Skip to main content

United We Eat (1934)

United We Eat

by John S. Gambs, Survey Graphic, (August, 1934)

 IN a district relief office in Pittsburgh, three men are sitting along one side of a table. They represent five hundred unemployed families. Opposite them sits a woman, the district supervisor. There has been excited talk. Suddenly one of the men gets up, his face white. He puts his head close to the woman’s; his eyes blaze at her:

“Damn you! You don’t care what happens to the unemployed. God! how I hate you. I could tear your foul body to shreds, cut it up into strips-you don’t know what it means to be evicted. You live in a steam-heated apartment. I hate you. I could break every bone in your dirty carcass.”

The scene changes. A delegation of an unemployed league is in Harry L. Hopkins’ office. The spokesman begins by saying something like this:

“Before we submit our complaint, Mr. Hopkins, we want you to know that we have no faith in you. We are well aware that your policy is not to relieve the unemployed, but to stretch out relief thinly enough to save the incomes of the rich, at the same time that you give enough to prevent an uprising of the workers.”

Last January, when the Colorado legislature met to consider the desperate relief situation, the galleries were packed with members of an unemployed league. They sang while the assembly was trying to deliberate; whenever a legislator rose and started to leave the chamber—as legislators usually do—the crowd shouted, “Sit down.” He sat down. One senator was so exasperated at the tactics of the unemployed at he said: “If this is the kind of people relief agencies are feeding, let them starve.”

I talked with a man in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He was the leader of an organization of the unemployed. “Unless I win the appeal, which I won’t, I go to jail for two or three years, I guess. They charged me with resisting an officer and inciting to riot. All I did was to try to stop the forced sale of the man’s house.” He talked casually about two or three years in prison—like a scholar or businessman who is about to leave for China or Asia, to study or open a branch office.

A similar incident but with a different outcome is described in Labor Action, a paper published by the American Workers’ Party:

“This constable is for sale. How much is the bid? Sold for 8 cents.” The Pennsylvania Unemployed League at Pittsburgh sold the constable at an eviction fight. The eviction was stopped by a mass demonstration. When leaving an “accident” occurred to the constable and the landlord. They went to the hospital. “Who threw the bricks?” Shrugged shoulders was the reply. No more evictions for six months. (Labor Action, May 1, 1934, p. 3.)

In the daily press we see such headlines as: 200 Cops Guard Relief Parley, or, 600 Rioters Here Battle 100 Police at Relief Bureau. In the labor press: Police Slug Jobless as 500 Demonstrate for Relief in Los Angeles; 55 Jailed in Ohio as State Acts to Curb FERA Strike; FERA Strikes Worry Relief Heads in Ohio; Ohio State Jobless Vote Relief Strike for August First.

IN this fashion, carrying on their banners the device used by men in the Continental Navy—-the coiled rattlesnake and the militant words, Don’t Tread on Me—thousands of men and women are protesting the inadequacies of unemployment relief. They sing songs like this, to the tune of the chorus of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean:

Soo-oop, soo-oop,
They gave us a bo-ole of soo-oop,
Soo-oop, soo-oop
They gave us a bo-ole of soup.

Their slogans and catch phrases are: “Empty guts are real guts”; “United we eat, divided we starve.” A speaker says to an audience of three thousand: “The unemployed are either yellow or red—and we’re not yellow.” There is prolonged applause.

So much for one side of the picture. Here is the other.

“We’re sorry, Miss Jones, but orders is orders. We got to demonstrate in front of your district office at ten next Saturday. The County Council of the Unemployed voted a mass demonstration. There won’t be many of us—we’ll just sort of march past and stop awhile and maybe sing a song. We’ll have banners. Don’t worry none about us. You’re OK.” That happened in Pittsburgh.

Members of unemployed leagues, sitting around a table in some abandoned warehouse, are busily going through papers, sorting, typing, filing. The men—and women—comment:

“Can’t do anything about the Smith case-they’re getting what they deserve…. See if we can get some coal for Mrs. Rettchik; she shared her last order with Mrs. Rubinow…. Type that complaint over and make a carbon; it looks lousy—can’t hand in a thing that looks like that. . . . What’s this? That Chiesa guy again! He’s always bellyaching. Throw it out; he’d ask for a Rolls Royce if we let him, and crab because they didn’t send a chauffeur along.”

In Chicago, leagues of unemployed citizens bring complaints to a central bureau, through their representatives. A case submitted is calmly considered on its merits. The relief officer in charge has the confidence of the delegates. There is no audience of other persons on relief before whom the representatives of the unemployed may dramatize a complaint.

Last January relief agencies in Denver fostered organizations among the unemployed—organizations that succeeded in having a tax bill and a relief-bond bill enacted. The clients called on members of the legislature to explain their predicament, tried to still the violent opposition of the newspapers, and worked quietly but effectively at the polls on election-day.

THERE are probably 100,000 persons in unemployed leagues, in every part of the United States. They are tolerably well organized; they have their own newspapers; they meet in national and regional conventions. Precisely what do they want? What is their program? If, as many social workers have asked, they are granted certain demands today, will they come back tomorrow with an entirely new list of demands? Are members of leagues Communists? Are the leaders of unemployed organizations mere psychopathic troublemakers, who seize on the desperate problems of the hour to feed their megalomania? These questions have, all of them, two sides, and should be understood genetically rather than answered categorically. We will be in a better position to venture an opinion if we go back to the beginnings of unemployed protest during this depression. tar

In the fall of 1931 we bagan to hear rumblings of protest against inadequate relief. There were hunger marches, to be sure, but most of us took notice of another movement of protest. This movement tended, in typically American fashion, to concern itself with monetary schemes and self-reliance. I refer, of course, to the so-called barter movement [see Making Money, by Jacob Baker, Survey Graphic, February 1933; Producers’ Exchanges, by E. Wight Bakke, July 1933].

At first this movement (which was not barter at all, but a “production-exchange system”, to use Joanna C. Colcord’s phrase) sought to bring relief to the destitute without calling into aid the offices of local or federal government. Scrip was expected to perform miracles; or economic ventures were to be undertaken which would bring to self-help leagues an adequate supply of commodities.

Very soon, however, the limitations of scrip were seen, and the boundaries of self-help discovered. It was then that to leagues began to exert pressure on public officials. In February 1933 thousands of former barterers took forcible possession of the county-city building in Seattle. In Denver, a large production-exchange association became a league of protest. “Next winter,” I was told a year ago by a member of the Denver barter association, “we won’t dicker with farmers and harvest their crops on shares. What we’ll do, we’ll drive our trucks up to the wholesale places and take what we need.” Pat May, a leader in the self-help leagues of Los Angeles, is as good at grumbling as at organizing production-exchange systems. In July of 1933, the charming Mormon gentlemen who had established the Natural Development Association (a self-help league) spent their time demonstrating, protesting and making speeches against the evils of the present social order. The once-thriving store of the Association was all but deserted.

These leagues soon fell under the leadership of three left-wing groups: Communists, members of the American Workers’ Party, and members of the Socialist Party. It is difficult to say at the moment which party has the strongest leagues. It may be ventured, however, that the Socialist Party has the one with largest organizations, but the least militant ones. Although each party dominates leagues in most sections of the United States, some are stronger in one area than in another. The American Workers’ Party, for example, seems to have cornered the market in Ohio.

It should be clearly understood that, in the three types of organizations mentioned—Socialist, Communist and American Workers’ Party—the rank and file of the membership may be Republican, Democrat, Catholic, Jewish or pro-Aryan. The leagues are nonpartisan. What happens is that the unemployed, responding to some gregarious impulse during these difficult years of stress, form an inchoate organization. Neither our relief programs, nor any other sort of program, has a plan for canalizing the stream of this impulse, or the deep pools of incipient unrest. The only people today who have seemed in any degree willing to execute a plan or submit a program are the three groups mentioned. Their purposeful 5 to 10 percent an organization will capture it. The only competition is among themselves—and sometimes that is enough to wreak a large, powerful league.

One must not infer from the foregoing that all unemployed leagues have as leaders Communists, Socialists or members of the American Workers’ Party. Some leagues are independent in every sense. Some are Technocratic in bias, others anarchistic. The Utah League mentioned above is a curious combination of naturalism, technocracy, Mormonism and 100 percent Americanism. Other leagues, no doubt, would be found to be just as difficult to analyze.

First, then, we have barter leagues and other spontaneous organizations of the unemployed which were captured by left-wing leadership. Hunger marches and other demonstrations, in the pre-FERA era, supersede barter. The next phase seems to be marked by direct dealing with local relief agencies soon after the establishment of the FERA. In these negotiations, the keynote seems to be that Mr. Roosevelt an Mr. Hopkins are friends of the unemployed—perhaps even the state relief director is all right—but the local director of relief finds his greatest pleasure in seeing numbers of people starve to death.

This attitude came about quite naturally. The President promised that nobody should starve; if, then, relief was inadequate, it was probably the fault of the county relief board, or of the nearest district supervisor. Because—at least partly because—of the difference between the fine statements which came from federal officials, and the relatively low standard of living that was actually meted out by state and local officials, leagues made district relief offices bear the brunt of their complaints, demonstrations, riots and abuse.

At this time, the following attitude was (and is) characteristic: unemployment relief should be something quite different from “welfare.” Persons willing and able to work, but being honestly incapable of finding employment, should not be urged or forced to exhaust completely their resources, give up their homes, live with relatives, take a major portion of a grown son’s or daughter’s wages, receive no medical attention unless there is a critical illness, and so on. The unemployed should be able to register the fact of their unemployment; and, upon verification of this fact, relief should begin. It is by such preconceptions that conferences with relief agencies are dominated.

More specifically, the following demands have been made by unemployed leagues: greater promptness in getting various forms of relief, especially in emergencies; briefer waiting periods in reception rooms; less humiliating “case work” and abolition of the “pauper’s oath”; more sympathetic and better-trained social workers; continued opportunity to present complaints, at regular times, to the principal relief officers of the area; general improvement of relief among Negroes, and no discrimination against them; provision of toilets in waiting-rooms; issue of a type of order permitting its use in several stores; cash relief; better relief for single persons; fewer changes and less confusion in regulations having to do with the giving of relief; inspection of stores that honor relief orders, to see that they do not profiteer; payment of rent and no evictions.

The leagues are still protesting against these things, and still laying the blame for inadequacies on local officers.. There seems, however, to be a growing tendency to put the blame on Washington or the state Capital, and a decreased tendency to lay the entire blame for all shortcomings at the feet of local administrators.

Recently something rather dramatic has happened. The leagues have taken on a new function, logical enough in view of their history, but unrelated to protest against inadequate relief. There has been a generally rising distrust of the National Recovery Program. It has expressed itself, so far as concerns our inquiry, by a wave of strikes and threatened strikes on the part of employed labor. Now, unemployed leagues have, in their short life, shown a remarkable solidarity with employed labor. Those on work relief, for example, have demanded rates equal to those of ordinary labor in order that current wage-rates should not be threatened; and there have been severe demonstrations in which this matter was an issue. They feel that the unemployed may be transformed into a substrate of the working classes. Even more, they fear that such a substratum, if created, will challenge the security of the labor force employed by business enterprise. There has also been solidarity in ordinary strikes. Unemployed leagues have tried to prevent their members, and other unemployed, from taking the jobs created by a labor dispute. They have picketed as assiduously as have the strikers themselves; and, in some cases, as in the recent Toledo strike, the leaders of the unemployed have played prominent roles in the labor conflict.

While this is being written, the leagues are girding themselves for the impending steel strike. At a convention of the Pennsylvania Unemployed League in Allentown resolutions were voted to support the threatening strike. They offered their services, their leadership and their press. They promised not to scab, and to prevent others among the unemployed—so far as is possible—from scabbing.

From barter and protest to planned participation major labor disputes—that, in a few words, summarizes the history of unemployed activity. What has happened is not much that the leagues are becoming bolder and border, but that the background against which they have operated constantly changing. It must also be remembered that the present administration is making the first national experiment in the giving of poor relief; it is not to be wondered if the guinea pigs squeal and twist as the experiment progresses.

How much of the activity described above is sound and fury, and how much is intelligent pursuit of goals? Is a man like the police commissioner of New York City right when says that the unemployed “injure their cause by resorting to unlawful action. . . . The result [of taking part in demonstrations] is that those of the unemployed who lend themselves to this exploitation only add to their own difficulties.”

The goals of unemployment leagues are of two sorts, expressed and unexpressed. The expressed range from getting a ton of coal for Mrs. O’Connor who, somehow, has been neglected by a social worker, to demands for a state patterned after the Soviet Union. The unexpressed goals are the desire for companionship, engaging in activities that absorb ones (typing complaints or taking part in riots), being of service to one’s fellows, competing for recognition and so on.

Both goals have been advanced by organizations of the unemployed. Demonstrations have, without doubt, been followed by better relief. Riots work—at least up to a certain point. In the last century a hunger march in London resulted in the trebling of the relief fund within a few hours; in Minneapolis, a few months ago, a similar demonstration had similar results. In 1922 the British Unemployed attacked the Islington Guards; the dole was continued. In Pittsburgh, members of a militant organization of war veterans swoop on the district offices because, in their opinion, they are being unjustly treated; they usually get what they ask for. One could repeat instance after instance.

As to the ventures of the unemployed in national strikes, they have not yet had an opportunity to demonstrate their strength. It is certainly true, however, that no group of strikers can hope to win important concessions unless the unemployed, through their own organization, undertake to spoil the market for strike-breakers.

As to the second goal, the unexpressed goal of finding a way to manifest competitive, altruistic and gregarious impulses—that, too, has been achieved in part by unemployed leagues.

Through “chiseling”—to use their term—and cooperative begging, leagues may secure a dozen branch offices; the quarters are furnished with tables, chairs, typewriters and filing cases. These branch offices fulfil useful recreational and social functions. Members come in to smoke, chat or read. Sometimes a puppy or a cat is mascot—a spoiled animal, receiving the tender care of rough hands. In winter, branch offices are warmer than some of the homes. Lunches are served to the regular office staff. Sometimes a dormitory is established for a group of unmarried workers. At the central office out of two or three old cars owned, one, somehow, is kept in operating order. It is used, of course, only on official business. There are also dances to raise money and large mass meetings. Public opinion has been sufficiently favorable to allow the leagues, rather generally, to meet in schoolhouses or the halls of public libraries.

Some members of leagues serve their fellows directly by being members of “service committees.” The functions of these committees are to turn on the gas after it has been turned off by the company; ditto electricity. As for water, the committees will sometimes pour cement over the valve when it is open; when the cement hardens, it is troublesome, not to say expensive, to shut off the water. Probably most of the leagues are equipped to give convincing work references to members who have no recommendations from former employers. And it is also likely that an evicted citizen could get, from his league, forged rent receipts covering the past six months, to present to a prospective landlord.

WHAT next? Will the leagues grow and extend their influence? Estimates will vary, but it seems clear that, including women and older adolescents, ten million persons are candidates for membership. Will the leagues grow from their present 100,000 (an unreliable figure, of course) to—say—five millions? That would give the unemployed an organization rivaling in numbers the AFL at its peak, and would constitute an organization fifty times larger than the IWW in its best days.

Hardly. Internal and external forces militate against such growth. The internal forces revolve around the recurrent factional struggles of left-wing unionism in the United States. In Pittsburgh, where I made an intensive study of unemployed unions, the customary process of karyokinesis was going on unabated. Each group had split off from some other group, and the remaining groups were riven by cliques. Last summer, the self-help movement in California—where it was strongest—was a bundle of animosities, personal hatreds, petty jealousies [see Whither Self-Help? Paul S. Taylor and Clark Kerr, Survey Graphic, July].

It seems, moreover, to be characteristic of unionism that, as it grows in numbers, it goes further from unemployment leagues first, as relief policies are more lightened, and include in their ambit such measures as unemployment insurance, housing and the like. In similar fashion, a generously conceived public-works program will attract the unemployed away from their unions. Complementing this force will be increasing sagacity of the social worker. Workers and their superiors will learn how to meet delegations of the unemployed with candor, sympathy and tact. I know a district supervisor who been brought up in such refinement that she shudders visibly every time a member of an unemployed delegation spits into her waste basket. Such things get around; and probably five times as much spitting goes on in her office as would go on had she never attention to it. Persons on relief are people. They resent the superciliousness of some social workers; they respond with loyalty to the friendliness of others. If it be socially desirable that unemployed leagues should decrease in size or in militancy, then relief workers, by their conduct, have a real responsibility to the community.

Finally, it must be remembered that there may be days of prosperity again. Recovery will probably deal a severe blow to unemployed unions.

The second sort of external force tending to break up the leagues will be the probable withdrawal of civil liberties, the use of police, and the creation of a public opinion unfavorable to leagues. These techniques are already being used. Leaders of the unemployed report more severe treatment by the constabulary recent months. The leagues are being described as revolutionary, in order to alienate the toleration of the middle classes. The New York Times of June 12 says that the police commissioner of New York has announced his intention of being less lenient hereafter towards demonstrations of the unemployed. No doubt other municipal officials are similarly modifying their policies.

The use of force against organizations of the submerged tenth has worked very well in the past. It broke the backbone of IWW in 1918. The good old way may be tried again—but with this caution: the years in which sallies were made against the militant IWW were, taken on the whole, years of plentiful jobs and there were months of high prosperity; clubbing and jailing may not go so well when the workers of the United States have nothing to lose but their skins.



View graphic version