The Chicago Unemployed Movement’s Protests for Food and Housing

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An illustration by Ronald Ginther titled “Portland, Oregon. 1931. Unemployed Resist Eviction of Family.” (Credit: Lewis and Clark)

Harry Katz

During the early 1930s, the largest protest movement for unemployed people’s welfare in U.S. history arose (Piven, 41). The movement sometimes succeeded in increasing local and state government spending on relief to unemployed people, increasing relief payments to individuals, and stopping individual evictions (Valocchi 1993, 459; Folsom, 270 and 276, Piven, 73). The unemployed movement also trained activists who later became leaders in the labor movement of the 1930s, which is believed to have had a greater influence than the unemployed movement on the passage of the most significant New Deal laws (Lucia; Storch, 128).

The purpose of this research project was to learn about the unemployed movement in Chicago, Illinois, in the early 1930s and the factors that contributed to the movement’s successes and failures. The unemployed movement in Chicago was one of the largest of any U.S. city (Bernstein, 428; Storch, 105). One characteristic that distinguished Chicago from the rest of the U.S. in the early 1930s was its especially high unemployment rate—40% of the workforce was unemployed in 1931 (Hallgren 1933, 119; Piven, 61). Chicago also had one of the worst fiscal crises of any large city in 1932, and police repression of the unemployed movement in Chicago may have been unusually severe (Asher; Bernstein, 471; Fried, 133).

Unemployment During the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, the number of unemployed people in the U.S. rose from 429,000 in October 1929 to 12 million in March 1933 (Piven, 46, 66). In the early 1930s, private charities and government agencies provided little relief relative to the need for relief, and malnutrition and the rates of certain diseases increased (Piven, 41 & 48). Unemployment caused many people to become homeless, forced some parents to send their children to friends, relatives, or organizations that were better able to take care of them, and harmed many people’s self-respect, since people often blamed themselves for losing their jobs (Ernest; Piven, 63; Valocchi 1993, 457).

Unemployed Councils

The Communist Party of the U.S.A. (CP) was the primary organization that mobilized the unemployed to take political action, and the party did this by organizing local groups called Unemployed Councils (UCs) (Valocchi 1993, 455). There were UCs in about 340 cities and towns in the U.S. in 1932, and the UCs claimed 150,000 members in 1933. Membership figures can be unreliable, and many people who were not members of UCs participated in demonstrations organized by the UCs (Weyl, 118; Folsom, 275; Lorence, 289).

UCs prioritized meeting unemployed people’s most urgent needs (Weyl, 118; American, 7-8; Allen, 685). Many UCs aimed to prevent evictions, dispute cases where relief agencies unfairly denied people relief, and improve conditions in bread lines, flophouses, and apartment buildings (Weyl, 118; Morrow). UCs also demanded increased relief expenditures from all levels of government, unemployment insurance, government job programs, improved conditions on government job programs, and an end to racial discrimination (Weyl, 118; Fried, 133; Valocchi 1990, 193).

In the early 1930s, UCs mainly used direct action tactics such as physically resisting evictions, and UC organizers used pamphlets and speeches to persuade people to become politically active (Piven, 68-69). UC organizers often spoke to unemployed people about issues that the CP was concerned about that affected people in distant areas, such as the Scottsboro case and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Fisher, 46). The CP wanted UCs to educate people about these “translocal” issues, partly because the party hoped that all movements of workers would eventually unite into one movement that served all workers’ interests, and that the movements would unite under the party’s leadership (Fisher, 46; American, 7-8).

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A march by Chicago Communists on May 1, 1930, with signs about a variety of causes in the U.S. and overseas. (Credit: Storch, 74)

The CP was one of the only primarily white political organizations in the 1930s U.S. that advocated for equal rights for blacks and racial integration, and black and white activists created some personal bonds by working together in the UCs (Fisher, 44; Lucia). UC leaders devoted the most resources to organizing people in the poorest neighborhoods of their cities (Fisher, 45).

Food and Housing as Human Rights Rather Than Commodities

In the early 1930s, the CP and unemployed movement leaders brought attention to the injustice of businessmen using food and housing to make a profit by selling these resources, while preventing people who could not afford the resources from using the resources to survive. For example, one statement by a Chicago unemployed organization observed that families did not have adequate food while stores and warehouses in Chicago were full of food (Hallgren 1933, 128). Similarly, at a demonstration organized by Chicago unemployed groups, one speaker said that hotels in the city had empty rooms while some people slept in Grant Park (NYT 11/1/32). In 1931, the editors of one conservative Chicago newspaper wrote that it made sense that the Communists’ messages were appealing to many unemployed people in the U.S., since the unemployed were suffering, and “everywhere about [the unemployed] is evidence of restricted plenty in the greedy hands of a few” (Storch, 113). In the Depression-era U.S., food sometimes rotted in the fields because low consumer spending made it unprofitable for farmers to harvest the food (Ross, 228).

Also, speaking at a Communist event about a group of 500 Arkansas farmers who asked for and then took food from a store without paying for it, CP leader William Foster said,

“Comrades . . . why do you workers admire the farmers in Arkansas for the bold stand that they took? I will tell you why. I will tell you why the workers of this country admire that handful of farmers, because every worker in this country thinks the same thing in his heart, that is what the workers should do, not stand aside and calmly starve in the midst of plenty, but force them to give out of their stores” (Lasswell, 158).

Radical leaders asserted that the right to live was superior to the right to profit, and the actions of many unemployed people in the early 1930s U.S. showed that they knew this. Planned, group looting for food and other necessities was widespread in the U.S. by 1932 (Bernstein, 422; Piven, 49). Also, the unemployed movement’s illegal physical resistance to evictions was an expression of the idea that tenants’ survival was more important than landlords’ profits (Folsom, 270).

Decline of the Unemployed Movement

The unemployed movement reached its greatest size in 1933 and then began to decline (Valocchi 1990, 191, 201). Several changes may have contributed to this decline. For example, 1933 New Deal laws that increased relief improved some unemployed people’s conditions, and the promises of the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, made some people worry less (Valocchi 1990, 197; Lasswell, 182; Storch, 128). In Chicago, increased relief caused the number of evictions to decline from 63,152 in 1932 to 8,876 in 1934 (Storch, 128).

Also, UC organizers’ rhetoric usually did not acknowledge the beneficial aspects of the 1933 New Deal programs, which may have made it less likely that some unemployed people who benefited from New Deal programs would stay involved in the UCs (Valocchi 1990, 197; Valocchi 1993, 465). The New Deal also caused UCs to lose active members as some members gained employment with government job programs, and some UC leaders took jobs with New Deal agencies, including at least two leaders of Chicago’s unemployed movement (Piven, 76, 79, and 85).

Also, in 1934, the CP shifted its focus from organizing the unemployed to organizing industrial workers, and moved some of its organizers out of UCs and into factories (Valocchi 1993, 458-459). The leaders of the unemployed movement also became more reluctant to criticize New Deal politicians, and began to discourage militant protests against government officials (Piven, 91; Valocchi 1993, 452).

There was significant turnover among unemployed activists, because many people left unemployed organizations once the organizations obtained more relief for their household, and unemployed people often found work or moved to find work (Piven, 72; Lorence, 45). As a result, fewer personal bonds developed between activists, and this may have affected the longevity of unemployed organizations (Lorence, 45). Finally, many UCs began charging membership dues in early 1934, which may have reduced the number of formal members (Valocchi 1990, 192; Piven, 72).

Chicago’s Unemployed Movement

The two main unemployed organizations in early 1930s Chicago were the Chicago UCs, which claimed 22,000 members and 45 local branches in the early 1930s, and the Chicago Workers’ Committee on Unemployment, which claimed 25,000 members in 1932 and 52 local branches in 1933 (Piven, 72; Hallgren 1933, 193).

The Chicago Unemployed Councils

Early in the Depression, the Chicago UCs focused on increasing relief and stopping evictions, particularly in poorer neighborhoods (Fried, 133; Lasswell, 171). There were frequent eviction protests in Chicago, where crowds of people would try to physically stop evictions (Piven, 54; Lasswell, 170). The protests often started when CP or UC leaders led people from Washington Park (a gathering place for demonstrations and political discussions in Chicago’s South Side) to the site of an eviction (Storch, 99,  112). Eviction protests sometimes also began when someone ran with news of an eviction to a local UC meeting hall (Lasswell, 170).

Unemployed people, who often socialized and relaxed in UC meeting halls, would then march towards the site of the eviction, and people would see the marchers and join them on the way (Lasswell, 170). These crowds would often move the evicted person’s furniture back inside and then gradually disperse (Lasswell, 170). Eviction protests sometimes had thousands of participants (Storch, 112). Eviction protests were often successful, because large crowds sometimes deterred police from interfering and landlords sometimes gave up on trying to evict people (Weyl, 118; Folsom, 270). Anti-eviction organizing by the UCs was concentrated on Chicago’s South Side (Storch, 112).

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Police attack UC protesters in front of the Humboldt Park relief office in Chicago on March 11, 1932. (Credit: Storch, 119)

Chicago UCs also held demonstrations in front of relief offices (such as the demonstration in the picture to the right) where crowds would demand relief for someone who had been denied relief or was not receiving relief in a timely manner (Lasswell, 171). People used money from relief offices for rent, food, clothing, fuel, or utilities (Storch, 116). Chicago UC protesters sometimes sat down in relief offices until their demands were met or police arrested them (Lasswell, 180). Relief office protests were often planned when UC activists who belonged to UC sub-groups called block committees learned of the desperate situation of someone on their block, and the activists knocked on the doors of everyone on the block (employed and unemployed) to invite them to a meeting about supporting their desperate neighbor (Storch, 105). At the meeting, the neighbors would decide what to do to help the person (Storch, 105). Relief office protests were the main focus of UC activity outside of the South Side (Storch, 116). Victories from these protests gave people a sense of their collective strength, led more people to participate in UC actions, and also led more people to tell the UCs about their individual problems related to relief or evictions (Lasswell, 171). 

The Chicago UCs also turned on the gas, electricity, and water of some unemployed people who could not pay their bills and left signs saying “Restored by the Unemployed Councils” to build their reputations, and organized for better conditions in flophouses (Storch, 103, 109, & 112-113).

Chicago UCs were largest in Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods, and the UCs’ members were mainly adult, male, unemployed people (Storch, 125-126). Although Chicago UC leaders encouraged women to join UCs and told male UC members to welcome women, women in many UCs tended to be given less powerful positions than men. So female activists formed about 20 women’s committees in Chicago in 1933 (Storch, 125-126). The women’s committees often promoted the UCs and participated in UC actions, while also fighting for several demands that the UCs did not usually fight for, such as relief in the form of pots and pans (Storch, 125-126).

Chicago UC members elected block committees, which each represented one or two city blocks (Folsom, 265). Block committees sent delegates to neighborhood UCs (Folsom, 265). Neighborhood UCs sent delegates to the Chicago UC, with the number of delegates depending on the size of the neighborhood UC (Folsom, 265).

Chicago police often ended UC demonstrations using violence or arrests (Lasswell, 169). The police also sometimes arrested UC organizers for distributing leaflets and broke up indoor UC meetings (Lasswell, 168).

Chicago UCs organized large interracial protests, sometimes on a scale that the city had not seen before (Storch, 114-115). In Chicago’s UCs, which were racially integrated, black and white activists worked together, including some whites who had never spoken to blacks before, and vice versa (Storch, 115). One black activist reported that they felt respected and that they could speak freely at UC meetings, even though they usually had not felt this way before in the presence of whites (Storch, 115). 

Chicago UCs taught skills related to activism to people who had not previously been politically involved, such as public speaking and challenging police officers and relief officials (Storch, 129). Also, many activists who gained skills in Chicago’s UCs became leaders of the Chicago CP or Chicago’s labor unions later in the 1930s, although these people did not necessarily gain their first experience with activism in the UCs (Storch, 103 & 128).

The Chicago Workers’ Committee on Unemployment

The Chicago Workers’ Committee on Unemployment (CWCU) was created in mid-1931 by members of the League for Industrial Democracy (Hallgren 1933, 193). Like the Chicago UCs, the CWCU held relief office demonstrations, and organized larger relief office demonstrations if their demands were not met (Weyl, 120). The CWCU also had grievance committees in most of Chicago’s relief offices that inspected relief officials’ work (Weyl, 120). The CWCU also organized a Speakers’ Bureau of volunteers who came to meetings of its local branches to teach people about economic problems, different proposed relief policies, and other aspects of economics (Asher, 168). Most of the CWCU’s members were poor relief recipients (Asher, 168).

The CWCU engaged in a successful campaign to prevent relief offices from closing in Cook County, where Chicago is located, although I do not know whether the CWCU’s efforts played the decisive role in this victory. In May 1932, the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission (IERC) announced that it was closing its relief offices due to relief funds being exhausted (Asher, 169). The CWCU sent delegations to city newspapers to demand that the newspapers report on the issue (which some newspapers agreed to do), asked for and received time on local radio stations to state its position, and lobbied the city’s wealthiest bankers to lend several million dollars to the county government to keep the relief offices open (Asher, 169). Several days after the IERC’s announcement, and the day before the relief offices were scheduled to close, local bankers loaned the county government more money than the CWCU had asked for—enough to keep the relief offices open for two more months (Asher, 169).

Although both the CWCU and the Chicago UCs called for a society controlled by ordinary workers, the CWCU differed from the UCs in that its leaders did not believe a revolution was probable in the near future (Lasswell, 276). CWCU leaders also did not refer to struggles in other countries as frequently as UC leaders, who held many demonstrations about issues in other countries (Lasswell, 276). The CWCU also tended to use less confrontational and disruptive tactics than the UCs (Lasswell, 276).

One factor in the decline of Chicago’s unemployed movement was that in 1933, Chicago relief officials began a policy of refusing to respond to unemployed groups’ protests, and Chicago police repression of protests in front of relief offices increased (Storch, 121; Lasswell, 180-182). Concessions granted by relief officials after relief office protests had helped unemployed groups to attract members by showing people that protests could lead to improvements in their lives, so the increased repression of relief office protests made it more difficult for Chicago unemployed groups to attract members (Storch, 121; Lasswell, 181).

Chicago Demonstrations and the Reversal of Government Decisions

The Chicago unemployed movement’s demonstrations against relief cuts (and in one case the movement’s announcement of a demonstration) in the early 1930s probably caused some relief cuts to be withdrawn. It is usually difficult to show that a protest tactic led to a social change (or to demonstrate that causal connections existed between different historical events in general), because for most social changes, there are a large number of factors that could have plausibly contributed to the changes. Also, it is usually difficult to measure the relative importance of various factors in producing a given social change.

However, instances where governments made decisions and then reversed those decisions a short time later make it simpler to identify the reasons for policy changes, because the short time periods limit the number of events that could have caused the governments to reverse their decisions. If an event happened before the original decision, then it is unlikely that the event caused the government to reverse its decision, because the event did not prevent the government from making its original decision. These kinds of situations might be some of the closest things to controlled experiments in the historical record.

In the early 1930s, there were several instances when Illinois authorities cut relief, and then quickly reversed their decisions after large demonstrations by unemployed groups. These kinds of prompt reactions by local governments to unemployed protests against relief cuts were apparently common in the early 1930s U.S. (Hallgren 1933, 192). In each of the examples below, the only event I know of that happened in the time between the decision to cut relief and the decision to restore relief, and that could have caused the decision to restore relief, was a protest by unemployed groups.

On October 1, 1932, Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak announced that the city would cut relief payments by half due to relief funds being exhausted (Fried, 134; Hallgren 1933, 132). The UC and the CWCU jointly organized a peaceful march of 10,000-50,000 people on October 31 that went past City Hall (Piven, 59-60; Storch, 122-123; Hallgren 1933, 132; NYT 11/1/32). (See the two pictures of this demonstration below.) The demands of the march included a withdrawal of the relief cut, an increase in relief, an end to evictions, and an end to workplace racial discrimination (Fried, 134; NYT 11/1/32). After the demonstration was announced, but before it took place, the secretary of the Illinois Emergency Committee on Unemployment (IECU) successfully persuaded the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to loan the IECU $6,300,000 to allow the continuation of relief, and Mayor Cermak announced that the cut would be withdrawn shortly after the demonstration (Hallgren 1933, 194).

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The October 31, 1932 Hunger March in Chicago. (Top photo credit: Storch, 123. Bottom photo credit: Shutterstock)

Also, in 1934, the Chicago City Council voted to cut food aid by 10%, leading to a large demonstration by primarily unemployed people, after which the city council restored the food aid (Piven, 67). Also, in 1935, Illinois stopped receiving federal relief money because the state government was not contributing enough relief, causing some relief offices to close (Piven, 67). Primarily unemployed people demonstrated in Chicago and the state capital of Springfield until the state legislature dedicated enough state funds to relief to restore federal relief (Piven, 67).

While these demonstrations probably caused relief cuts to be withdrawn, it is unclear how the demonstrations led to these victories. The demonstrations may have shown politicians the level of anger that the unemployed felt about specific grievances, and made the politicians fear the possibility that the unemployed would engage in violent protests if the grievances were not addressed. Some unemployed demonstrations aimed to create this kind of fear in politicians (Weyl, 118).

Also, the unemployed movement’s demonstrations often increased public and media attention to the plight of the unemployed (Weyl, 117; Bernstein, 427), partly because the demonstrations showed that there were many unemployed people who were suffering enough that they were willing to march. This increased public consciousness of unemployment may have made elected officials more eager to seem like they were responding to the social problem in order to protect their reelection chances.

Chicago Unemployed Councils’ Organizing in the Black Community

The UCs were more successful in organizing members of Chicago’s black community than other radical organizations in Chicago (Storch, 113). One writer estimates that in 1934, 21% of Chicago UC leaders and 25% of Chicago UC activists were black, and the CP and the UCs developed positive reputations in parts of Chicago’s black community (Storch, 111, 113, 115). Chicago’s population was 6.9% black in 1931 (Storch, 111). One reason why Chicago’s UCs had many black members was that the largest UCs were on the South Side, where unemployment was the highest (Storch, 112, 125), and the South Side was disproportionately black. Also, two of the main activities of Chicago’s UCs were helping potential relief recipients and stopping evictions, and Chicago’s relief recipients and victims of eviction were disproportionately black (Storch, 112).

There are several other factors that may have contributed to Chicago UCs’ successes in organizing black people. Chicago UC leaders spoke at existing institutions and existing gathering places for activists in the black community (Storch, 111). For example, UC activists spoke at predominantly black churches and met with the ministers of the churches (Storch, 112). UC activists also held demonstrations and spoke regularly at Washington Park (one of the major gathering places for demonstrations and political debates in Chicago’s black community) sometimes to thousands of listeners of all generations (Storch, 99, 111). The UCs had many black leaders, and members of the public often saw black UC organizers leading demonstrations (Storch, 112). Also, in their speeches, UC leaders emphasized their opposition to discrimination against black people in Chicago and other areas of the U.S. (Storch, 112).

Relief Actions and Chicago Officials’ Fear of Violent Protests

Fear of violent protests by the unemployed likely caused Chicago city officials to grant more relief and a temporary stop to evictions and rent in 1931, and probably increased Mayor Cermak’s willingness to lobby the federal government to send relief money to Chicago in 1932. Although Chicago officials’ concern about the possibility of violent protests might help to explain the officials’ decisions regarding unemployment relief, this does not mean that the officials’ concern about potential violence was created by the Chicago unemployed movement’s strategies, or that increasing concern about potential violence is the most effective or ethical strategy of achieving policy changes in any context.

Aftermath of Shootings by Police at a 1931 Eviction Protest

On August 3, 1931, in Chicago’s South Side area, UC leaders encouraged a crowd of people in Washington Park to walk to the site of an eviction a few blocks away and move the evicted person’s furniture back inside (Lasswell, 196-197; Storch, 99). During the eviction protest that followed, Chicago police shot and killed two to four black protesters, and three police officers were injured (Storch, 99-100; Folsom, 268; Grossman).

According to one Chicago UC organizer, the murders created profound anger, including in people who had not previously been politically active (Fried, 134). Beginning hours after the shootings, Chicago Communists distributed 50,000 pamphlets calling for the police officers who had committed the shootings to receive the death penalty (Fisher, 44; Lasswell, 198). Political meetings in Washington Park drew 5,000-10,000 people every evening for several days after the shootings, and about 40,000 black people and 20,000 white people attended the funeral of the victims (Storch, 100; Hallgren 1933, 179).

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The funeral procession for the people who were killed by the police during the August 3, 1931 eviction protest. (Credit: Storch, 101)

City newspapers focused on the shootings, and Chicago residents outside of the South Side, became fearful that there would be violent protests in the South Side, one of the most economically and racially oppressed areas of the city (Lasswell, 197-198). After the shootings, city officials sent 1,500 policemen into South Side neighborhoods, policemen dispersed any gatherings on the South Side, and several National Guard units prepared for action (Lasswell, 198; Hallgren 1933, 179), showing that Chicago elites were concerned about potential violent protests.

Chicago elites may have been afraid that South Side residents would commit violence in response to the shootings, especially in light of the outpouring of anger expressed by the large, nonviolent gatherings after the shootings. The elites may also have been afraid that the unusually violent conflict between protesters and police was a sign that South Side residents were becoming more frustrated with their social conditions, and were therefore becoming more likely to engage in violent protests.

Shortly after the shootings, Cermak ordered a temporary moratorium on evictions in Chicago and a temporary moratorium on rent, and the city government expanded its relief program (Piven, 55; Fisher, 44; Storch, 115). The argument that some writers have made that these policy changes resulted from city elites’ fear of violent protests on the South Side seems likely to be true considering that city elites’ actions show that the shootings increased the elites’ concern that people would engage in violent protests, and that the policy changes happened shortly after the shootings (Lasswell, 201; Fisher, 44). If this argument is correct, then the specific policy changes that city elites chose to avoid violent protests show that the elites were afraid of violent protests by the poor and the unemployed.

Mayor Cermak’s Requests for Federal Relief in 1932

In June 1932, Chicago was experiencing a severe fiscal crisis. Both the city and county governments were bankrupt and in debt (Hallgren 1932, 535). Salaries were months overdue to city workers. Local relief funds were exhausted. State relief funds were expected to run out in several weeks, and the state legislature refused to allocate more funds for relief (Bernstein, 467). Meanwhile, there were about 750,000 unemployed people in Cook County, only about 100,000 of whom were receiving relief (Bernstein, 467; Hallgren 1932, 534-535).

On June 21, 1932, Cermak told a congressional committee that if the federal government did not send $150 million for relief to Chicago immediately, they would have to send troops later, implying that without relief, the unemployed would engage in a violent rebellion (Bernstein, 467; Piven, 61). In July, Congress passed the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, which allocated $300 million in loans to the states for relief (Bernstein, 469), to be administered by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). Because of the fiscal crisis in Chicago, Illinois was the first state to receive a loan under this law (Bernstein, 471). In August, the RFC lent another $6 million to Illinois, saying that it would not lend to Illinois again unless the state legislature contributed more money to relief (Bernstein, 471).

In September, Cermak asked the RFC for $9 million, saying that Chicago had run out of relief money, and without a new loan, Chicago’s relief offices would close (Bernstein, 471). Cermak told the RFC directors, “I want this commission to know and the Governor to know that the stations should not be closed till after the Militia has been called” (Bernstein, 471). Despite the fact that the Illinois legislature had not contributed to relief since the RFC’s request for the legislature to do so, the RFC lent Illinois another $5 million in September (Bernstein, 471).

It is possible that Cermak was not genuinely concerned that the closing of Chicago’s relief offices would lead to a violent rebellion by the unemployed, and that he only raised this possibility in his lobbying because he believed that it would frighten federal officials. Also, there is little evidence that the decisions of Congress or the RFC were influenced by Cermak’s warnings about the possibility of violence by the unemployed. However, the most plausible explanation of these events seems to be that Cermak’s fear of violent rebellions by the unemployed (which also expressed itself in Cermak’s response to the police shootings discussed above) increased Cermak’s desire to lobby the federal government for relief funds.

Harmful Effects of Strict Communist Party Control on Chicago’s Unemployed Councils

Although the Chicago UCs had some autonomy from the national and Chicago CPs, the CP largely controlled the Chicago UCs’ political positions and strategies in the early 1930s. The national organization of UCs did not adopt a constitution until 1934, because the national organization wanted to allow for local variation across its member organizations. Chicago CP officials wrote of the importance of local variation among the UCs due to variation among Chicago’s neighborhoods. (Folsom, 267; Storch, 107).

Also, Chicago UCs varied in their structures and goals. Local UCs sometimes voted down CP decisions, and UC leaders sometimes worked with organizations that the CP did not approve of, over the CP’s objections (Storch, 102, 107 & 124). However, the CP largely controlled the political positions and strategies of the UCs, partly through the party’s power to expel leaders of local UCs (Storch, 124; Fisher, 42-43). For example, the CP dismissed one Chicago UC leader who publically questioned the CP’s decisions (Storch, 124).

The degree of control that the CP exercised over UCs in the early 1930s U.S. likely decreased the UCs’ effectiveness by decreasing experimentation with new tactics, decreasing democratic decision-making, and encouraging the UCs to denounce other left-wing organizations. The CP’s control over UCs made it difficult for the UCs to experiment with new tactics that may have increased their effectiveness (Valocchi 1993, 461). One of these new tactics was increased cooperation with other organizations, which Chicago UC organizers sometimes felt was beneficial, but which the CP often discouraged, because many of the other organizations were not as radical as the CP (Storch, 3, 123-124).

The CP’s efforts to control the UCs (which included discouraging the UCs from putting the CP’s decisions to votes) also decreased democratic decision-making in the UCs (Storch, 124; Valocchi 1993, 462-463). This may have decreased the UCs’ effectiveness by causing some ideas from people who knew more about local conditions than the national party to be excluded, and creating resentment among some members of the UCs.

Also, the UCs’ aggressive condemnation of other left-wing organizations, which the CP encouraged, likely alienated some unemployed people who supported the other organizations (Storch, 123 and 129). For example, Chicago UC leaders gave speeches condemning the leaders of the CWCU (Storch, 123), which was perhaps the largest unemployed organization in the city, and this likely alienated some of the CWCU’s supporters from the Chicago UCs.

One writer also argues that certain UCs that were more autonomous from the CP than UCs in cities like Chicago, had more members and less turnover than most other UCs, and certain other relatively autonomous UCs managed to maintain their levels of activity and public participation after the 1933 New Deal reforms, when many UCs began to decline (Valocchi 1993, 461-462; Valocchi 1990, 198). However, more research is needed on why certain more autonomous UCs seem to have had more stable public participation than many other UCs.

The Presence of Skilled Political Organizers

Although the widespread economic devastation of the Depression made the growth of a large unemployed movement more likely, skilled political organizers from the CP and other organizations facilitated the growth of the movement in the early 1930s U.S. by helping to move many economically devastated people to action (Valocchi 1990, 193-194; Valocchi 1993, 463; Goldberg). The CP sent organizers to cities to help to build local UCs, and paid the organizers stipends (Fisher, 38-39 and 42-43). UC organizers spoke to unemployed people at breadlines, relief offices, flophouses, factory gates, and on street corners (Fisher, 40-41). In 1930, one Communist official claimed that UC organizers had distributed millions of leaflets to organize the unemployed, and had helped to organize several demonstrations in most large U.S. cities (Piven, 75).

One writer argues that in the contemporary U.S., labor unions are well positioned to help progressive social movements to grow by providing additional skilled organizers and funding to those movements (Goldberg). The writer explains that U.S. labor unions own $34 billion in assets and have millions of members who are disproportionately progressive (Goldberg).

The Characteristics of Many Unemployed Council Organizers and Activists

The courage and persistence of many UC leaders and activists in early 1930s Chicago contributed to the successes of their organizations. For example, some Chicago UC leaders were arrested scores of times, often without having committed crimes, and Chicago UC leaders sometimes reported being beaten by police officers while they were in police custody (Hallgren 1932, 535; Hallgren 1933, 129-130; Fried, 133; Lasswell, 177, 179; Storch, 118). However, after being released from police custody, the organizers returned to work scores of times.

UC activists also continued to protest despite facing violent police repression. Activism continued despite the fact that Chicago police officers sometimes used fire hoses to break up eviction protests, and sometimes beat people at relief office protests, including children (Storch, 118). Participants in eviction protests sometimes refused to move when the police beat them or pointed guns at them (Cayton, 155-156). According to a reporter, on one occasion, when a police officer pointed his gun at a crowd of black Communist protesters who were going to stop an eviction, the crowd stood still (Cayton, 156). One young man stepped out of the crowd and told the officer:

“You can’t shoot all of us and I might as well die now as any time. All we want is to see that these people, our people, get back into their homes. We have no money, no jobs, and sometimes no food. We’ve got to live some place. We are just acting the way you or anyone else would act” (Cayton, 156).

The activist’s words show how much he cared about the survival of other people in his community. For some organizers and activists, the first-hand experience with vast human misery that they gained from working with the poorest members of society in the UCs, combined with their concern for others’ welfare, likely led them to take more risks and work more persistently. One writer believes that the commitment of U.S. UC organizers (who were usually CP members) partly derived from their sense of solidarity with other activists, their Marxist-Leninist education, and the moral authority of the CP (Valocchi 1993, 456; Fisher, 43). One potential question for further research might be why many UC organizers and activists showed such a strong commitment to their political work.

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A demonstration by thousands of unemployed people in Chicago in 1932. Three signs are legible. Two of the signs carry the names of flophouses, and the third says “Don’t starve fight.” (Credit: Encyclopedia of Chicago)

News Media Coverage of Chicago’s Unemployed Movement

Most news articles that I read in The New York Times about unemployed protests in Chicago during the early 1930s focus on what happened during the protests themselves, especially any violent clashes that occurred between protesters and police officers, and contain very little discussion of the political issues that the protests were about (NYT 3/7/30, NYT 11/25/30, NYT 11/26/32, NYT 3/5/33). However, some of the Times articles present the Chicago unemployed groups’ perspectives by including long quotes from the groups’ leaflets (NYT 2/22/30) or discussing the speeches that were given at the groups’ demonstrations (NYT 11/1/32).

The articles that I read in The New Republic and The Nation about the unemployed movement in the early 1930s contain national overviews of the movement or more detailed discussions of the movement’s activities in individual cities (Morrow, Weyl, Asher). These articles provide more information on unemployment and the unemployed movement than the Times articles that I read. However, this may partly be because the Times articles are news articles that limit themselves to discussing individual events such as protests, whereas the other articles are not news articles.

Also, unlike the Times articles, the articles in The New Republic and The Nation articles take positions on the movement’s demands. For example, one 1932 New Republic article about the unemployed movement in Chicago states, “[the unemployed] have no intention of watching an incompetent administration plunge them over the cliffs without themselves putting a hand to the reins. They refuse to starve” (Asher, 168).


march 3 number 3
A cartoon by Fred Ellis in the CP newspaper The Daily Worker advertising the March 6, 1930 international day of protest against unemployment, which was organized by the CP. “Fight—Don’t Starve” was a common banner at UC demonstrations (Cox). (Credit: Folsom, 432)

The fact that some relief cuts in the early 1930s were promptly withdrawn after demonstrations by Chicago’s unemployed movement indicates that the movement’s demonstrations probably caused the government to withdraw some relief cuts. Also, the Chicago UCs were relatively successful in organizing black residents of the city, perhaps partly because UC leaders spoke at existing institutions and gathering places in the black community, UCs had many black leaders who were visible to the public, and UC leaders were outspoken opponents of racial discrimination. The Chicago city government’s fear of violent protests by the unemployed likely caused the government to grant more relief and issue temporary stops to evictions and the charging of rent, and probably increased the mayor’s willingness to lobby the federal government for relief.

Also, the CP’s control of the UCs, including the Chicago UCs, likely decreased the UCs’ effectiveness by decreasing tactical experimentation and democratic decision-making and encouraging the UCs to condemn other left-wing organizations. Additionally, skilled political organizers increased the membership of the U.S. unemployed movement, and the courage and persistence of many UC leaders and activists contributed to the successes of their organizations. In the U.S., Communists and local unemployed movement leaders brought attention to the injustice of withholding food and housing from poor people in order to sell these resources as commodities for a profit, and promoted the idea that people had a right to these resources.

Instances where governments make decisions and then quickly reverse their decisions after activities by social movements can provide especially convincing evidence of social movements influencing policy. This is because there are a limited number of events in the short time periods between the decisions and their reversals that could have caused the governments to reverse their decisions.

Some questions that might be interesting to research further are why many UC organizers and activists showed such a strong commitment to their political work, why certain UCs that were more autonomous from the CP seem to have had more stable public participation than many other UCs, what lessons about interracial organizing can be drawn from the unemployed movement, and whether labor unions in the contemporary U.S. can devote more of their resources to helping progressive social movements to grow.


Allen, A. (1932, August). Unemployed Work—Our Weak Point. The Communist, 681-685.

American Civil Liberties Union. (1935). What Rights for the Unemployed? : A Summary of the attacks on the rights of the unemployed to organize, demonstrate and petition. New York City. 

Asher, R. (1932, September 28). The Jobless Help Themselves: A Lesson from Chicago. The New Republic, 168-169.

Author unknown. (1930, February 22) Chicago Red March Routed at City Hall. Crowd of 1,200 Jobless, Led by Communists, Are Charged by Mounted Police. Heads Battered, 12 Held. Mayor Thompson Guarded by Detectives—Demonstration Incited at Radical Meeting. The New York Times

Author unknown. (1930, March 7). Many Hurt in Riots in Nation’s Cities. Mounted Police Charge Crowds in Detroit and Cleveland During Red Rallies. 25 Injured in Pittsburgh. Order Prevails in Philadelphia and Chicago—Mayor Receives San Francisco Marchers. The New York Times

Author unknown. (1930, November 25). 50 Jobless Invade Chicago City Hall. Group is Routed Before it Can Enter Council Chamber—Communists Are Blamed. The New York Times

Author unknown. (1932, November 1). 10,000 Chicagoans Join ‘Hunger march.’ Chanting “We Want Bread,” Men, Women and Children Move in Rain Through Streets. Hold Peaceful Meeting. Exhorted by Reds While Demands for Cash for Unemployed are Presented to Mayor Cermak. The New York Times

Author Unknown. (1932, November 26). Capital Groups Warn the ‘Hunger Marchers.’ They Will Not Get Free Food and Lodging—Group of 350 Starts From Chicago. The New York Times

Author unknown. (1933, March 5). Idle March in Chicago. 12,000 Protest at Relief Cut – Brief Clash Occurs as Soviet Flag Tramped. The New York Times

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Ernest, G. (1933, October 1). Transients to Get Relief in Illinois. Eight Centres for Homeless and Jobless Planned by Federal Agency. Rehabilitation is Aim. Many of the Wanderers are Less Than 21 Years Old—Come From Various States. The New York Times.

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Weyl, N. (1932, December 14). Organizing Hunger. The New Republic, 117-120.