Bloodshed and Unemployment Insurance


The New York Times front page on 7 March 1930, the day following the march
The New York Times front page on 7 March 1930, the day following the march


Does it boggle your mind to see unemployed, working class people using their time to demonstrate for less government involvement, while living off of unemployment or social security checks?  What exactly are these people thinking? How can people work so directly against their own best interests?

It's an insanity that Thomas Frank noted in his book "What’s the matter with Kansas?":

"the country we have inhabited for the last three decades seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy patriots reciting the Pledge while they resolutely strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of hardened blue-collar workers in mid-western burgs cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover."

Take Unemployment Insurance.

A number of states, including New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida have begun to toy with idea of (a) mandatory drug tests for anyone receiving unemployment benefits and (b) mandatory "community service" as well.

Charles Dickens would be proud. "Are there no prisons? Are the work houses still in operation?"

It makes one wonder if the "American people" know anything about how unemployment benefits and social security came into being.

Do they believe that the federal government "imposed" these new laws on the people of America?  In fact,  the federal government fought the concepts tooth and nail, and was  forced by a nationwide grassroots movement to approve it. 

So this Is the story of International Unemployment Day - March 6, 1930.

Prior to the New Deal unemployment was something to be feared. There was no safety net. You were on your own. The elderly and infirmed who could not work got institutionalized. Those who needed aid but could work turned to the almshouse or work house, performed degrading work and suffered ostracism.

The poor suffered in silence, while others told them to blame themselves for their predicament. Occasionally, when unemployment became so widespread that it reached destructive levels, the unemployed began to realize that their misfortune wasn't a result of personal failings. It was at these times that the unemployed would take to the streets.

With the coming of the Great Depression, throwing millions out of work many began not to blame themselves but to blame the economic system which tolerated this suffering.

These people were very unpopular in powerful circles.

Among those blaming the economic system was a group called the Trade Union Unity League and it was an industrial umbrella group for the Communist Party of the United States.  It had been formed just six months earlier, and its purpose was to organize disenfranchised groups such as women, the unemployed, and blacks in the South.

They were in the right place at the right time.  Until 1931 the communists were the only national organization in America that was agitating for federal relief.  That's right.  The Communists.

The TUUL strategy was simple; make it impossible to ignore the suffering via confrontation. Bleeding heads would convert the unemployment situation to a front page issue.

And the cops and the 1% were more than willing to oblige.

Two thousand demonstrated for "free food for children" in Cleveland on February 11, 1930. The mounted police charged and beat the demonstrators.  It was the first of many confrontations to come.

On February 14, 1930, 250 TUUL members demonstrated at City Hall Plaza in Philadelphia "to point out that while the manufacturers are reaping huge profits...there are 200,000 unemployed workers in the city of Philadelphia."

"During the fifteen-minute engagement with 150 patrolmen, detectives and mounted policemen two of the paraders were sent to hospitals and seventeen were arrested".
- NY Times

 The very next week, 1,200 jobless men and women marched on City Hall in Chicago, but before they reached their goal "they were dispersed by mounted and foot policemen, who swept through them time and again, swinging sticks right and left."

A few days later the police broke up a mob of 3,000 unemployed men in Los Angeles with tear gas before they had a chance to start their march. Several more communists were sent to the hospital before the jail.

The same day about 100 mostly women and children, carrying a banner that said "We demand relief for the unemployed" attempted another demonstration in front of City Hall in New York. Once again there was a police riot.

It's amazing to think that the police could beat women and children with their fists and still be considered the "good guys". But in those days communists were something less than human, even when they came in the form of 8 year old girls.

"Unemployment is increasing - the crisis is sharpening. Everywhere misery and suffering exists and increases daily.

"Billions of dollars for bosses' wars - wage-cuts, unemployment for the workers."

- TUUL handbill, 1930

By this time the decision was made to perform an unprecedented, global demonstration of unemployed men and women to draw attention to the growing depression. It was called International Unemployment Day. Flyers were handed out, the communists began organizing. The authorities responded first with smears; then with the threat of more nightsticks. 

I wonder what the tea party protesters of today would think if they met the same sort of repression that the socialists of 1930 encountered? Would they still think that health care reform and government benefits was the problem?

Interestingly, the American Federation of Labor viewed the coming demonstration not as an opportunity, but as a personal threat. Joseph Ryan, the vice-president of the AFL, said in response to reports of tens of thousands of workers planning to quit for half a day to join the demonstration "it will not be permitted".

The AFL accused the demonstrations of being "a well-designed policy, directed from Moscow, to stir up as much trouble as possible. It is inconceivable that any party or organization can be so devoid of any sense of decency to resort to such measures."

The AFL said that the motives behind the demonstrations didn't represent the unemployed. Yet, for some reason, the unemployed kept turning up at the demonstrations.


On the big day tens of thousands turned out to demonstrate for relief. More than 100,000 marched in New York City. As the mass of people moved down Broadway the battle with the police began.

"Hundreds of policemen and detectives, swinging nightsticks, blackjacks and bare fists, rushed into the crowd, hitting out at all with whom they came in contact, chasing many across the street and into adjacent thoroughfares and rushing hundreds off their feet. Some of the Communists showed fight. This only served to spur the police, whose attack carried behind it the force of an avalanche."
- NY Times, March 1930

In Chicago another 100,000 demonstrated for relief and battled police. In Detroit some 75,000 demonstrated and in Cleveland over 10,000. Results were the same. Police violence against demonstrators including women and children.In Pittsburgh around 5,000 demonstrators were attacked by police after a march of just half a block. Five were hospitalized.

In Boston, police arrested five men and one woman the moment that a crowd began to form. 42 were arrested in Milwaukee. Five more were arrested in Buffalo, 12 in Seattle, and three in New Haven.

In Madison, a group of university students attacked the unemployed demonstration. In Washington D.C. the police used tear gas against a mostly black demonstration in front of the White House after one of the leaders attempted to give a speech from the fence. Nine of them were beaten and arrested.

So what resulted? Lots of people got hurt - but on the same day as the demonstrations Canada passed an unemployment relief bill. Within months members of Congress were proposing legislation on the House and Senate floors.  Suffering was pushed to the front page.

Even more importantly, despite the brutal repression, the March 6 demonstration began a trend. As the Great Depression got worse month after month, and unemployment skyrocketed with no end in sight, the unemployed demonstration grew in size. Before long, a demonstration of more than 100,000 was common.

With these demonstrations came organization and education. People began to question the model of capitalism that the authorities enforced with an iron fist.   By late 1932, the general public had decided that the country needed a real change.  Wisconsin was the first state to introduce unemployment insurance.  The Federal Government followed in 1935.

I think we need another International Unemployment Day.  Don't let the corporatocracy take away the safety net for which your parents and grandparents got their heads busted - unless you want to be doing "community service" like a criminal next time you're unemployed - or simply left to starve.


Much of the above is from an article on the Progressive Historian website; author unknown

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