Massive Unemployment: Proof That Global Capitalism Doesn't Work
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Just as telling, the unemployed and those still at work but at loggerheads with their bosses frequently displayed their solidarity in public. During the “Great Insurrection” of 1877, when railroad strikers from coast to coast faced off against state militias, federal troops, and the private armies of the railroad barons, they were joined by regiments of the “reserve army.” Often these were their neighbors and family members, but also strangers who, feeling an affinity for their beleaguered brethren, preferred setting fire to railroad engine houses than going to work in them as scabs. Amid the awful depression of the 1890s, a cigar maker caught the temper of the times simply: “I believe the working men themselves will have to take action. I believe those men that are employed will have look out for the unemployed that work at the same business they do.”
Marching Armies (of the Unemployed)
Demonstrations of the unemployed resurfaced with each major economic downturn. In the depression winter of 1893-1894, for example, ragged “armies” of the desperate gathered in various parts of the country, 40 of them in all. (Eighteen-year-old future novelist Jack London joined one in California.) The largest commandeered a train in an effort to get to Washington, D.C., and was chased for 300 miles across Montana by federal troops.
The most famous of them was led by Jacob Coxey, a self-made Ohio businessman. “Coxey’s Army” (more formally known as “the Commonwealers” or the “Commonwealth of Christ Army”) made it all the way to the capital, a “living petition” to Congress. It was led by his 17-year-old daughter as “the Goddess of Peace” riding a white horse.
In the nation’s capital, the “Army” lodged its plea for relief, work, and an increase in the money supply. (Jacob’s son was called “Legal Tender Cox.”) President Grover Cleveland wasn’t hearing any of it, having already made his views known in 1889 during his first term in office: “The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include support of the people.”
Christian charity was not Cleveland’s long suit. Others of the faith, however, believers in the social gospel and Christian socialism especially, staged spectacular public dramas on behalf of the “shorn lambs of the unemployed” -- even a mock “slave auction” in Boston in 1921 during a severe post-World War I slump, in which the jobless were offered to the highest bidders as evidence of what “wage slavery” really meant.
The Great Depression brought this protracted period of labor turmoil to a climax and to an end. In its early years, the ethos of “mutualism” and solidarity between the employed and unemployed was strengthened. In those years, railroads began to report startling jumps in the numbers of Americans engaged in “train hopping” -- the rail equivalent of hitchhiking. On one line, the “hoppers” went from 14,000 in 1929 to 186,000 in 1931.
In 1930, when the unemployment rate was at about today’s level, in cities across the country the first rallies of the unemployed began with demands for work and relief. Later, there were food riots and raids on delivery trucks and packinghouses, as well as the occupations of shuttered coalmines and bankrupt utility companies by the desperate who began to work them.
“Leagues” and “councils” of the unemployed, sometimes organized by the Communist Party, sometimes by the Socialist Party, and sometimes by a group run by radical pacifist A.J. Muste, marshaled their forces to stop home evictions, support strikes, and make far-reaching proposals for a permanent system of public works and unemployment insurance. Muste’s groups, strong in the Midwest, set up bartering arrangements and labor exchanges among the jobless.