Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington
6/20 at 10 AM & 6 PM ET | 6/21 at 6 PM ETA Digital Gathering
The Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington is going digital! On June 20th, we will hold the largest digital and social media gathering of poor and low-wealth people, moral and religious leaders, advocates, and people of conscience in this nation’s history. A global pandemic is exposing even more the already existing crisis of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. On June 20, the 140 million poor and low-income people across this nation will be heard!
Hunger, homelessness, and evictions were features of the Great Depression in the United States. Jobs disappeared and working conditions deteriorated. Some “250,000 teenagers were on the road.” And how many others? By 1933 one third of farm families had lost their farms. Unemployment that year was 25 percent. The lives of working people were devastated.
The federal government’s New Deal led to political and social reforms. Now the U.S. government once more has a big economic crisis on its hands, this one associated with the COVID 19 pandemic. It’s providing mostly financial relief, with a lot going to big economic players.
During the Great Depression, people responded at the grassroots level too, particularly in urban neighborhoods. In the midst of another economic crisis, it makes sense that something similar happen again. This report is about a grassroots tool of 90 years ago and about its potential usefulness now. As will be seen, assaults on working people are harmful enough now to provide ample justification for possobly picking up that tool again.
In fact, workers and their families created their own means of rescue as the Great Depression took hold. Demanding food, housing, and jobs, they organized, agitated, and prodded politicians to provide relief and reform. They did so through the Unemployed Councils. New in early 1930 and organized by the Communist Party USA, the Councils took root in many cities.
They came into being step by step. In 1929 the Comintern decided that capitalist crisis manifesting as a worldwide economic depression required a “revolutionary offensive.” Responding, the CPUSA formed its Trade Union Unity League. That organization set up “Councils of Unemployed Workers.” According to a Party publication, “the tactical key to the present stage of class struggle is the fight against unemployment.”
At once the Unemployment Councils organized unemployment protests that swept across the country. March 6, 1930 was designated as “International Unemployment Day,” a day when one million demonstrators filled the streets of cities.
Thousands of police violently attacked more than 100,000 workers filling New York’s Union Square. Demonstrations continued over several months in many cities, as did police harassment. New recruits flooded the Unemployment Councils. March 6 became an annual occasion for repeat nationwide demonstrations.
The Unemployment Councils, functioning autonomously in urban neighborhoods, pressured local relief officials to assist individuals and families. They badgered utility companies to restore gas or electricity to non-paying households. The Councils organized rent strikes beginning in 1931. They recruited crowds that, having overwhelmed the police and local officials, allowed evicted tenants to return to their dwellings. Council activists besieging city offices demanded reduced rents and no more evictions.
The Unemployment Councils reached out to Black workers, even in southern cities. Actions of the Unemployment Councils helped provide impetus for New Deal reforms like unemployment insurance, protection of labor rights, and security for elderly Americans and children.
Hunger marches organized by the Unemployment Councils took place in various cities from 1931 on. The police killed five people marching in the “Ford Hunger March” in Dearborn, Michigan on March 7 1932; 60,000 people joined the funeral procession. At a national hunger march converging on Washington on December 7,1931, marchers demanded unemployment insurance and a “social insurance system to cover maternity care, illness, accidents, and old age.”
A year later even more marchers, mainly Communist Party members, descended on Washington for a repeat national hunger march. They called forjobs, relief measures, taxation of the wealthy, and an end to racial discrimination. Members of Congress met with march leaders. The Roosevelt administration would soon direct states to expand relief efforts and promote job programs.
The CPUSA set up “The Unemployment Council of the U.S.A.” in 1931 in part to deal with rapid turn-over of community activists affiliating with local Councils. The problem would remain. The national Council provided local Councils with guidance on national and international issues. Even so, individual Councils focused primarily on the hardships and needs of workers and their families, in their own neighborhoods.
The national organization in 1932 published a 20-page pamphlet titled: “Fighting Methods and Organization Forms of the Unemployed Councils: A Manual for Hunger Fighters.” The introduction begins:
“The Unemployed Councils base their program on a recognition of the fact that those who own and control the wealth and government are willing to allow millions to suffer hunger and want in order that their great wealth shall not be drawn upon for relief. We know that the living standards of employed and unemployed alike will be progressively reduced unless we organize and conduct united and militant resistance. We know that the amount and extent of relief which the ruling class can be compelled to provide depends upon the extent to which the unemployed and employed workers together organize and fight….”
The trajectory of the Councils changed. New Deal relief programs took effect, and the Communist Party, following the lead of the Comintern, turned to alliances with other progressive forces. This was the Popular Front. The Unemployment Councils gradually gave way to the Workers Alliance of America, formed by the CPUSA in 1936 and based in Washington. The Alliance welcomed Socialist Party unemployment groups and pacifist A.J. Muste’s Unemployment League. Its activities centered on lobbying for relief measures and worker protection.
Pandemic and sick economy
The Unemployment Councils were new and, within the context of that era, were extraordinary. They attended solely to the needs of workers. They were based in local communities. And they were a creature of the Communist Party. Their time may have come again.
One determining factor is the severity of the current economic collapse and its impact on the lives of working people. Indeed, this crisis looks like it’s going to hurt workers and their families as much as did the Great Depression. The assumption here is that the extraordinary nature of the present danger to working Americans must be appreciated in order to accept the idea that an extraordinary instrument of repair, the Unemployment Councils, is required once more.
Unemployment – As of early June, 42.6 million U.S. workers had filed unemployment claims. The official unemployment rate was 14.7 percent in April, 13.3 percent in May. In May the official rate for Black people was 16.8 percent and for Latinos, 17.6 percent. However, “a quirk in BLS methodology” (Bureau of Labor Statistics) misclassified people absent from work due to COVID 19. The actual unemployment rate in April was 23.6 percent. According to economist David Ruccio, the total of the underemployed plus the officially unemployed represents 31 percent of the U.S. labor force.
Significantly, ”39 percent of employed people in households making less than $40,000 lost their job or [had] been furloughed in March.” Official unemployment figures don’t include the chronically non-employed. The Brookings Institute reports that, in 2017, 15 percent of “American men between the ages of 25 and 54” were not working for a variety of reasons, imprisonment and others.
HousingLoss – That many workers can’t pay rent sets the stage for evictions. Signs of tenant resistance have cropped up. For instance, Rent Strike 2020 is a “disaster relief organization owned and controlled by regular working people.” It demands that states “freeze rent, mortgage and utility bill collection for 2 months, or face a rent strike.” According to the website westriketogether.org, 33 percent of residential tenants didn’t pay rent in May and almost 350,000 tenants have signed a rent-strike pledge.
Access to Health Care – Many of the newly unemployed have lost their employer-based healthcare insurance. They can’t pay for health care and soon will total 11 million working people. A crisis of access existed already. In 2018, no less than 30.1 million people under the age of 65 lacked health insurance. In 2019, 28 percent of adults with employer-based health insurance were underinsured.
Food is short – The Brookings Institute recently declared that, “By the end of April, more than one in five households in the United States, and two in five households with mothers with children 12 and under, were food insecure “ In April, “21.9 percent of households with nonelderly adults were food insecure”.
Dairy farmers are dumping milk. Hog and chicken farmers are killing their animals and growers are plowing crops into the ground. These are “scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression,” and, says the Guardian, “overproduction will sour the market.” This is a crisis of capitalism.
Racism – Non-white populations are vulnerable. They are generally sicker than white people from illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, HIV, morbid obesity, and kidney disease. That’s mostly because racial discrimination encourages low-quality health care, reduced access to care, and lack of preventative care. Racism forces a disproportionate number of non-white workers to live in places full of environmental toxins. The stress of living under racism may lead to or worsen physical illnesses.
These points of vulnerability translate into high risk, plainly evident as African Americans and Latinos people confront the COVID 19 virus. One report has it that “COVID-19 mortality rate [in May] for Black Americans is 2.4 times as high as the rate for Whites and 2.2 times as high as the rate for Asians and Latinos.” Latinos, 18 percent of the U.S. population, in April accounted for 25 percent of COVID 19 deaths. Death rates for Blacks and Latinos living in cities range from two to four times higher than white people living in cities.
At issue here is suffering caused by economic crisis. Resilience helps economically-abused victims survive, and resilience may be in short supply for a class of people hit exceptionally hard by the COVID 19 virus. Besides, most of these victims are members of the working class, and they are more likely than higher-income employees to have been working “in public-facing occupations” and to experience “inequitable distribution of scarce testing and hospital resources.”
Women are victims– According to one report, the “hardest hit [during the pandemic] will be the world’s women and girls and populations already impacted by racism and discrimination … Women are 70 percent of the global health workforce and the majority of social workers and caregivers.” They “deliver 70 percent of global caregiving hours.” The report does not mention that these multitudes of women doing necessary work belong overwhelmingly to the working class, in the United States and elsewhere.
The broad conclusion here is that the impact of this economic downturn has been and will be disastrous for working people, extraordinarily so. The usual governmental remedies seeking to balance worker and business interests won’t adequately serve the working class. Too often what is done ends up pitting the needs of workers against the needs, real and imagined, of those who lack for nothing. And guess who losses out!
The Unemployment Councils provided an extraordinary boost in their time to workers and their families. A return engagement is in order, in one form or another.
A peripheral concern must be attended to. The argument may be advanced that this economic crisis will be brief and so why go to all the trouble? No, it will not be brief.
U.S. delay in preventing spread of the virus allowed the pandemic to build. Lax social-distancing and irregular quarantine will ensure its prolongation. A comprehensive regimen of testing, tracing of contacts, and quarantine would have made all the difference, according to a medical expert.
The virus has charge of the U.S. economy, said Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell: “We are now experiencing a whole new level of uncertainty, as questions only the virus can answer complicate the outlook.” (NY Times, May 21)
Besides, an already flawed U.S. economy doesn’t rate a quick fix. It was already stumbling due to “stagflation” (inflationary tendencies co-existing with stagnant economic output), unpayable debt, and financialization. The latter signifies diminished productive capacity.
This report on the potential usefulness now of Unemployment Councils is of an introductory nature. Even so, it does appear that the Councils have great potential to meet the needs of many working people in great trouble now in the United States – but not all of them.
The Councils’ usefulness would rest on conditions under which they would be applied. One would be that they deal with unemployment, lack of housing, and hunger. These are problems presenting both now and then in roughly similar fashion. Another would be that Councils of today pay heed to features characterizing their performances then. These included: attention to workers’ most pressing social and economic needs, rapid response, militancy, and long-term revolutionary goals. All were crucial to the Councils’ achievements.
Other problems of today don’t fit with interventions of the kind offered years ago by Unemployment Councils. These are: reduced access to healthcare, racial inequalities, and gender inequalities. They were as problematic then as they are now, but society and even worker organizations of that time either accepted the injustices they represented or weren’t prepared to engage with them.
Those still unmet needs do demand attention now and any version of renewed Unemployment Councils would have to accommodate them. The difficulties in doing so represent a threshold that revived Unemployment Councils would have to overcome. How that would happen without major revamping is unclear.
A full inquiry into the history and potential use of Unemployment Councils would require study of the feasibility of putting them into effect. However, doing so in the detail that is required and with any sort of comprehensiveness is beyond the scope of this introductory note. Suffice it to say – and in conclusion –that to revive effective and strong Councils today would be no easy task. The precondition for doing so may not yet exist. What’s required, as it seems, is the reality of support now, or the promise of support, emanating from ongoing popular mobilization with a working-class focus.
It was different earlier. Communist organizers in the 1930s drew upon enthusiasms left over from the socialist and workers’ movements that had peaked two decades previously. They also took new encouragement from socialist revolution in Russia in 1917.
N. B. Historian Roy Rosenzweig’s chapter appearing in “Workers’ Struggles, Past and Present,” edited by James Green (1983) provided much of the information appearing here on Unemployment Councils.
Originally posted on People’s World June 9, 2020 10:58 AM CDT BY Joe Sims
With a nationwide uprising over the public execution of George Floyd, and Trump’s use of military force in D.C.’s Lafayette Square, the country has entered an extremely dangerous period. Institutionalized racist police violence, always present, is now front and center in the COVID-sparked economic crisis.
The pandemic, along with the uprising against racist violence, has raised the stakes dramatically in this regard. Demonstrators, well aware of the danger of infection, after living weeks in COVID lockdown, are literally risking their lives to protest. They have little to lose when their jobs have disappeared and their communities are dying at three to four times the rate of everyone else.
The uprising has created a tipping point. But instead of providing leadership and coming to the rescue with emergency programs and proposals that match the scale of the crisis, conservatives in Congress stall. Unemployment payments, for example, are due to run out in just eight weeks. Senate Republicans, however, refuse to pass the extension contained in the House-approved Heroes Act.
A long, hot summer of hunger, disease, joblessness, and civil unrest is sure to follow unless something is done. But how and what? The answers are being written on the nation’s streets. As Frederick Douglass once observed, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” but “power concedes nothing without demand.” But struggle around what issues, whither, and with whom?
Take the issue of the extreme right danger. Trump has pushed right-wing militias to “liberate” state capitols, demanding an end to stay-at-home provisions—an unprecedented act by the nation’s chief executive and one that demands a swift and indignant response. Instead, conservatives offered “good old boy” excuses while liberals fretted—an enormous failure of leadership in both cases.
Whether it’s because they’ve largely failed to recognize the fascist impulse lurking behind Trump’s governing or they lack courage matters little. If Trump remains unchecked, the country’s “leadership” will be unable to save themselves, much less the country. Importantly, the country’s top military brass took exception to the infamous “battle of Lafayette Square” but even with that the threat remains.
Negative appeals, whether in elections or movements, rarely win.
It’s doubtful, however, that even if the danger were more broadly recognized it would be enough to ward off a second term. Warnings against fascism, divorced from the main issues confronting people in their day-to-day lives, are inadequate. Negative appeals, whether in elections or movements, rarely win. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this. As much as the 1963 March on Washington was against racism, organizers also framed it in positive terms as a rally for Civil Rights, peace, and jobs.
Successful campaigns and movements are framed around forward-looking, issue-oriented appeals. People need something to be for: a platform that champions their interests and needs.
Will candidates respond by advancing and fighting for a platform that addresses the magnitude of the crisis? What are the issues? Of immediate concern is policing, which now is a central issue in the presidential campaign. Calls for body cameras, “community policing,” and other measures put forward during the Ferguson uprising will hardly do. The Minneapolis police force underwent a series of sensitivity trainings, none of which seemed to stick with Derek Chauvin.
Fulfilling way-past-due demands for tracking police killings with a national database might be a baby step in the right direction, but what’s next? The people demand that white supremacist cliques who have infiltrated and recruited in police departments be eliminated immediately. Community control boards should oversee police hiring and firing. And while we’re at it, don’t stop there: demilitarize and defund the departments.
More broadly, radical reforms of policing and the entire criminal justice system are in order. But to start, eliminate racial profiling, three-strikes-you’re-out, and sentencing disparities. The abominable practice of trying children as adults also needs to be abolished. Even the very role of prisons, where COVID-19 infection and death rates are astronomical, requires changing.
To those who might say, “impossible,” “pie-in-the-sky,” or “you’ll lose the suburbs,” African Americans could well reply, “Remember South Carolina!” The African-American vote in that state’s primary dramatically changed the dynamics of the elections. While Sanders was the better candidate, Black voters demonstrated their power, one that could well determine the November election.
Beyond the policing issue, the pandemic and economic crisis require that we address issues and demands that also speak to the deep inequities in our country:
Republicans, backed by big business, are trying to force workers back to their jobs on pain of losing unemployment compensation and contracting COVID-19. This should be rejected with all the contempt that it deserves.
The unemployment rate, already nearly 25%, is double that figure in black and brown communities and even higher among young people, perhaps triple. Public works jobs proposals already under consideration require remedies for overcoming racial disparities—that used to be called affirmative action.
The plight of undocumented immigrant workers, left out of the first stimulus package, cannot be ignored. Nor can the status quo in the COVID-infected detention camps on the border be allowed to continue. These workers must be freed, as the Hispanic Caucus has demanded.
Keeping frontline workers safe and secure, of course, remains a top concern. With millions losing health insurance due to job loss, the right to health care is paramount. In this situation, the demand for Medicare for All has new relevance.
Relief from household and student debt, long a heavy burden on working-class families, must be given renewed attention in the coming months. Debt cancellation, or a “debt jubilee,” once an unheard-of proposition, may well be a simple and effective means of freeing up cash and increasing workers’ purchasing power.
Another key issue is helping organize unemployed workers, linking them up with local unions, and assisting them in receiving unemployment benefits, paying utilities, and putting food on the table. The time has come to build a movement for unemployment councils.
These are among the issues around which coalitions for jobs and justice can be built. The whole point is to build bottom-up independent movements in the context of these battles both before and after the elections. The uprising is giving this imperative new life and urgency. Many young people are being arrested and will require bail and legal assistance, along with political and moral support. How can the uprising be connected to efforts to end voter suppression and evictions, and to ensure that people have food, shelter, income, and free COVID-19 testing?
No single social force can win the battle alone.
Electoral coalitions must be broad and diverse if they are to defeat the extreme right. Why the emphasis on breadth? Simply put: no single social force can win the battle alone—not workers, people of color, women, youth, LGBTQ people, none. The forces grouped in and around the Trump administration are too powerful, and the danger is too great.
As coalitions grow and mature, particular attention must be given to representing workers’ interests, demands, and leadership. Indeed, the working class must place its “imprint” on the battle for democracy—molding unity, shaping issues, prioritizing demands, engaging the disengaged, resisting diversions, and keeping its eye on the prize.
The wider the coalition’s breadth, the more urgent this is. The presence of diverse class forces in the anti-Trump movement will understandably raise both dangers and fears. Some might ask: Won’t it dilute the struggle, divert it, give rise to illusions and, worse, run the serious risk of co-optation? In the push and pull of real life, the answer is yes. Hence the need for independent working-class politics, structures, and platforms.
While bringing pressure to bear on issues, coalitions must also work to change the balance of forces. This means creating a more favorable playing field for exercising people’s power from below. The balance of forces can be changed via the struggle for reforms and in the electoral arena. It is in these struggles that the political capital, the experience capital, the organizational capital, even the ideological capital can be built that will lay the basis for transformative, revolutionary change.
Campaigns are the vehicles within which parts of the class and democratic struggle are waged.
Participating in the electoral struggle is not so much about supporting political parties as it is about building movements and electing candidates who support labor’s platform. It’s not about endorsing campaigns, lending “critical support,” or supporting candidates as if an election were a personality contest. Participation is about promoting the issues and movements that give campaigns life. Campaigns are the vehicles within which important parts of the class and democratic struggle are waged.
Public office should be contested wherever possible: school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures, etc. It is in these bodies that decisions are made about zoning, school curriculum, policing procedures, and street paving—the very stuff of day-to-day living. A working-class approach to the elections means focusing on issues, building movements around them, fighting for their presence in election platforms, and participating in the independent union structures during the campaigns.
Soon unions will initiate voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Trade unions for some time have maintained an independent election structure, including separate fundraising, email and texting lists, along with telephone banks. They also run their own candidates. This election structure is an extremely important form of political independence, separate from the Democratic and Republican parties. It allows for focusing on issues, building labor-community alliances, and maximizing turnout to change the balance of forces in an election.
“The domination of the Democratic Party by big capital prompts many to argue that not only is it an imperfect vehicle, but one which time and again reproduces the labor movement’s subordination—this is undeniable. Yet…in a race in which there are but two viable vehicles, you can pine for the one you wish you had, but ultimately you must use the one that’s on the road—either that or pull off to the shoulder and sit the contest out.”
Trade unions, along with people of color and various democratic, civil rights, and environmental movements, largely use the vehicle of the Democratic Party. As is well known, big business also makes use of the Democratic Party. In fact, they dominate both parties, with more right-wing sectors preferring the GOP, and the rest operating within the Democrats’ orbit.
The domination of the Democratic Party by big capital prompts many to argue that not only is it an imperfect vehicle, but one which time and again reproduces the labor movement’s subordination—this is undeniable. Yet an imperfect vehicle is still a vehicle, and Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others in the African-American, Latinx, women’s, and labor movements have run effective campaigns through it.
At the same time, independent campaigns and non-partisan races are an important option. The only principled questions involved here are not accidentally electing right-wingers and the ongoing need to fight for political independence and communist presence where possible. This must include fielding candidates.
In a race in which there are but two viable vehicles, you can pine for the one you wish you had, but ultimately you must use the one that’s on the road—either that or pull off to the shoulder and sit the contest out. Viewing developments from the sidelines may make one feel untainted and therefore better, but here’s the thing: Is casting a ballot more a matter of individual feelings or one of participating in a collective act?
Some contend that the driver of one vehicle, while imperfect, is less imperfect than the other, popularly known as “lesser evil” politics.
How can concrete interests in specific situations best be moved forward when faced with a limited path?
Lesser Evilism implies a choice between two immoral options. But elections are not about abstract morality. On a micro level, elections allow workers to determine where they do battle, whether it’s opposing fascist-minded federal court judges or supporting judges who favor civil rights. This applies as well to engaging with “foxes in the henhouse” agencies or ones that protect labor rights and the environment, or electoral spaces in which a million votes have been suppressed or ones in which voters have easy access to the ballot.
More broadly, though, the terrain of political struggle is the extremely limited two-party system. This, too, requires radical reform. Rarely do workers’ and people’s movements get to choose the terrain on which they fight. The class and democratic struggle is not primarily about universal abstractions but concrete interests in specific situations and how best to move them forward when faced with a limited path. A classic example of this is when Lenin advocated a broad coalition against the tsar. The workers had an objective interest in aligning with the peasantry and emerging capital against a decaying feudal system. Yet no one would argue that Lenin’s position implied an “endorsement” of the Russian Cadets.
“Elections are not about abstract morality… Bourgeois politics is a messy business and does not neatly fit into the moral categories of good and evil.”
In the fight against slavery, Karl Marx worked to lend aid to Lincoln and the Republican Party against Jefferson Davis and the slavocracy. The working class then had an interest in defeating chattel slavery. Marx did not endorse Lincoln or see him as a lesser evil. It wasn’t that simple. Bourgeois politics is a messy business and does not neatly fit into the moral categories of good and evil.
Small “d” democratic and workers’ movements may not get to choose their terrain, but they can choose their independence, self-organization, system of ideas, and fighting capacity. And with that, everything else becomes possible.
In Homer’s Iliad, Ulysses, on his journey, was confronted with two unenviable choices: the sea monster Scylla or its counterpart Charybdis. He finally decided that his crew’s chances were better with Scylla; they sailed and lived.
To develop Homer’s analogy, in the ocean of 21st-century bourgeois politics, one must navigate two whirlpools in but two ships, two vehicles. Today, it’s either the ship of state led by neo-fascists and Trump, or the one commanded by the Democratic opposition.
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, representing two of the main Democratic camps, are aligning their forces and developing planks they hope will lead the country forward. But they’re sailing in uncharted and turbulent waters—a mass democratic uprising against racism combined with an unprecedented health, economic, and political crisis. Plans made today will likely be undone by the political storms of tomorrow. Politics means navigating that tempest.
If Trump is defeated, the new administration will be confronted by enormous tasks. Much will depend on the size and quality of the electoral mandate. Without question, the executive branch and Congress will face tremendous pressure to solve the crisis in the interests of big business. With Democrats tending to tilt right on issues of foreign policy, intervention in other countries’ affairs will have to be stiffly resisted.
On domestic issues too, labor, Civil Rights, and community groups will have to organize tooth-and-nail to ensure their interests are met. It will not be easy, as many will want to give the new administration space and will be reluctant to take it on—but that would be a huge mistake. At the end of the day, organized mass pressure from below is the only guarantee of advances.
Once again power concedes nothing without demand; or, to put it another way: The only thing that will save us, is us.