The Voice of Action: A Paper for Workers and the Disenfranchised

by Seth Goodkind

The Voice of Action, a radical labor newspaper published in Seattle between 1933 and 1936. This is the front page for December 28, 1934.

The first issue of the Voice of Action newspaper came off the press on March 25, 1933 under the banner headline “18,000 Won’t Scab!”[1] It was a tone that was to permeate the writing in the paper throughout its vocal four-year run and that echoed in the paper’s choice of a name. For the first two issues, the paper was merely called “A New Weekly Paper,” and it wasn’t until the third issue on April 10th that Voice of Action was actually chosen from three possibilities, all submitted by readers.[2] The name captured both the politically charged atmosphere of Depression-era Seattle and the constant agitation of Seattle’s Communist Party.

It was this commitment to readers that seems to have driven the Voice of Action. During a time when so many working people found themselves out of a job or even out of a home, those that were working sometimes found their wages reduced, often because employers could easily hire the unemployed for much less. In its inaugural issue, the Voice stated: “In Renton, all over the state, people are demanding a newspaper that will print what is actually going on, and more—what to do about it. The farmers, the unemployed, the men on the job, want a paper that will give them NEWS and be an ORGANIZER. This paper will try to meet that need.”[3]

The Voice of Action was published every week by the State Committee of Action, which had been elected by delegates from 114 labor, farmer, and youth organizations during a march to the state capitol in Olympia in March 1933.[4] The staff of the paper was quite small, with only seven people listed in the first issue and several holding dual roles.[5] Printing services were volunteered by union printers and pressmen, and over the newspaper’s print run, publication days occasionally changed to accommodate the availability of volunteer time and effort. Volunteer services were one of the hallmarks of the Voice: from the first issue until nearly the last, the paper regularly called for help in reporting on labor actions in different parts of the Northwest, to neighborhood organizers and paper salesmen.

This fervent desire to organize and work together was a reflection of the atmosphere of the time. The first issue called for community contributions because the paper “needed to be eight pages instead of four,”[6] a struggle which continued throughout the entire run, as they intermittently held fundraisers to publish larger issues, sometimes with special themes like May 1st, Armistice Day, or union-specific issues like “The Lumber Worker,” carried as a segment in a late 1933 issue.[7]

A woodcut by artist Richard Correll, in the Voice of Action, January 3, 1936. Industrial unionism was the central tenet of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations, which organized all workers -- not just skilled whites -- in one union.

By the April 17, 1933 issue, the Voice had demonstrated its staying power and ability to reach the community by selling its first advertisement to Eba’s Mutual Groceries.[8] As the advertising base grew, many of the advertisers emphasized their interest in the labor struggle, including the Green Parrot Theater on 1st Avenue and Pike St., which frequently showed Russian films glorifying the Bolshevik Revolution.[9]

The Voice of Action never openly declared its political affiliation in print, but its stance became clear in its use of language in the stories that made it to press. The emphasis on worker solidarity and unionism is a big clue to its publisher’s and writer’s sense of political justice. The conditions of the laboring classes and unemployed were always emphasized, and the heroic struggle they led against the powers of capital were a major part of the paper’s reporting. In some cases, the paper acted as a mouthpiece for local labor groups whose own reportage was solicited for print, and by 1936 it was the “official organ” of the Fishermen and Cannery Workers Industrial Union and the National Lumber Workers Union.[10] Staff writers also made labor struggles the biggest part of the their coverage.  Progress reports on ongoing strikes, calls to expand them, or to strike or rally in sympathy were often carried alongside urgent cries for organizing new sectors of labor. In the case of the National Lumber Workers Union, the November 13, 1933 issue carried a call for delegates from the local unions to meet a month later in Seattle to form a unified national “Mass Union.”[11] The paper also regularly reported on the judicial repression against organizers, as it was a time when syndicalism was still illegal.[12]

Naturally, the Voice had a great deal to say about how the state and federal governments reacted to the Depression and the labor movement, and never hesitated to find fault with local bureaucracy, or even Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the various programs of the New Deal. The Civil Works Administration was criticized for cutting the wages of its employees,[13] the National Recovery Administration for cutting jobs, the WPA for driving down the pay rates of the employed, and FDR himself portrayed as a warmonger and playboy.[14]

When families were faced with eviction from their homes because they couldn’t pay their mortgage, the Voice of Action eagerly reported on neighborhood groups organized to resist the police and the landlords, and even published a primer for anti-eviction organizers.[15] An article in the second issue of the paper is typical of the reportage: a farmer named P.S. Moon was to be thrown out of his home by sheriff’s deputies. When the Committee of Action was notified, they mobilized “150 militant workers and farmers” who prevented the eviction.[16] Other stories on eviction emphasized the plight of tenants who had lost their jobs and were receiving government relief. In these situations, it was noted that the unemployed themselves often played a key role in rallying to the support of tenants or striking workers.[17] As an element of the general mobilization of workers in the Seattle area, the Unemployed Citizens League (UCL) organized the unemployed to struggle for their own rights and needs as well as taking part in these sympathetic actions. The Voice carried a column dedicated to the UCL from its second issue,[18] and within a few months the Central Federation of the UCL shared joint ownership and responsibility with the Committee of Action.[19] In this way, the Voice helped facilitate the networks of Seattle’s anti-poverty and radical activists.

A cartoon from the Voice of Action from July 6, 1934. Ted Jordan was an African American man sentenced to death, but the Communist Party's International Labor Defense team and protests helped to save his life.

Many of these early articles were embellished by a further donation, simple but effective woodcuts donated by the Seattle John Reed Club, along with the occasional photograph. Later issues also had woodcut art, though of a much finer quality, done by artist Richard Correll. Correll’s pieces were highly detailed and contextual political cartoons relating to anything from the Nazi-Japanese pact to Hearst newspaper “fables” about Soviet famines.[20]     

Civil rights were also an important issue taken up by the paper at a time when race relations were tense. Lynchings were still a regular feature of the United States, and labor unions were often still segregated. The third issue of the Voice of Action carried the first of many articles following the course of the Scottsboro trial and its aftermath,[21] and subsequent issues related the plight of local African Americans in similar situations.[22] Articles covering race news from other parts of the country were also given feature status when they involved laborers, as in the Wednesday July 5, 1933 issue which featured an article about 3 “Negro” farmers who were murdered by a sheriff in Louisiana,[23] or the organization of Filipino fish cannery workers’ strikes and boycotts of fishing vessels.[24] The progressive civil rights platform of the Communist Party of the United States was reflected in the Voice of Action’s numerous stories on African American candidates, from local elections,[25] up to the nomination for Vice President in the election of 1936.[26]

Although the Voice of Action never stated a formal affiliation with the Communist Party, at least some in its executive staff were members of the local Communist Party USA (CP), and its coverage of Party news leaves little doubt. Nevertheless, the paper carefully spoke in the third person whenever discussing the local CP. In May of 1934, the local CP urged its sections to increase subscriptions to the Voice, and the paper printed an article clearly intended to paint the Party as a separate entity.[27] During state election cycles, the paper regularly endorsed labor candidates, with an emphasis on candidates who were openly Communist. In March 1934, a front-page article declared, “Communists Triple Vote In Seattle; Near Double In Tacoma.”[28] The top two major party candidates were described as “offer[ing] workingmen little choice” and “unable to see any issue beyond bond issues,” and the Voice went so far as to claim anti-Communist voter fraud.[29]  In August of 1934, the Communist Party sent delegates from the Northwest to meet Socialist Party delegates, a discussion led by Voice of Action secretary Alan Max to discuss the possibility of forming a united front of Socialists and Communists against fascism.[30] A month later, in an editorial on the front page, Max labeled the Socialists “Capitalism’s Third Party” because the Socialists had rejected the CP call for a united front. The Socialists merely paid “lip service” to the united front ideal, Max claimed, calling it a “stab in the back.”[31] At a time when the ideological split between militant Communism and democratic Socialism was tense, articles like this clearly indicated support for an open rejection of Socialist reform politics in favor of the Communist Party; and Max’s articles in the Voice can be read as openly supporting the CP position.

Although a world news column was a regular feature of the paper from the first issue,[32] the Voice of Action always paid special attention to the Soviet Union. Articles on the USSR covered any number of subjects, from the status of women and childrearing,[33] to Soviet prison conditions,[34] to local Seattle area meetings to celebrate and discuss the Russian Revolution and its “tremendous advance towards socialism.” These events were often community-oriented and featured dancing and live music in addition to the speakers.[35]

The Voice of Action sponsored contests to send readers to the Soviet Union as "ambassadors," hoping to inspire readers in experiments of Soviet communism. This is from the March 8, 1935 issue.

Some of the paper’s USSR coverage featured articles or interviews with people who had traveled there, and were full of praise for the Soviet system and its progressive worker-oriented structure and class-leveling policies. The Voice of Action did not hesitate to hold this up as an example of what was possible if workers were in control of society.   Production figures were quoted and compared to previous years, showing the immense productivity of unfettered worker-controlled production and the abundance of goods it now offered the average Russian.[36] The paper covered the decisions of the Communist International, the body set up to aid Communist movements outside Russia, in an article featuring Northwest district Communist Party organizers explaining how Communist International decisions should best be followed in the Northwest.[37]

In one of the Voice’s attempts to expand to a six-page paper, the paper held a fundraising drive in which several readers competed to raise the most money. The winner, young Seattle resident Frances Farmer, was sent on a tour of the Soviet Union, from Leningrad to Moscow for the May Day celebration in 1935.[38] A year later, the paper followed up on Farmer’s burgeoning acting career inspired by the “major social force” of stage drama that she had seen in Moscow.[39] Contemporary conflicts like the Spanish Civil War, hostilities between Japan and the USSR, and growing Nazi repression in Europe were also a frequently used opportunity for the paper to further contrast Communism with imperialism and fascism. In almost every case, the Voice of Action emphasized the peaceful intentions of the USSR, as in a July 1933 article which hailed the Soviet foreign commissar “for his outstanding work in the fight against war,” and called Soviet Russia “the only country whose policy is at all times honestly and consistently on the side of peace.”[40] With such a positive view of the USSR and direct revolutionary action, it is difficult not to see this as a frank endorsement of Communism.

The last issue of the Voice of Action hit the streets on October 9, 1936, but it was a strategic consolidation of the Seattle area labor press. The previous month, the paper had published a notice to its readers stating its intent to merge with another labor paper,[41] the Commonwealth News, which had been published under several different names by the Washington Commonwealth Federation (WCF) almost as long as the Voice of Action. The WCF was a left-labor political coalition that was finally opening its doors to Communists, and the CP elected to join the WCF in the hopes of building a “popular front” to advance progressive causes and gain a wider hearing for their views. The Voice printed a statement in its final issue asserting that it had always advocated for a single voice in representing the “myriad liberal and labor groups” and that the Voice  staff had decided the WCF paper was the best vehicle to achieve that end.[42]

In its final issue, the Voice reflected on its aims of the previous three and a half years: “Above All the Voice Of Action has striven for the effectiveness that comes to all fields of work with UNITY. The paper has worked to solidify the labor movement, to make every town a 100 per cent union town. It has fought to head up all progressive political action in one center—the Washington Commonwealth Federation.”[43]

It its Sunday November 22, 1936 edition, the Commonwealth News changed its name once again, this time to the Sunday News,[44] and although it took much the same stance on labor and domestic politics, advocacy of Communism and the Soviet Union never quite made it through the transition.

Throughout its nearly four-year run, the Voice of Action unflinchingly declared its stance on contemporary issues and made an effort to inform and mobilize the working and disenfranchised classes in the greater Seattle area. During one of the most difficult times in American history, it sought to foster an awareness of the power that the disenfranchised held. Through both exemplifying and encouraging direct action and cooperation, and illuminating examples of workers successes, it never failed to do so. When the Voice of Action merged with the Commonwealth News it was a final act toward the goal of unity for which it had striven from its first page.

 Copyright (c) 2009, Seth Goodkind
HSTAA 353 Spring 2009

[1] A New Weekly Paper, March 25, 1933, p 2.

[2] Voice of Action, April 10, 1933, p 2.

[3] A New Weekly Paper, March 25, 1933, p 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. November 13, 1933, p 4.

[8] Voice of Action, April 17, 1933, p 3.

[9] Ibid. December 4, 1933.

[10] Ibid. April 12, 1936, p.2.

[11] Ibid. November 13, 1933, p. 3.

[12] Ibid. November 16, 1934, p. 4.

[13] Ibid. March 13, 1934, p. 1.

[14] Ibid. January 10, 1936, p. 1.

[15] Ibid. May 1, 1933, p. 2.

[16] Ibid. April 3, 1933 p. 4.

[17] Ibid. June 28, 1933 p. 1.

[18] Ibid. April 3, 1933 p. 3.

[19] Ibid. April 12, 1936 p. 2.

[20] Ibid. October 9, 1936, p. 3.

[21] Voice of Action, April 10, 1933, p. 1.

[22] Ibid., November 20, 1933, p. 1-2.

[23] Ibid. July 5, 1933, p. 4.

[24] Ibid. April 24, 1933, p. 1.

[25] Ibid. September 14, 1934, p. 1.

[26] Ibid. September 11, 1936, p. 2.

[27] Ibid. May 8, 1934, p. 1.

[28] Ibid. March 6, 1934, p. 1.

[29] Ibid. March 6, 1934, p. 1.

[30] Ibid. March 25, 1933, p. 2; and Alan Max, Voice of Action, August 17, 1934, p. 1.

[31] Ibid. September 14, 1934, p. 1.

[32] Ibid. March 25, 1933, p. 4.

[33] Ibid. June 8, 1934, p. 2.

[34] Ibid. November 20, 1933, p. 2.

[35] Ibid. October 30, 1933, p. 3.

[36] Ibid. November 15, 1935, p. 3.

[37] Ibid. December 13, 1935, p. 3.

[38] Ibid. March 8, 1935, p. 1.

[39] Ibid. May 1, 1936, p. 1.

[40] Ibid. July 26, 1933, p. 1.

[41] Ibid. September 25, 1936, p. 1.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] The Sunday News, November 22, 1936, p. 1.