Unemployed Councils: Lessons For Today

Economic conditions are bad; what should we do?  In many ways the problem is not a lack of ideas—if we had power we could strengthen labor laws making it easier for workers to defend their rights; implement a single payer health system; nationalize the banks and re-direct funds to priority areas like mass transit and green technology; raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy to fund vital social services and programs; change trade laws to undercut corporate power.  The list goes on.

No, the problem is more a lack of political power and will.  People feel isolated and discouraged.  How do we overcome that problem?  History offers some important examples that deserve serious study.  One is the experience of the 1930s Unemployed Councils.

By the end of 1931, Unemployed Councils in Portland had more than 3000 registered members.  When individual efforts to work within the system failed, the Councils often took direction action in defense of their member’s interests. For example, after some 400 unemployed stormed City Hall, the city agreed to provide housing and shelter for over 1000 unemployed working people.  [The picture below illustrates the work of the unemployed councils in Portland “reversing” an eviction]

If unemployed workers could come together in the midst of the depression and form a powerful national organization to fight for meaningful social changes for themselves and others,  why can’t we help today’s hungry, homeless, and unemployed (modern day victims of social forces beyond their control) organize and work with other movements to demand change?

Here are some places to learn more about the Unemployed Councils:

The Pacific Northwest Labor History Project

KBOO’s Labor Radio

“Organize among Yourselves”: Mary Gale on Unemployed Organizing in the Great Depression

“I’m Going to Fight Like Hell”: Anna Taffler and the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s


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