The New Unemployed Union: Lessons from the Past and a Movement for the Future

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by Marlon Pierre-Antoine

UNEMPLOYED? ORGANIZE!

Eight months ago, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Founded Ur Union of the Unemployed (UCubed, http://www.unionofunemployed.com), the first nation-wide organization to unite unemployed and underemployed workers on a fighting basis to win jobs and dignity since the 1930s. UCubed has registered some gains so far, with its roughly three thousand members being given access to a line of mutual support and the tools they need to train themselves as activists and fighters for their own interests and the tentative beginnings of a national structure being laid. But after an initial founding buzz and impressive growth during its first few months, UCubed’s future seems uncertain. Can the Union of Unemployed realize its central demands of “JOBS Now!” and “Hire US, America!”? What can we take from past experiences of organizing the unemployed to our fight for gainful employment today?

UNEMPLOYED COUNCILS IN THE ’30s: VICTORY AND DEFEAT

Many working-class people, employed or otherwise, in the United States today, as well as most of UCubed’s officialdom, remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a progressive icon and a tireless fighter for social justice, crediting him with the establishment of programs such as the Social Security Act (SSA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA.)

But while Roosevelt did espouse ‘New Deal’ rhetoric during his campaign, he never took any initiative to establish far-reaching reforms to benefit the country’s working and poor majority. In fact, even his initial prospects of limited and inadequate reforms were opposed by conservative elements in his own party. Like any representative of the capitalist system that puts millions out of work to preserve the profits of a tiny class of owners and investors, it took mass mobilization on the streets to pressure the Roosevelt Administration to pass legislation for meaningful change.

The initial formation of unemployed organizations came from outside the official ranks of organized labor. With the AFL still segregated by race and refusing to organize unskilled workers, the Communist Party formed its first Unemployed Councils in 1929. Just one year later, the UCs organized a massive protest wave of hundreds of thousands across the country demanding jobs and relief, putting pressure on the government to act and shifting the public debate by alerting the populace to the plight of the jobless. They also organized direct action to take matters into their own hands, moving tens of thousands of evicted families and their belongings back into their homes.

But while the CP-lead Councils registered impressive victories throughout the early 1930s, their members reaching to almost one million and eventually forcing the Administration to concede Social Security and the WPA, the Councils began to collapse after their high water mark in 1935-36, and by the end of the decade they were no more.

Why did this happen? The main reason is that the CP, following the sectarian line imposed on them by the Stalinized Third International (Comintern), which had been drained of its revolutionary essence by Stalin and his bureaucratic elite, refused to cooperate with any force outside of its own ranks, denouncing the AFL, the NAACP, and the Socialist Party-organized unemployed committees as “social fascists” and as much of an enemy of the unemployed as the U.S. ruling elite themselves. This could only have the effect of weakening the movement overall, as the bosses use the threat of unemployment to cow those workers back into line who are ‘lucky’ enough to retain their jobs. What was desperately needed was a united front encompassing all sectors of the working class, skilled and unskilled, employed and unemployed, black and white and immigrant, to stand together and fight for universal employment on a program of national reconstruction.

The CP and their Councils could have gained leadership over sectors of the AFL and other organizations whose conservative leaders were not prepared to do what was necessary to act in the interests of their members. Instead, the CP gave up without a fight. A few years later, the Communist Party lost another opportunity to rebuild their Unemployed Councils when the Stalin-dictated “Popular Front” strategy demanded total uncritical subservience to the prevailing line of the mainstream labor unions and liberal capitalist leaders.

THE WAY FORWARD

One crucial success story that came out of the Depression-era unemployed movement was the heroic 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike. The strikers, lead by socialists basing themselves on the revolutionary program of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, and untainted by the counterproductive methods of Stalinism, lead a campaign that bloomed into a virtual general strike as various sectors of the working class were brought in to support the Teamsters and defend their own interests too. Unemployed workers were organized to prevent scabbing and foster class unity; WPA workers were organized to defend their right not only to have a job, but to have a dignified job where the fears of starvation and being cast back into the bread lines no longer haunted them.

In today’s world, with the Great Recession plowing along and no end in sight to the social catastrophe that creates a blooming unemployment rate and pushes down the wages and conditions of those still with jobs, we can recreate and even surpass the movement of the 30s – but only with the right kind of structure, and the right kind of tactics. UCubed’s foundation is a historic step forward, but so far its activities have been limited to social networking and individual support on the local level coupled with semi-passive lobbying on the federal level. While UCubed statements make fierce indictments of the Democratic and Republican parties for failing to adequately address the unemployment issue, they still rely on a strategy of friendly petitioning to convince Congress to act.

To win, UCubed needs to mobilize its members out in the streets, joining hands with their natural allies in organized labor and the immigrants’ rights movement to demand jobs and justice for all. There is enough wealth in this country to create universal employment – if the super-rich and their government can’t afford to dip into their profit margins to provide it, then we can’t afford to live under the system that supports the conditions of periodic crises and war, and endless austerity for the workers and poor!

Right now, UCubed members need to consolidate themselves, forming Cubes (locals) as well as Neighborhoods and Blocks (associations of locals) as vehicles of struggle with links to each other that facilitate specialized local activity as well as national-level action. Built on a foundation of grassroots democracy and working-class political action, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

A good start would be for UCubed’s membership to enthusiastically champion and mobilize for the upcoming October 2nd Jobs March being built by the AFL-CIO, NAACP, United National Antiwar Conference, SEIU Local 1199, Socialist Action and a host of other organizations. There are 31 million unemployed and underemployed in this country; 31 million potential UCubed activists. It’s time to stand up!

Socialist Action News

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