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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

The Unemployed Councils of the Communist Party in Washington State, 1930-1935

by Marc Horan Spatz

The Communist-affiliated Voice of Action (VOA) newspaper reported frequently on the activities of the Unemployed Councils, including their efforts to stop evictions in Washington State. More information on the VOA can be found here.
On October 29, 1929, also known as "Black Tuesday," the American stock market crashed, setting off a global depression that continued throughout the 1930’s. The unprecedented scale of the economic disaster appeared to validate the Communist Party’s faith in the imminent collapse of capitalism and the rise of a socialist order. Between 1930 and 1932, the number of unemployed Americans jumped from 3 million to 15 million.[1] Washington State’s economy, predicated largely on timber and agriculture, was especially hard-hit. As the Great Depression paralyzed industry and manufacturing across the United States, the market for Washington’s raw goods quickly contracted. By 1932, some estimates had Seattle's unemployment rate running between 25%-33% with between 40,000 to 55,000 individuals out of work. [2] Meanwhile, President Herbert Hoover, believing firmly that a balanced budget would restore business confidence in American markets, eschewed governmental relief programs.[3] Public welfare and social agencies at the local, state, and federal level were simply not equipped to handle the severity of the crisis. Consequently, the need for food and clothing became acute, with many families dependent on ever-dwindling state aid for survival.[4]

At the Communist International’s (Comintern) 6th World Congress in Moscow in 1929, representatives of Communist parties from around the world declared the beginning of the so-called Third Period, in which capitalism was said to have entered its terminal stage of development. The Comintern began calling for the creation of independent revolutionary organizations, including unions, to prepare the proletariat for the coming revolution. In 1929, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) created the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) for this purpose. At the same time, the CPUSA recognized that American workers needed “an immediate program of struggle against unemployment” in order to alleviate the destructive effect of poverty as well as to prepare workers for the global overthrow of capitalism.[5] The CPUSA issued its first official program for work among the unemployed on December 9, 1930. It called for the creation of Unemployed Councils (UC) with the assistance of the TUUL. The initially lackluster growth of the Unemployed Councils prompted the Party’s Twelfth Plenum in November 1930 to issue a six-point program emphasizing the importance of immediate “bread and butter” concerns to better mobilize the unemployed. In the coming months, a wave of rent strikes, eviction fights, and hunger marches involving an estimated 250,000 workers in seventy-five cities and six states swept the country.[6] The Unemployed Councils had become a force to be reckoned with. 

The program for relief aid proposed by the Unemployed Councils served a dual purpose: first, to provide direct and substantive aid to the unemployed, and second, to mobilize disaffected workers to support the Communist Party and prepare for the coming world revolution. Though there was some variation in the specific demands for relief aid due to local conditions, many of the salient aspects of the Councils’ programs were uniform. For example, the campaign literature of John Laurie, Communist candidate for Mayor of Seattle, included the following demands: a 50% reduction in rent in the city, the cessation of all evictions, the distribution of adequate foodstuffs to all workers without discrimination by worker councils, free medical and dental care for unemployed families, cash relief payments of $15 for all unemployed workers with $3 for each dependent at the expense of the state, the end to discrimination against married working women, and a fixed seven hour working day, five days a week.[7]

The cornerstone of the Unemployed Councils’ relief program was the Unemployed Insurance Bill, which sought to provide full union wages for all work relief at the expense of government and big business. The plan for National Unemployment Insurance was to drastically expand opportunities for relief work, to put the unemployed back to work on valuable public-works projects, to keep unemployed individuals and families from falling into desperate poverty by providing living wages, and to cultivate the class-consciousness of unemployed workers in preparation for the coming world revolution.[8] The Communist Party and the Unemployed Councils also delineated their relief programs from other proposals by maligning the policies and ideas of the government. An article printed in The Voice of Action, the unofficial organ of the CPUSA in Seattle, branded the state government’s relief policy of working for grocery vouchers as “slavery.”[9]

The Unemployed Councils were instrumental in resisting evictions of unemployed workers and in organizing unemployed strikes to pressure the state and local governments to expand relief aid and relief work. For example, in March 1933, the Unemployed Councils played a role in organizing an unemployed strike of 1,900 families in the Burien District of King County, Washington to protest the dispensation of relief vouchers under the conditions of “forced labor.”[10] The following month, workers mobilized in part by the Unemployed Councils succeeded in delaying the eviction of the Blonder Family of Bellevue, Washington for a week following a confrontation with law enforcement officials.[11]

The organization of large public protests and hunger marches represented the most conspicuous and widely publicized acts of resistance formulated by the Unemployed Councils. Such protests often took the form of spontaneous action. For instance, in September 1933, Iver Moe, Ray Trafton, Stanley Anderson, William Worlertz, and A.L. Marshall were arrested after raiding an Anacortes grocery store and distributing food to a crowd of hungry people. On September 17, a crowd of some 500 people assembled outside the courthouse in Mt. Vernon, Washington to hear the verdict. All but Marshall were convicted of grand larceny and rioting. The crowd booed the verdict and paraded through the streets of the city waving red flags from their cars.[12] Another conspicuous example of mass action of the unemployed was the occupation of the County-City Building in Seattle on February 14, 1933, by roughly 3,000 unemployed citizens protesting further cuts to state aid to the jobless and calling for the resignation of the city’s Welfare Commission Board. Protesters slept in the County-City Building and evoked Gandhi’s policy of passive resistance before being forcibly evicted by the police.[13]

Though the Unemployed Councils did not necessarily plan these spontaneous protests, Communist leaders were often quick to capitalize on the publicity of the events and used them to propagate the cause of the UCs. Such actions demonstrate that the CPUSA’s strategy in Washington State did not always center on the creation of a new social movement per se. Rather, the party and its affiliated organizations often sought to insert themselves into the groundswell of pre-existing organizing drives in order to steer the energy into avenues advantageous to the Party.

This practice of infiltrating and guiding social movements was especially important given that the Unemployed Councils were not the only organization in Washington State attempting to mobilize the unemployed. In July 1931, C.W. Gilbreath, Carl Branin, and Hulet Wells of Seattle’s Labor College, founded a network of self-help cooperatives in Seattle to provide aid to the unemployed. Within the course of a year, the Unemployed Citizens’ Leagues or UCLs had become a major social force in the city, with twenty-two commissaries distributing food, firewood, clothing, and rent credit to thousands of city residents. The UCL were also active in municipal elections and attempted to win the passage of legislation extending relief aid and unemployment insurance to the jobless.[14] This rival organization, which came to be identified with and influenced by Seattle’s Socialist community, rapidly eclipsed the Unemployed Councils in the mobilization of the city’s jobless.

The leaders of the CPUSA and its affiliated organizations attempted to ideologically distance themselves from this rival organization. Herbert Benjamin, a prominent national leader of the CPUSA and the head of the Unemployed Councils, denounced the UCLs as a  “social-fascist” organization intent on “betraying” the workers. Benjamin instructed the Communists of District 12 (comprising Washington and Oregon) to oppose the UCL and focus on building up the strength of the Unemployed Councils.[15] Particularly noxious to Benjamin was the UCL program of self-help, which he characterized as the philosophy that the workers should learn to help each other by sharing their poverty.[16]

Yet by 1932, despite these criticisms, the CPUSA and, by extention, the Unemployed Councils of Seattle, had already adopted the strategy of infiltrating and “boring from within” in several UCL locals, particularly in the South Ballard and Columbia City neighborhoods. A motion of the executive committee of the UCL to deny recognition to the South Ballard local was passed and the delegation was unseated. However, this victory over the Communist influence in the UCL proved short-lived. The Unemployed Councils would continue to play a role in Communist attempts to transform the UCL from an independant organization into a revolutionary body, which would serve as an instrument for the execution of Communist policies.[17]

However, it is important to note that members of the Unemployed Councils also inserted themselves into and cooperated with rival organizations in ways not sanctioned by the leadership of the CPUSA. These expressions of local autonomy in organization and agitation challenge the views of historians such as Theodore Draper and Harvey Klehr who stress the centralization and authoritarianism of the CPUSA in the early 1930s. In reality, there was a much greater degree of autonomy and flexibility in the organization and operation of the Unemployed Councils than they acknowledge.[18] The practice of “boring from within” was shaped not merely by the efforts of the party hierarchy to steer the direction of rival social movements, but also by the decisions of individual members of the Unemployed Councils at the local level. This often came in direct opposition to the guiding ideology of the CPUSA in the early 1930s.

Party dictates stressed the supreme importance of centralization and discipline at each level of the organization. These ideas found their clearest expression in the ideology of Democratic Centralism, which stated that “everyone could take part in making the decision, and once it was made, any minority was obliged to abide by the majority.”[19] According to the influential Communist intellectual Moissaye Olgin in his political pamphlet “Why Communism?,” orders and directives passed from the Central Committee in New York, elected at the national convention, to the twenty District Committees, then to the Sections and finally to the shop and street nuclei. Besides organizing for the party on a neighborhood basis, the street and shop nuclei also assumed the duties of working for the unemployed. Such activities included formation of local Unemployed Councils, organization of protests for relief, eviction resistance, agitation in favor of free gas and electricity for the unemployed, advocacy for the release of imprisoned local workers, and assistance to local strikes.[20] The organization, as envisioned by the Central Council of the CPUSA, placed the Unemployed Councils within a well-defined hierarchy. While the Unemployed Councils were nominally an affiliated organization of the party, in practice and ideology, the Councils were seen to be an extension of the party’s activities.

However, it is important to note that Olgin’s document describes how the party leadership viewed the organization of the Unemployed Councils within the hierarchy of the CPUSA, not how the Councils operated on a neighborhood basis. Although Herbert Benjamin issued an injunction against the cooperation of the Unemployed Councils with so-called “social-fascist” organizations, Eugene Dennett, the agitprop director of the Northwestern Communist Party District Bureau in Seattle in the early 1930s, recognized that this “did not answer to the needs of the people in 1932.”[21] To the unemployed of Washington, the Unemployed Councils’ demand for National Unemployment Insurance appeared abstract, disconnected from the exigencies of poverty and unemployment. Dennett himself, though wary of being accused of violating party discipline, joined the rival organization, the People’s Councils, which were formed in Bellingham, Washington, by former Communist M.M. London out of a sense of frustration that the Unemployed Councils were not answering to the needs of the unemployed in Whatcom County. By 1932, the People’s Councils, with thousands of dues-paying members, dwarfed the Bellingham Communist Party and Unemployed Council of seven members. Dennett admired London’s leadership abilities, made friends within the Peoples’ Councils, and disseminated Communist propaganda within the structure of this rival organization without sanction from the party hierarchy. His breach of party discipline is but one small example of the ways in which the members of the Unemployed Councils asserted their autonomy at the local level.[22]

During the summer of 1932, Communists in Washington aggressively agitated for the state to assume greater responsibility for the care of the hungry and unemployed. To this end, the Party and the Unemployed Councils  joined in a hostile competition with the People’s Councils, the United Producers of Washington, and the Unemployed Citizens’ Leagues to stage a Hunger March on Olympia, the state capital, on July 4, 1932. On the day of the action, Communist activists Lowell Wakefield, Alan Max, and Hutchin R. Hutchins, tried to assume leadership of the crowd, which gathered in Sylvester Park in Olympia. However, before they could do so, M.M. London led the members of the UCL, the United Producers, and Peoples’ Councils to the capitol building. Fred Walker then led the remaining members of the crowd under the banner of the Unemployed Councils at a considerable distance behind London. The leaders of the rival organizations, each wanting to address the crowd, vied for space at the top of the courthouse steps. Fist-fights ensued. The chaotic demonstration did manage to attract newspaper attention but failed to persuade the governor to call a special session of the state legislature in order to hear the grievances of the unemployed.[23]

The unemployed organized a "hunger march" on the state capitol of Olympia in March, 1933, pictured here by Depression-era artist Ronald Debs Ginther. 'Near Tacoma, Washington. March 1933. The Great Depression. King Co., and Seattle Contingent, Washington State Hunger March on Olympia.' 1933. (Property of Washington State Historical Society, all rights reserved.)

The Communist Party was also instrumental in organizing a second Hunger March on Olympia on January 17, 1933. J.F. McNew, chairman of the State Hunger March Committee, issued a leaflet with statewide distribution that outlined a five-point program including cash relief, unemployment insurance, eviction cessation, a public works program and the end of discrimination against single workers, women and youth. In response to the march, public authorities in Olympia organized a group of roughly 3,000 vigilantes, which blockaded the mass of marchers within Priest Point Park, on the edge of the city limits, while delegates of the Hunger Committee attempted unsuccessfully to gain an audience with state officials. Cold rain and crowded, unhealthy conditions in the park led to the forced evacuation of women and children, followed by the eventual evacuation of all marchers later that night.[24]

That night, the state legislature passed the controversial McDonald Act, which established the Washington Emergency Relief Administration and replaced the Seattle and King County relief organization with the King County Welfare Board. A $10 million bond paid for the new relief administration, striking down an alternative policy of a state income tax, which Washington voters had recently approved. Furthermore, the Act abolished the commissary system of relief and replaced it with vouchers that qualified unemployed individuals could use in participating markets. To the CPUSA and the Unemployed Councils, this amounted to a serious blow, which entailed further cuts to state aid for the unemployed.[25]

Despite the failure of the previous two Hunger Marches to secure tangible benefits for the unemployed, the Communists were instrumental in organizing a third statewide march on March 1, 1933. This time the conditions were more favorable for political change. The march took place while the legislature was in session and the exhaustion of the financial resources of city and county governments made clear the shortcomings of unemployed relief in Washington State. Consequently, Representative Warren G. Magnuson, chairman of the House Unemployment Committee and Senator George Yantis, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, pledged to promote passage of a ten-million dollar bond issue to help city and county governments overcome their financial problems. Though the passage of this legislation represented a belated effort to alleviate the suffering of the unemployed, Eugene V. Dennett argued that the Democratic Party unjustly received most of the credit for the legislation. Nonetheless, the Communists organized a permanent state Committee of Action to oversee the adequate dispensation of relief.[26]

Though the Unemployed Councils played a major role in organizing eviction resistance, administering relief, planning Hunger Marches, and generally mobilizing large numbers of workers, their actual programmatic success was mixed and, in many cases, ephemeral. Throughout the early 1930s, the Unemployed Councils faced numerous obstacles, which impeded realization of the Communist Party’s more ambitious goals. First, the Unemployed Councils and the Party in general faced constant police harassment. Police authorities used vagrancy laws as a pretext for breaking up of Communist meetings and arresting party agitators. Criminal Syndicalism Laws were also employed to target prominent Communist members, as evidenced in the case of Bon Boloff, who was originally sentenced to ten years in prison for belonging to the Communist Party in violation of Oregon’s Criminal Syndicalism Law.[27] The American Civil Liberties Union and the Communist Party’s legal defense team, the International Labor Defense, were fairly successful in fighting efforts to deport Communist leaders in Washington State. However, such institutions were less successful in Oregon, where the police persecution of the Communist Party and its affiliated organizations was more rigorous.[28] Police harassment and the use of law as an anti-Communist weapon were major impedimenst to the success of the Unemployed Councils in District 12.

In addition, party members faced organized resistance from terror and vigilante groups. An internal memorandum addressed from party officials in Seattle to the CPUSA Central Headquarters in New York on July 25, 1934, reported various incidents in which the party was targeted or intimidated by anti-Communist organizations. In Centralia, Washington, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in front of party members’ houses. In Salem and Eugene, Oregon vigilante groups raided the local Communist headquarters, seized propaganda literature, and chased party members away. Party members were summarily arrested in Seattle and the police threatened to destroy the printing press of The Voice of Action if the paper did not cease to make publications.[29] Such vigilante and terror groups did not hesitate to use force and intimidation to disrupt the activities of the Party and its affiliated organizations. This represented another obstacle to the Unemployed Councils had in the early 1930s.

In the mid-1930s,CPUSA policies, including the revolutionary intransigence and the role of Unemployed Councils, underwent significant change. This shift emerged within a very specific historical context. First, the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 represented a marked change from the laissez-faire policies of President Herbert Hoover. Though the Party remained highly critical of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the relief and labor legislation did mollify some of the unemployed. Furthermore, the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933 and the gradual spread of fascism in Europe created the impetus for the so-called “Popular Front,” which replaced Third Period Communism. Following the Seventh World Congress of the Communist Party in 1935, the TUUL was officially disbanded and Communists were permitted to work with liberal and socialist-affiliated organizations to create a united front against fascism.[30] From this point forward, the CPUSA would shift its emphasis from organizing the unemployed to industrial organizing, largely through cooperation with the newly-formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).[31] As the priorities and the direction of the CPUSA’s changed, the Unemployed Councils slowly disappeared. Nevertheless, throughout their short history, the Unemployed Councils played an important role in the mobilization of the unemployed in the Depression-era United States.

Copyright (c) 2012, Marc Horan-Spatz
HSTAA 353 Spring 2012

[1] William H. Mullins, The Depression and the Urban West Coast, 1929-1933: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991), 1.

[2] Ibid, 92.

[3] Ibid, 1-2.

[4] Arthur Hillman, “The Unemployed Citizens’ League of Seattle”(Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Washington, 1934), 185.

[5] Earl Bowder, “Out of a Job”in Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1984), 49.

[6] Klehr, 50-54.

[7] “Vote for John Laurie (Communist): Workers’ Candidate for Mayor,” Reel 224, Delo 2907, Files of the Communist Party of the USA in the Comintern Archives, The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University (hereafter CPUSA papers).

[8] Eugene V. Dennett, Agitprop: The Life of an American Working-Class Radical (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 21.

[9] “Strike” The Voice of Action, April 3, 1933, pg. 2.

[10] “King County Unemployed Strike Against Forced Labor” The Voice of Action, March 25, 1933, pg. 1.

[11] “Victory in Ballard Eviction; Get New Home, Furniture” The Voice of Action, April 10, 1933, pg. 1 and “Blonder Family is Evicted” The Voice of Action, April 17, 1933, pg. 1.

[12] “Crowd Assails Guilty Verdict in Mt. Vernon Raid” The Seattle Times, September 18, 1932, pg. 2.

[13] “Jobless Will Visit Martin to Ask New County Aid Group,” The Seattle Times, February 15, 1933, 5.

[14] Hillman, William Arthur, 185-215.

[15] Dennett, 21.

[16] “How to Organize and Conduct United Action for the Right to Live,” in Arthur Hillman, “The Unemployed Citizen’s League of Seattle,” PhD diss., University of Washington, 1934, 204.

[17] Hillman, 204-205.

[18] Randi Storch, Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots, 1928-35 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 3-4.

[19] Dennett, 23.

[20] Moissaye Olgin, Excerpt from “Why Communism?” Eugene V Dennett Papers, Accession 3917-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 1, folder 7.

[21] Dennett, 21.

[22] Ibid, 33-34.

[23] Ibid, 35-37.

[24] Ibid, 39-41.

[25] Mullins, 118-119.

[26] Dennett, 43-44.

[27] “Boloff is Out!” The Portland Worker Reel 224, Delo 2907, CPUSA Papers.

[28] Gunns, Albert Francis, “Civil Liberties in Crisis: The State of Civil Liberties in the Pacific Northwest, 1917-1940 (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Washington, 1971), 123-162.

[29] Report on District 12 to Central Committee of the CPUSA, July 25, 1934, Reel 280, Delo 3605, CPUSA Papers.

[30] Klehr, 167-185

[31] Steve Valocchi, “External Resources and the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s: Evaluating Six Propositions from Social Movement Theory,” Sociological Forum, Vol. 8