Unemployed Organizing in the 1930s
The following article first appeared in the MVUC Reporter in July 1985. It appears on this website by permission of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee and the authors. This story was derived from research and writing by Mark McColloch, Richard Oestreicher, and Joel Sabadasz of the University of Pittsburgh.
The Depression of the 1930's devastated this area, reaching rock bottom in late 1932 and early 1933, when about 40% of Allegheny County's work force was totally unemployed. There was no unemployment compensation and welfare did not exist except for widowed mothers. The situation quickly became desperate for tens of thousands of workers and their families.
Only massive government action could deal with a problem of this magnitude. The unemployed themselves began to organize to demand such aid. Three large organizations were each made up of and led by the unemployed, and membership was open to all the jobless regardless of their political views.
The councils were organized on a neighborhood basis. There were chapters on the South Side, Lower Hill, Homestead and Turtle Creek, to mention a few of the dozens. Many chapters maintained an office, usually in a storefront. Most met weekly. They financed themselves by dues of a dime a month and by card parties, raffles and donations from the public. From 1933 to 1935, their membership topped 70,000 in Allegheny County.
The unemployed organizations shared common demands: They called for sufficient government relief to provide an unemployed family with a survival budget and for the creation of public employment on a large scale. They also organized to combat the evictions and foreclosures of thousands of unemployed renters and homeowners.
On March 6, 1930. International Unemployment Day, 5,000 unemployed gathered at the Pennsylvania Railroad Station. Their march toward downtown was broken up after half a block by dozens of club-wielding police.
Despite this initial setback, protests grew as the Depression deepened. By October,. 1930, the Pittsburgh City Council agreed to appropriate $100,000 for emergency relief, but these funds ran out on January 15, 1931. On that day another demonstration of thousands took place, this time in front of the City Council Building. The rally was sponsored by the Unemployed Councils and their allies. Seven of their members told City Council their demands for free coal and children's winter clothing, as well as public service jobs.
Protests mounted in 1931 and 1932. The councils organized several marches to Washington and Harrisburg. Unlike the famous march led by Pittsburgh's Father James Cox, which was cautiously welcomed by government officials fearful of antagonizing both the religious community and the jobless, many of these marches were met with fierce repression. Marchers returning from Washington after one demonstration were denied entrance to the city by police and forced to camp out on Neville Island.
The protests of the unemployed reached a peak in 1933 and 1934. In March, 1933, 40 members of the Wilkinsburg Unemployed Council seized a Duquesne Light truck, which was about to shut off the power to their apartment building. Hundreds of Rankin Unemployed Council members jammed the home of an unemployed man and his invalid daughter to stop a planned sheriff's sale of his furniture. The crowd halted any bidding on the goods by the speculators. When a policeman tried to clear the way for the bidders, the crowd took his gun and blackjack, bought all the furniture for a total of 24¢, and returned it to its owner.
Because of actions like these across the nation, President Roosevelt and Congress were forced to act. The WPA, PWA, and CCC Provided millions of temporary jobs. In 1935 the Social Security Act established old age pensions, unemployment compensation and public welfare. It was clear that the organized unemployed had played a major part in winning these gains. Many took this lesson with them into the struggle to build unions in steel and auto.
Mark McColloch is currently Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensurg. He was a charter member of both SEIU Local 668 and AFT Local 3414 and held a number of offices in that local, including Vice President and Secretary.
Richard Oestreicher is currently an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and an active member of the AFT local, United Faculty.
Joel Sabadasz is curently an adjunct History instructor and financial aid counselor at the Community College of Allegheny County, and an adjunct History instructor at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He also serves as the volunteer treasurer for the Battle of Homestead Foundation - a non-profit corporation which seeks to preserve Pump House No. 1 (Pinkerton Landing Site during the Homestead Strike of 1892) as an historic labor history site.
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