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Whither Self-Help? (1934)

Whither Self-Help?

By Paul S. Taylor and Clark Kerr, An Article in the Survey Graphic,

July, 1934

UCRA—Unemployed Cooperative Relief Association
UCDA—Unemployed Cooperative Distribution Association
UXA—Unemployed Exchange Association

WHAT’S happened to the barter movement? Are the self-help cooperatives dead? A year and a half ago they were news. People really trying to do something about the depression, however feeble and primitive their efforts, attracted attention at a time when business and government were sitting tight, waiting for prosperity. Today an energized government, reviving industries and insistent trade unions have the center of the stage. The self-help organizations are seldom heard amid the din of NRA, FERA, CWA, improving employment and clashing strikes. Are they dead? Let us make answer for the cooperatives in California, which far outnumber those in the remainder of the United States altogether.

No, the cooperatives—certainly those of California—are not dead. After a fashion they have survived CWA, “recovery” and internal strife. They even feel the exhilaration of a few small scattered federal subsidies and the well-grounded hope of larger ones to come, as their members seek to ward off creeping despair born of shabbier clothing, thinner soles and continued experience with diets overloaded with vegetables and underweighted with meat and staples except as government surplus foods help to redress the balance.

But the cooperatives are not of uniform pattern. They are characterized by heterogeneity of structure, function and ideology. For many, if not most, the term “cooperative” in any sense akin to what students of social movements understand by the term, is slowly becoming a misnomer. Divergent tendencies are developing, with varied, indeed contradictory, import for the future. The principal trends, all clearly visible, but of unequal present strength, are five:

1. The development of democratically organized and operated cooperatives endeavoring to produce as well as to exchange.

2. The development of a militant, semi-radical movement, somewhat confused by cross-currents of state and local politics, built upon loosely federated units of diverse types.

3. The development of an American Nazi-ism, with members of the cooperatives serving as potential storm troopers.

4. The drawing of an issue between cooperatives and established social agencies as channels for distribution of relief to able-bodied unemployed.

5. The appearance of cooperative buying in various forms, ranging from centralized purchasing of staples with government funds to pooling of pay from CWA, intermittent, or even steady jobs, to buy milk, bread and staples.

Which of these tendencies are to become dominant will be known in the not-distant future. The answer is being determined by present decisions of businessmen, officials and “cooperators” many of whom are but slightly aware of the issue they are facing or of the weight of their actions or inactivity in influencing the outcome.

In southern California, where most of the cooperators are found, the cooperatives have developed more of the aspects of a “movement” than elsewhere. This is especially true in Los Angeles County which has perhaps 75 percent of the units of the state within its boundaries. Whether becoming a “movement” will prove their making or undoing as cooperatives is serious question.

Around the slogan, “Self-help beats charity,” which unfortunately was more widely publicized than adopted, the unemployed of southern California first rallied in the spring of 1932 to barter their labor for the consumable but unmarketable products of adjacent truck gardens and orchards. Under the spur of severe unemployment and inadequate relief, the common-sense but novel idea of bridging the chasm between the literally overflowing Horn of Plenty and the desperate need of industry’s human outcasts spread rapidly. Within a year the movement attained its peak membership of 75,000 families in Los Angeles County alone, about half of whom actively participated and received up to 50 or 75 percent of a minimum-food budget, distressingly abundant in carrots and oranges; supplementary services were provided by barbers, shoe repairers, and professional people within the cooperatives. This cooperative barter activity of the initial stage, which predominated the first year, though increasingly subordinated has never been abandoned. The cooperatives very early received the aid of sympathetic citizens who helped them press their cause before government, or made donations to them. Individuals and large and small businesses gave gasoline and oil, used tires, auto parts, used clothing, and so on. Sometimes labor was rendered in exchange, but generally for large donations, such as gasoline, no equivalent was asked or rendered. Businessmen even preferred that it be so, saying there was no work the cooperators could be offered which should not be given first to loyal ex-employes of the company. In better times such a policy towards the “company family” was generally highly commendable, but today its rigid observance may prove as unsocial as excessive family loyalty. Certainly, it has helped to turn the cooperators toward political demands and to teach them that “chiseling” is a more effective means to a livelihood than working.

From the beginning some of the leaders of the Unemployed Cooperative Relief Association (UCRA), as the leading federation of cooperatives came to be known, envisaged the political possibilities, locally and throughout the state, of an association with unit commissaries of the unemployed as the counterpart of ward headquarters. Their first important “victory” was in the form of free gasoline from the County Board of Supervisors to transport labor and food, an augur of more donations to follow, as “chiseling” proved more efficient than labor. The cooperative movement soon was surging into “political-relief” channels, helped by factors additional to the genuine sympathy of citizens who wished to alleviate their neighbors’ distress. Winter spelled depleted commissaries, and fertile soil for radicalism; increasing discontent, dramatized by hunger marches, opposition to evictions, secret turning-on of closed utility meters, contributed to the apprehension of conservative citizens; but above all, the approaching campaign for mayor was a race between the incumbent and the chairman of the county board of supervisors. Therefore, the county’s gift of gasoline was matched by city gifts of staple groceries, and so on as the politically inclined within and without the cooperatives sought to use bounty to distressed members as a lever to roll votes. Thus the local authorities, like the business men, despite that the cooperators had announced a desire to work for what they got, permitted them to attain the successes which to the cooperators were most conspicuous, without working for them except by organized political pressure.

The county set up a Food Administration under the Bureau of County Welfare to supervise the distribution of gasoline. This administration rendered certain additional services to the cooperatives, but since originally it was not sympathetic to permanent cooperative organization, or to the development of strong central political bodies, it naturally aroused much hostility among the cooperators. Later the Food Administration fostered an organization known as the Area Conference with which most of the units became affiliated. The purpose was partly political, i.e., to check the power of the central UCRA movement, but its basis was principally a more economical organization of salvage and distribution activities of the cooperatives than they had achieved by themselves. This attempt was cut short of success by the entry of the director of cooperatives dispensing federal funds.

The final step of the cooperatives toward becoming relief-dispensing organizations, rather than producing exchanges, has come, curiously, with the advent of federal grants under the Wagner-Lewis Act of June 1933. The aims of the federal administrators of the act were suggested in regulations favoring grants for working capital to enable the cooperatives to exchange more efficiently for surpluses and to undertake production of the more urgent and simple necessities. But on the part of some federal officials in the West and of state administrators of relief there has not been the same clarity of purpose. In this situation the administrator in southern California developed his own policy; viz, that it is necessary first to feed the hungry cooperators; and as an “experiment” to insist that they demonstrate their fitness for further federal aid by showing that they “can manage their own affairs,” render proper accounting for government staples and gasoline, and unify their movement.

The southern California administrator asserts that food has been distributed efficiently and equitably and has been properly accounted for. Indeed, the question is being raised with argument on both sides, whether the cooperatives may not afford relief to taxpayers by offering a channel for “cheap” distribution of public relief, saving overhead costs and supplementing relief with the products of cooperative activity. The unemployed themselves appear to forget the “sting of charity” when they administer it themselves under the flimsy guise of “self-help.” In fulfillment of the last test, the majority of the cooperatives were united in September of 1933 under a joint committee which practically terminated the independent existence of the UCRA, the Area Conference, and other alliances, and formed itself into the Unemployed Cooperative Distribution Association (UCDA). Skillful manoeuvering has now brought the cooperatives under control of “Pat” May, and his supporters of the former UCRA.

This superficial unification of the cooperatives not only has been invited, but almost compelled. Successive federal “blanket” grants and contributory county grants, totalling $120,000, have provided the UCDA with gasoline and staples through its central committee. With hardly an exception, if a unit accepted staples or gasoline under the “blanket” grant, it forfeited the privilege of obtaining individual federal grants for productive equipment, and so on. Naturally, very few units have remained outside the central organization and sought grants for productive purposes. True, the UCDA with state approval now has requester a million-dollar federal grant to provide productive equipment and materials. But the “experiment” was specious, conducted with capacity to distribute food and to achieve political unity as the touchstone, when possession or lack a capacity to function economically in production and exchange is the crucial fact to be ascertained. Doubtless realizing this—certainly not because of unfriendliness to grants for simple production, which they encourage—federal administrators rejected the application. [1]

THE UCDA now dominates the southern field. It is properly called a distribution association. After seven months of activity, its constituent units are even less a collection of producing cooperatives than they were before. Its largest “successes,” encouraged by the policies of citizens and government, have come from its undoubted capacity to chisel—first farmers, then business men and local authorities, and finally the state authorities administering federal funds.

The development toward relief distribution has brought an improvement in the diet of the participants, but organization morale has deteriorated. Curiously, local truck farmers who have made vegetables available to the cooperatives in large quantities since the beginning, especially Japanese farmers, have increasingly demanded a quid pro quo. The result, significant of the trend toward demoralization, is that the units have lessened their efforts to obtain vegetables from farmers and increasingly look to business men, authorities, and door-to-door solicitation of citizens for relief. At the lowest level, units in both north and south have degenerated virtually into mendicant wood and junk scavengers.

The present leadership of the UCDA established complete and open control in March 1934, when it elected its entire slate to the executive board of five. This board, according to a new constitution, virtually owns all the property and controls the destiny of the cooperative movement in Los Angeles County. This marks the culmination of a steady trend away from the extreme democracy of the early UCRA, toward extreme centralization. The dominant leadership, which in its tone recalls Feargus O’Connor and his “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must” slogan of British Chartist days, is tactically skillful and politically opportunistic. It may lead left or right, but its preference is left. Today the theater of its political entanglements, originally local, has widened to the entire state. With a state election in the offing, the political aspects of the movement have become more pronounced.

Southern cooperatives outside of Los Angeles County have not been numerically important. Some twenty other units, principally in Orange County, have never passed from the farmer-labor barter stage. Scrip plans to unite white-collar workers in exchange of services which were so prominent in Los Angeles a year ago have practically disappeared.

In central California a few cooperatives have existed sporadically, rising at harvest time and subsiding at its close. Organizations at Atascadero and Monterey maintained continuous existence.

The stimulus of newspaper support and a factional effort to maintain power within the gangling state-wide federation (UCRA), were responsible for organization of units in San Francisco in early 1933. But in the face of fairly adequate relief, the difficulty of access to agricultural areas, and incessant internal political bickering, the San Francisco units survived only a short time. A half dozen groups in other parts of northern California have continued to operate independently and now have secured small federal grants to assist them to exchange and to produce. At Palo Alto a middle-class and professional group has organized a cooperative, issued scrip and engaged in fishing, growing of vegetables, and canning. A San Jose unit maintains fairly vigorous activity.

There is great variety among the cooperative units of California. For the most part they stand or fall with the capacity of their leaders. These have varied in type from small business men and former labor leaders to a wealthy young architect and an unemployed pacifist preacher. Three units, illustrative of the many contradictions in the movement, are described here.

The Compton unit, legendary “mother of them all” as Manager Bill Downing, Yankee war veteran, fondly calls it, has continued along the original path marked by its pioneers two years ago. It is a replica of many others located in small southern California towns adjacent to agricultural areas Downing has described its inception:

We started with nothing. We didn’t have a car nor a truck to haul Our stud in, nor if we could haul it, we had no place to put it after we got it, and we didn’t get much in those days. We had to sell the idea to everyone we came in contact with and it was a tough fight to keep things going.

The even tenor of its labor-for-food procedure was disturbed by the earthquake of March 1933 which started the unit in the wrecking business, its single important semi-productive activity excepting the manufacture of men’s shirts from cement sacks and the inner fabric of tires. Later, disappointed with its political impotence in the initial UCDA meetings, it made a second effort to go into the field of production. Compton has been one of the few groups to seek and to secure a separate federal grant for transportation facilities, canning, shoe repairing, and barbershop equipment, and tools for gardening. Delayed for more than two months by local adjustments, its $13,000 grant finally was made available. On almost the day of receipt of the grant the cooperative proceeded to engineer a “world’s record—73 days buried alive” stunt, with an ex-flagpole sitter as the “corpse.”

WITHOUT definite social theories, the Compton group has continued the original self-help program. It has supplied food of a sort, instilled a semi-fraternal spirit among its members, and maintained morale. This unit, like many others, represents at least an interesting episode in cooperative history; in a rich agricultural area, unemployed men by banding together can secure a high proportion of food requirements with a minimum of effort and money, and preserve a certain self-respect by the process. But this type of cooperative, though most prevalent, cannot be regarded as of the greatest potential importance.

A second southern California objector to the UCDA has taken quite another course. A type yet in a very small minority, its potential significance is tremendous. Using elimination of radicals as a lever, the energetic leader had developed a chiseling organization par excellence, and an embryo storm troop. Explaining his hold on community support, he states:

We have the backing of every patriotic, civic and fraternal organization in town. They know that because of our work we haven’t had labor trouble, we haven’t had no hunger strikes, and we’ve had no unrest. We used to have a unit that let the Communists meet there. I told them they had to respect our city; they had the right of free speech until it jeopardized the community. We told them they couldn’t stay in town; we would drive them out. We said we’d start a brush fire on one side of town and send the firemen and policemen there, and then we’d drive them out the other side. They meet outside now. It isn’t necessary for the police to strong-arm the reds here; the people know they can leave things to us.

This manager has his “duty roster” of professional and business men. When in need of a commodity or service, he informs a citizen over the telephone: “It’s your turn now.” Reluctance is promptly overcome: “If they say they can’t do it, I say it is as much their community as mine.” He gets almost everything for his “cooperative” in this manner, even to burial service:

One man’s boy died here. I called up the funeral director, the cemetery, and a preacher, and told them I wanted a burial. The boy was buried. If he had been cremated by the county, as planned, the father would have turned Bolshevik.

Obviously, work plays a subordinate role in such a “self-help” program:

We don’t put our men out into the fields any more to work for the Japs. We used to work for the culls; that made about five cents an hour. Now we contact large vegetable markets, send a truck and a few men, and return in a couple of hours with all we want.

A third type of cooperative, business-like, democratically organized and operated, striving toward basic production, is exemplified by the Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA) of Oakland. It has adhered with a high degree of consistency to three principles: 1, it declines donations, even at a cost of tightened belts; 2, it maintains an accounting system which credits each member with 100 points for each hour of labor, and records accurately the amounts owed to UXA by outsiders, and vice versa; 3, it makes no political demands upon city council or county supervisors, except that they do not obstruct. The UXA has received two federal grants: $5000, principally for transportation, and $7600 for a small sawmill. Both are carried on the books as loans upon which the organization genuinely hopes to make repayments.

Many members of UXA today are receiving for points better dental services than ever before in their lives, and as good if not better medical, hospital and optical services. Food supplies so far have not been exceptional, largely because of distance to supplies, but issuance of government surplus foods has much improved the diet recently. For even these the UXA insists on paying, and does pay.

A fundamental of its manner of operation is the roundtable method employed by the assembly of operating section coordinators, which is being extended as rapidly as the sections themselves—transportation, food, fuel, commissary, etc.—can be accustomed to it. This has proved an educational method of great effectiveness, and distinguishes UXA from all cooperatives of the state. There is actually being built up a body of economic leadership showing ability to stand on its own feet even when the original leader is not present. The attitude of the leaders is avowedly experimental; they seek to develop by intelligent trial and error a working model which may offer a new way to live for persons who, like themselves, have felt the blow of insecurity.

More than most cooperatives, UXA has succeeded in enlisting the active, continuous, personal cooperation of people of all ranks, including technicians. Sitting around the assembly table, earnestly working out common problems day after day, one sees such diverse types as the former purchasing officer of a large automobile plant; a former language instructor at an eastern university; a former small merchant; a physician’s wife; a truck driver; two or three building craftsmen, and one or two former radical labor unionists. At most times two or three Communists have been members of the organization. With scarcely an exception these have not remained successful members any considerable length of time; they either have dropped out or they have been put out for chiseling the organization, or for offending the sensibilities of the members. This is most significant, for in a politically rather than economically functioning organization, the typical communist leadership comes more readily to the top.

In conclusion it may be observed that the common notion that self-help cooperatives are practically dead, and cannot be revived, is a mistake. True, they have been somewhat demoralized, and in their present state they do not look like promising agencies of social reform. But that they cannot be developed to alter fundamentally our methods of rehabilitating and sustaining able-bodied economic outcasts, and re-orienting our attitude toward cooperative endeavor as a way of life, is by no means certain.

The prevalent idea that the primitive nature of barter and hand production precludes success for cooperatives is erroneous. Only direst present necessity compels both. The railroads were not built without heavy government subsidies, nor do corporations embark upon modernized production except after heavy subscriptions of stock or borrowings on bonds. Naturally the cooperatives do not produce much, nor do they indefinitely build up competent personnel, without machinery to operate, or the hope of obtaining it. When there is hope of something to operate effectively, and other conditions are favorable, there is evidence that a competent cooperative organization may be able to sustain itself. In any event, it is highly important that such a test be made in these times when abundant human material is available and in the mood for the experiment. Curiously, it is not only unemployed persons who are ready to experiment in these days of the New Deal; to a surprising extent owners of idle plant and raw materials are disposed to look favorably upon making them available to cooperatives. It is the executives of active concerns and of local and state government who have preferred to give the cooperators donations rather than to make it possible for them to buy what they need. Unwittingly, by making it easier to demand and receive than to work, they have taught the cooperators to chisel gasoline, meat, low gas-rates. But if it is made possible for cooperatives to render an equivalent for what they get, then an honest equivalent can be exacted and a stiffening of morale and fiber expected, instead of the progressive disintegration of “doles.” And it should be remembered that in this, as in many experiments in natural sciences, one real success probably outweighs 20 or 50 failures.

THE wisdom or necessity of making such an experiment has not occurred to most business men or local administrators. But if we continue to fail to make it, without taking other major measures to relieve misery and discontent, a probable principal result can be seen from the trends already apparent which have been encouraged by such a policy: dissipation of many self-help cooperatives, i as such, and degeneration into militant mobs of the left or right, or both, with palms outstretched beseeching charity, and angry fists upraised to demand that it be liberal. Our present policy gives very little support to democratic producing cooperatives which might be developed into important agencies for lifting the load of relief. Failing this, able leadership and technicians are leaving or declining to join such cooperatives, and the leadership of the unemployed is being wrested from them by men of another type. Internally, cooperatives face continually the hazard of penetration from the left, which feeds on political activities and upon doubt that business and government will give an opportunity for effective economic activity.

A prominent citizen of Seattle, where “self-help” first rose, then went into relief and politics, and fell, says: “We regret that we did so little to help the cooperatives perform constructive work. Even the argument of economy to the taxpayer is in favor of such an experiment.”

But in California, and doubtless elsewhere, there is yet time in place of a public policy governed by a primary desire to hold expenditures on cooperatives to a minimum, to substitute a willingness to spend in intelligent experiment as a measure of wise social economy. Unless this is done, it is unlikely that any expert mental knowledge at all will be obtained of whether, or how, producing cooperatives can be set up. And leadership of the cooperatives is likely to pass increasingly from those who might produce to others who can demand more effectively.

[1.] With the active assistance of the administrator of cooperatives, individual units, therefore, have begun to formulate projects for gardening, sewing, and shoe repairing, and the central council is seeking grants for bakeries, auto-repair equipment, and so on. With virtual stoppage of gasoline and food grants, UCDA leaders characteristically turned again to county authorities. Packing the chamber in a peaceful demonstration, their spokesman advised, “If you don’t give it to us, this county may need a new board of supervisors, and some people may go to the penitentiary.” Progressively diminishing monthly allotments of gasoline were voted for a period of six months, when it is hoped the cooperative may be able to meet to meet their own needs. In the meantime, some weak units have almost expired, but strong units survive. The issue is slowly being drawn between relief and production, a political and an economic structure. Will the cooperators see it and grasp the opportunity for a real try at self-help, or will the pangs of immediate distress lead them to reject it in favor of food staples and gasoline?

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Taylor, P.S. & Kerr, C. (1934, July).  Whither self-help?. Survey Graphic, 23(7), 328. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=11168.

Source: New Deal Network,  (March 17, 2014).

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