Unemployed Councils

views updated


Unemployed Councils were grassroots organizations of unemployed workers created in the early 1930s to protest mass unemployment and inadequate relief. The first councils were established by the American Communist Party's Trade Union Unity League, an organization created in the 1920s to promote radical unionism. In March 1930 the Trade Union Unity League organized highly successful mass demonstrations to protest unemployment and demand government relief. In July of that year a national conference sponsored by the Trade Union Unity League declared the formation of the "unemployed councils of the USA."

From 1930 to 1935 the councils organized numerous conferences, demonstrations, and national "hunger marches." These actions often combined demands for aid ("work for wages") with calls for an end to the capitalist system. In late 1931 the councils were separated from the Trade Union Unity League and placed under the direction of Herbert Benjamin, a veteran Communist Party functionary.

The frequent national protests and conventions sponsored by the councils during these years were small, but they spawned local organizations that had an important impact on relief policy. By mid 1931 thousands of Americans were receiving aid from large relief organizations with local offices in urban neighborhoods. Relief aid was inadequate, and workers were often subjected to degrading investigations by social workers. Taking advantage of these conditions, local unemployed councils helped clients apply for aid, demonstrated at relief offices, and sent delegations to demand more adequate relief from local officials.

The unemployed councils' most successful tactics were eviction protests. These were a response to the fact that local relief agencies were too financially strapped to provide rent until a recipient was faced with eviction. Relief recipients were often awakened by landlords, accompanied by police, moving their furniture out of apartments when the rent had not been paid. Local councils of the unemployed would mobilize neighbors to forcibly stop the evictions and even move furniture back into the apartments when the police had left the scene. Violent rent protests generated a good deal of publicity (and support) for the councils.

The success of the councils in 1931 attracted more moderate socialists less inclined to demand that recruits follow the "party line." A Chicagobased Workers Committee on Unemployment, led by the socialist Karl Borders, recruited twice as many local workers as the Communist leagues by the end of 1932. In Seattle, the Unemployed Citizens League played an important role in local relief administration. Radicals led by the independent socialist A. J. Muste organized Leagues of the Unemployed in the cities and small towns of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

The advent of the New Deal in 1933 transformed the grassroots movement of the unemployed. Local relief agencies were more willing to negotiate with organizations of the unemployed, and Socialist and Communist organizations focused more of their attention on national campaigns for unemployment insurance. The work relief programs of the New Deal stimulated new protests and organization efforts that resembled the growing union movement.

In early 1935 the various Socialist organizations and the Communist-dominated councils united to create the Workers Alliance of America. Most councils of the unemployed were disbanded and absorbed by the alliance. This development was, in part, consistent with the new Communist Party line, which stressed a "united front" (or Popular Front) of all leftists against the "fascist threat." This development also reflected the fact that the organized unemployed, now focusing on Works Progress Administration projects, had become an influential interest group in the New Deal "broker state."



Klehr, Harvey. The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade. 1984.

Leab, Daniel. "United We Eat: The Creation and Organization of the Unemployed Councils in 1930." Labor History 8 (1967): 300–315.

Nelson, Steve; James Burrett; and Rob Ruck. Steve Nelson: American Radical. 1981.

Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard A. Cloward. Poor People's Movements: Why The Succeed and How they Fail. 1977.

Rosenzweig, Roy. "Radicals and the Jobless: The Musteites and the Unemployed Leagues, 1932–1936." Labor History 16 (1975): 52–77.

Seymour, Helen. "The Organized Unemployed." Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1937.

Jeff Singleton