurs: they antagonized everyone present, and the local actually ceased meeting for a while.
When meetings resumed they were in a smaller location, and membership had to be built up again from a small base. Once a grievance committee was formed in June 1932, however, new members started flooding in, as many as forty a week. One important project of the local was to collect fruits and vegetables from farms for distribution among hundreds of members. This was no simple task: trucks and drivers had to be found; an alderman had to issue letters of introduction to officials of oil and gas companies so they would donate gasoline; letters of introduction to the farmers had to be obtained; and the produce had to be distributed in such a way that everyone received an equal amount. Nevertheless, the project was a great success. Other locals organized similar undertakings, in addition to running cooperative barbershops and doing shoe and furniture repairing for each other.
Since the basis for the Workers Committee’s success, however, was its constant interventions at relief stations, the establishment of the Public Relations Bureau in January 1933 was a major blow, as it was to the Unemployed Councils. The WCU’s numbers and its spirit began to decline—slowly. “The Workers’ Committee continued to use all forms of protest,” Robert Asher writes. “It achieved a noteworthy success [in 1933] in mitigating the plight of the single men. Its members marched under their own banners in the ‘Save Our Schools’ parades. They showed their solidarity with other workers by setting up a labor committee and getting on to strikers’ picket lines with signs of ‘The Unemployed Won’t Scab.’” They continued to call for vastly increased relief and workers’ representation on relief agencies, in addition to holding a third series of public hearings in June 1934 and conducting campaigns for cash relief instead of relief in kind. Indeed, the Committee’s 1934 annual report stated that in campaigns for decent relief and economic security it had “played an increasingly active and fruitful part” that year, for example helping to organize the Chicago Labor College, agitating for unemployment insurance and a public works program, gathering thousands of signatures on petitions for cash relief, and joining the Unemployed Councils in a gigantic hunger march through the Loop in late November to protest relief cuts and other abuses. Still, as the administration of relief became more centralized in 1933 and ’34, and also in some respects more responsive to the popular will, both the Workers Committee and the Unemployed Councils ceased to be as “menacing [a] threat to the established political and economic order” as they had been.
Accordingly, to magnify its impact the unemployed movement entered its “unity” phase. An attempt to form a Federation of Unemployed Workers Leagues in late 1932 and early 1933, which in its first meeting already had representatives from thirty-five Midwestern organizations, foundered on sectarian disputes when the Communists and Musteites (in the form of the Congress for Progressive Labor Action) got involved. Much more successful, though more limited in its ambitions and of a different structure, was the Illinois Workers Alliance, founded by WCU members and allies in December 1933. This organization quickly became one of the most powerful unemployed associations in the country, with locals in over two hundred Illinois towns and cities; miners, a characteristically militant group, were especially attracted to it. As the (unaffiliated) Unemployed Councils lost visibility, the IWA gained it. It played a key role in the establishment of the nationwide Workers Alliance in March 1935, and managed to survive, albeit in a weakened state, until the U.S. entered World War II.
In Chicago, the Workers Committee and the IWA were more or less identical: the locals of the former were those of the latter. As before, their main function was the handling of relief grievances. But with the formation of the Public Relations Bureau, the procedure had become harassingly bureaucratic and inefficient. First, the person with a complaint had to try to resolve it himself at his district relief station; if he failed, the local’s grievance committee would take it up. The aggrieved had to sign a statement describing the complaint, after which it was forwarded to the chairman of the central grievance committee at the IWA’s office in Chicago, who, like the chairman of the local grievance committee, had to decide whether it was valid. If he thought it was, he placed the seal of the organization on it and forwarded it to the Public Relations Bureau for adjudication as an official complaint. But the Bureau usually did little more than send the complaint back to the original district station for reconsideration, after which the client again had to wait an undetermined amount of time to receive an answer! In most cases the answer was not favorable, or no answer was given at all.
Given the almost Kafkaesque quality of this system, it is no surprise that disturbances by individuals and protests by large groups at relief stations continued the whole decade. Regarding a protest in 1938, when over a hundred people were jammed inside a station in a “sit-in strike,” a reporter wrote, “Bitter resentment was evidenced by all against the public relations bureau, and when asked what changes they desired made in that branch, one man shouted, ‘None at all. It’s prejudiced and incompetent. We want the damn thing abolished!’”
Tens of thousands of members coursed in and out of the IWA. Locals tended to be ethnically rather homogeneous: in Chicago there were locals mainly composed in each case of Italians, Poles, Blacks, native whites, Jews, Austrians, Czechs, etc. But this was mostly just a consequence of neighborhood demographics, and a number of locals were ethnically mixed. As with other unemployed groups, members were supposed to pay a monthly fee, in this case of one or two cents. Like many another union, the IWA had state conventions to which locals sent delegates, where plans were made on such matters as organizing new areas of the state, launching a “youth movement,” affiliating with the national Workers Alliance, forming a labor party, boycotting newspapers owned by rabid anti-Communist William Randolph Hearst, and “demanding the freedom of all class war prisoners.”
By 1936, locals of the Unemployment Councils were allowed to amalgamate with the IWA. This does not seem, however, to have had much of an impact on the politics or militancy of the IWA, for its members, including in downstate counties, were already quite radical. For example, in Franklin County a protest was organized in July 1934 to demand the resignation of Rosco Webb, chairman of the county relief programs. The letter sent to him read in part as follows:
We demand a sufficient participation in the wealth which we and our people have created so as to insure to us a decent standard of living. To this as willing workers we are entitled whether we are employed or unemployed. Our patience and humility are exhausted and we approach the time when we will find it literally necessary to remind you that we are human beings and our anger is fast rising.
Evidently even in relatively rural regions, “class consciousness” was far from unknown. (In fact, as early as the beginning of 1932, the president of the Wisconsin Farmers’ Union testified to a Senate committee that “there are more actual reds among the farmers of Wisconsin than you could dream about… They are just ready to do anything to get even with the situation.”)
As mass popular movements of the middle years of the thirties were quashed and the CIO’s momentum collided with the obstinacy of reaction, unemployed groups suffered as well. Many of them, however, managed to cling to relative vitality for a long time, up to 1939. Even after renewed hostility between Communists and other political groups caused the Workers Alliance to split apart in 1939, the unemployed movement did not collapse. We can see evidence of this in the minutes of Cook County-wide meetings of delegates from IWA locals, for instance in the summer of 1939, when massive WPA cuts were starting to take effect and local relief was, as usual, miserly. IWA local 1 was active at relief stations, leafletting, recruiting, and planning a mass meeting the following week; local 16 had fifty members active who were circulating petitions and leaflets; local 35 was bringing in new members, undertaking joint actions with other groups on the South Side, and selling tickets for a huge picnic that the Cook County IWA was organizing. Local 44 was brand-new, with an average attendance of thirty-six but getting new members; it had distributed two thousand leaflets and was working on the picnic. Other locals were meeting regularly and focusing on grievance work; still others were having a harder time because “summer weather makes attendance generally go down.” The West Side, North Side, and South Side district committees were going to work together to plan regional and city-wide protests. The recent conference in Washington, D.C. to form a new national organization, the Workers Security Federation, had gone well; the organizations present—which had split from the Workers Alliance—represented a total of a hundred thousand people.
A year later, however, the situation was dire. The IWA, which had been renamed the Illinois Workers Security Federation, had fewer members than ever and terrible finances. Only eight or ten locals remained in Chicago, with an attendance that varied from ten to fifty. Frank McCulloch, the IWSF’s Secretary-Treasurer, had to resort to begging for money from allies, such as the Juvenile Protective Association and the Federation of Jewish Trade Unions. “We in the Security Federation,” he wrote in a letter, “are not strong, for there is great hopelessness and despair—not to say downright physical weakness—in the unemployed group.” They had, it is true, “kept together a core of experienced and responsible persons and locals who are working against great odds to protect the interests of WPA, low-wage and relief families. But we cannot, alone, meet even office rent and other minimum expenses, not to mention the costs of an effective job and relief campaign.” With war looming and conservatives in the ascendancy, the political environment was simply no longer hospitable to the Left.
Perhaps an equally important cause of the withering away of the unemployed movement was that the unemployed in 1940 and later were proportionately fewer than they had been earlier in the Depression. Many of the most capable people had found jobs, so the mass base of the movement was both smaller and less energetic than in, say, 1934.
The Workers Alliance (WA) itself had never become the awe-inspiring force of politics that its organizers had hoped it would be, though for several years it and its affiliates had a vitality that politicians could not afford to ignore. When the Unemployment Councils and National Unemployed League joined in April 1936, one estimate put the Alliance’s combined dues-paying and non-dues-paying membership at 800,000, though this was likely too high. Whatever the real numbers were, the organization did a competent job of defending the interests of unemployed and relief workers. One journalist wrote in 1938 that the usual practice of WA groups in New York City, as elsewhere, with regard to relief grievances was, first, to present a formal protest; if satisfactory results were not achieved, the WA would organize a mass demonstration. If that didn’t work, then “the organization settles down for a long pull with picket lines around the offices of the offending officials and, when necessary, a walk-out or a sit-down strike.” He concluded that “the record is impressive”: for instance, in March 1937 three thousand relief clients had sat down in twenty-nine Emergency Relief Bureau offices in New York City. As a result, the mayor granted an open hearing on relief, which led to a much larger relief appropriation by the city council and the speeding up of sluggish bureaucratic procedures.
Whether the Workers Alliance could have forced more expansive relief policies at the national level “by pushing turbulence to its outer limits,” as Piven and Cloward suggest, rather than by trying to cooperate with authorities and cultivate friendly relations with members of Congress and the Roosevelt administration, is impossible to know. What is certain is that the setbacks the movement suffered in the second half of the decade, as federal and state governments retrenched, happened in spite of the aggressive mood and actions of hundreds of thousands of the unemployed, who besieged state legislatures, marched on city halls, picketed relief stations, deluged public officials with postcards and letters, and held public hearings. The diminishing returns of such tactics eventually caused the movement to shrink, to the point that by late 1940 it hardly existed at all. All that remained were the memories of how continent-wide class struggles had wrested an incipient welfare state from the ruling class.
 Lasswell and Blumenstock, World Revolutionary Propaganda, 191–194; Roy Rosenzweig, “Organizing the Unemployed: The Early Years of the Great Depression, 1929–1933,” Radical America, vol. 10, no. 4 (July–August 1976): 41; Leab, “United We Eat,” 305–308; Prago, “The Organization of the Unemployed and the Role of the Radicals, 1929–1935” (Ph.D. diss., Union Graduate School, 1976), 65–88.
 Randi Storch, “Shades of Red: The Communist Party and Chicago’s Workers, 1928–1939” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1998), 40, 41.
 Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, 105, 374–378, 477; Storch, “Shades of Red,” 28, 29.
 Actually, the number may be higher than this, since the inefficient party bureaucracy bungled untold thousands of applications. Communist organizer Katherine Hyndman estimated that “millions” of people went through the Party and its auxiliary organizations. Interview of Katherine Hyndman by Staughton Lynd, 1970, 49, Roosevelt University Oral History Project in Labor History.
 Klehr, The Heyday, 153–158, 413; Nathan Glazer, The Social Basis of American Communism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961), 101; H. W., “Human Beings,” Party Organizer, July 1937, 37, 38; J. Peter, “A Study of Fluctuation in the Chicago District,” Party Organizer, October 1934, 20–25; Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (New Burnswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 44, 45; District Organization letter, April 3, 1931, Communist Party files, microfilm reel 187, Tamiment Library.
 Federated Press, May 2, 1930; Randi Storch, Red Chicago: American Communism at Its Grassroots, 1928–35 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 105; James Lorence, The Unemployed People’s Movement: Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929–1941 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 27; Hathaway, “An Examination of Our Failure”; Lorence, Organizing the Unemployed, 28.
 Prago, “The Organization of the Unemployed,” 116.
 Mattick was an influential Marxist writer and activist, an anti-Leninist who identified with the ideological tradition of council communism.
 Gary Roth, Marxism in a Lost Century: A Biography of Paul Mattick (Boston: Brill, 2015), 97.
 Daily Worker, January 27, February 22 and 28, April 24, July 30, 1930; Harold F. Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 327.
 Lasswell and Blumenstock, World Revolutionary Propaganda, 170, 171, 196–204; Horace Cayton, “The Black Bugs,” Nation, September 9, 1931; Carl Winter, “Unemployment Struggles of the Thirties,” Political Affairs, vol. 48, nos. 9-10 (September-October 1969): 53–63; Randi Storch, Red Chicago, 99–101; Daily Worker, August 5–8, 10, 1931.
 Chicago Defender, August 8, 1931; Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1931; Pittsburgh Courier, August 8, 1931; Drake and Cayton, Black Metropolis, 87; Horace Cayton, Long Old Road (New York: Trident Press, 1965), 182, 183.
 Lasswell and Blumenstock, World Revolutionary Propaganda, 201–204; Daily Worker, August 10, 1931; Prago, “Organizing the Unemployed,” 108.
 Richard O. Boyer and Herbert Morais, Labor’s Untold Story (New York: United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, 1972), 261; Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett, and Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson: American Radical (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), 76; interview of Katherine Hyndman by Staughton Lynd, 51–53. On Greek radicalism in the Depression, see Dan Georgakas, “Greek-American Radicalism: The Twentieth Century,” in The Immigrant Left in the United States, eds. Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 217–220. Collective defiance of police armed with machine guns seems to have been a rather common occurrence. See, e.g., Daily Worker, September 7, 1932.
 Storch, “Shades of Red,” 104; G. P., “Local Struggles and the Building of Unemployed Councils in Preparation for the Hunger March,” Party Organizer, January 1932, 9, 10; Frank Z. Glick, The Illinois Emergency Relief Commission (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), 122; Daily Worker, March 23, April 24, 1931.
 Paul Clinton Young, “Race, Class, and Radicalism in Chicago, 1914–1936” (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 2001), 207; Lasswell and Blumenstock, World Revolutionary Propaganda, 171; Daily Worker, March 14, July 6, September 15, 1932.
 “Program of the National Unemployment Conference, New York, March 29-30, 1930,” CP records, reel 163, Tamiment; Dorothy Douglas, “Unemployment Insurance—For Whom?,” Social Work Today, February 1935, 12.
 Storch, “Shades of Red,” 41; Ottanelli, The Communist Party, 44.
 Klehr, The Heyday, 162, 163; Storch, “Shades of Red,” 43–45; Glazer, The Social Basis of American Communism, 81–85; Lasswell and Blumenstock, World Revolutionary Propaganda, 73.
 Storch, “Shades of Red,” 45; Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Great Depression (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005 ); Michael Gold, “The Negro Reds of Chicago,” Part II, Daily Worker, September 29, 1932; Michael Gold, “The Communists Meet,” New Republic, June 15, 1932.
 Gold, “The Negro Reds of Chicago,” Part II.
 Wilson T. Seney, “A Study of the Activities of the Communist Party in Organizing Unrest among the Negroes of Chicago,” 19, December 21, 1931, term paper for Sociology 310, Ernest Burgess Papers, box 183, folder 1.
 Ibid., 20.
 Harold F. Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 338, 341; Naison, Communists in Harlem, 57; Storch, Red Chicago, 96; St. Clair Drake, Churches and Voluntary Associations in the Negro Community (Report of WPA Project 465-54-3-386, Chicago, 1940), 260, 261; Chicago Defender, September 29, 1934; Charles H. Martin, The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976).
 Bill Gebert, “The Struggle for the Negro Masses and the Fight Against the Social Demagogs [sic],” Party Organizer, May-June 1932, 12.
 Daily Worker, February 22, May 7, August 6, September 9, 1930; New York Times, January 30, February 22, 1930; Chicago Defender, February 14, 1931; Storch, “Shades of Red,” 98.
 Rick Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904–1954 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 101–104; Daily Worker, April 21, 1932; Chicago Defender, April 23, 1932; Louise Año Nuevo Kerr, “The Chicano Experience in Chicago: 1920–1970” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1976), 106, 107; Gabriela Arredondo, Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity, and Nation, 1916–39 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 135. On Mexicans’ experiences with the labor movement’s interracialism in the 1930s, see Michael McCoyer, “Darkness of a Different Color: Mexicans and Racial Formation in Greater Chicago, 1916–1960” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 2007), 303–329.
 K. E., “Organize the Work Among Women!” Party Organizer, January 1932, 26; Storch, Red Chicago, 45; Chicago Hunger Fighter, February 27, 1932; Daily Worker, February 10, 1931. A dramatic example of the demonstrations against rising prices occurred in Harlem in 1935, when “a flying squadron of black housewives marched through the streets demanding that butchers lower their prices by 25 percent.” They warned that if they didn’t, they could expect a riot. The butchers complied. See Lashawn Harris, “Running with the Reds: African American Women and the Communist Party during the Great Depression,” Journal of African American History, vol. 94, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 27.
 Storch, Red Chicago, 126.
 See Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972); Sidney Fine, Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969); Ruth Milkman, ed., Women, Work, and Protest (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985); Sharon Hartman Strom, “Challenging ‘Woman’s Place’: Feminism, the Left, and Industrial Unionism in the 1930s,” Feminist Studies, vol. 9, no. 2 (Summer 1983): 359–386; Ruth Susan Meyerowitz, “Organizing and Building the UAW: Women at the Ternstedt General Motors Part Plant, 1936–1950” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1984).
 Daily Worker, July 27, 1932; Horace Cayton, “The Black Bugs”; Rosemary Feurer, “The Nutpickers’ Union, 1933–34: Crossing the Boundaries of Community and Workplace,” in “We Are All Leaders”: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s, ed. Staughton Lynd (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 30, 31.
 Strom, “Challenging ‘Woman’s Place,’” 366, 367.
 Lasswell and Blumenstock, World Revolutionary Propaganda, 73, 74; Frank Z. Glick, The Illinois Emergency Relief Commission (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), 118; M. W. Good, “The History of an Unemployed Council Branch,” Daily Worker, March 15, 1932.
 Israel Amter, “Low Ebb of Unemployed Work Contrary to Open Letter Line,” Party Organizer, November 1933, 30–32; Klehr, The Heyday, 63; District Organization letter, March 17, 1931, Communist Party files, microfilm reel 187, Tamiment; “Some Material on Our Work Among Unemployed,” n.d., 4, ibid., reel 232.
 Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978), 444. Consider one example of the horrors that went on continually behind closed doors at the police stations. In August 1937, a 20-year-old African American boy named William Harris was arrested (mistakenly, it turned out) for supposedly stealing a woman’s purse a few weeks earlier. As the Daily Worker later reported, “Harris states that [at the police station, two officers] handcuffed his hands behind him to a ladder with his feet on a box. Then [one of them] kicked the box out from under his feet leaving him hanging in the air with the handcuffs cutting his wrists. Harris still refused to confess. He was punched in the stomach, back and sides. At last they used a board a foot wide and beat him across the feet, stomach, back and chest about 60 times. Five minutes later they took him back and hung him up again for 15 minutes, beating him again. Then they unlocked the handcuffs and Harris fell face forward to the floor.” Because of this beating, his right arm, wrist, and hand were paralyzed. Daily Worker, August 21, 1937.
 Storch, “Shades of Red,” 33; Frank Donner, Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 50.
 Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 54; A. Verblin, “The Growing Terror in Chicago,” Daily Worker, August 22, 1930; Lasswell and Blumenstock, 169–180; Chicago Civil Liberties Committee, Defending Freedom in Chicago,May 1932, 6, Raymond Hilliard Papers, box 114, folder 1, Chicago History Museum; New York Herald Tribune, March 13, 1932; Daily Worker, March 15, 1932.
 New York Amsterdam News, September 7, 1935; Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 447–457; Chicago Defender, May 26, 1934, March 5, 1938. A Chicago Defender reporter witnessed the aftermath of the 1935 demonstration: “If the people who saw the police break up the parade were surprised at the brutality that went on all afternoon on 47th Street they would have been astonished at the downright savageness with which the police amused themselves at the Wabash Avenue Station. The patrol wagons gathered in such numbers in front of the station as to hold up traffic on 48th Street. Prisoners were unloaded in the middle of the thoroughfare. On each side of the wagon formed a long double line of 15-30 police. The unfortunate prisoners were pulled out of the vehicle and forced to run the gauntlet. Their heads, shins and bodies were clubbed by policemen who yelped in glee at the bloody sight.” Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 455.
 ACLU, What Rights for the Unemployed? (New York: ACLU, 1935), 8.
 Mortimer Riemer, “The Unemployed—Second Class Citizens: The War Against Their Civil Rights,” Social Work Today, May 1935, 16–18; Wilson Black, “The Fight Against Civil Liberties,” Social Work Today, October 1935, 22, 23; ACLU, How Goes the Bill of Rights? The Story of the Fight for Civil Liberty, 1935-36 (New York: ACLU, 1936), 25, 27.
 Lasswell and Blumenstock, World Revolutionary Propaganda, 180–182; Storch, Red Chicago, 121; William Arthur Hillman, “Urbanization and the Organization of Welfare Activities in the Metropolitan Community of Chicago” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1940), 161; “Struggle for Carrying Out the Tasks of the Open Letter,” n.d., CP files, microfilm reel 253.
 Dubofsky, “Not So ‘Turbulent Years,’” 221.
 David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear, Part One, 222.
 Edith Margo, “Chicago’s South Side Sees ‘Red,’”