recession, resistance, revolution, part one

This week I attended another talk organized by the International Socialists. I wrote about my first experience with this group here, and posted the talk I heard here. This was the second meeting I attended.

These talks have been very interesting and educational, but beyond that, it's been so enriching for me to find this group, one that I'm so comfortable with both socially and politically. Talking with one of the members - who is also a leader of the War Resisters Support Campaign - I realize (as I suspected) that my prior bad experiences with socialist groups was not at all unique.

In the past, the groups I checked out were either purely theoretical, not activists at all, or frighteningly authoritarian, or puzzlingly dogmatic. People would ignore or even defend repressive regimes if they were supposedly leftist. And the dynamics of group themselves were often exclusionary or autocratic or hierarchical.

My friend told me when she casting around for a socialist group to get involved with, she would ask each organization about its stance on gay rights. She is gay, and was active in the movement from a young age. But this was the late 1970s, and group after group failed the litmus test. Only IS clearly articulated an unequivocal stance on gay rights.

This is group is democratic, egalitarian, inclusive, and geared towards activism. In some ways, finding them feels like coming home.

Here's the talk given this week by Pam Johnson: "1930s: Recession, Resistance, Revolution". If you enjoy hidden history - the history most of us didn't learn in school - you may appreciate this.

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1930s: Recession, Resistance, Revolution

We have been regularly hearing the current economic crisis being compared to the great depression of the 1930s. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost jobs, homes and pensions.

In the 1930s, like today, although workers did not create the crisis they were made to pay with their livelihoods or if they had a job with ever harsher working conditions.

We can see a similar situation developing today. Despite finance minister Jim Flaherty calling this is a mild recession and the business press saying recovery is just around the corner, the reality is that ordinary people are struggling and at the moment the end is not in sight.

In the face of the misery of the great depression of the 1930s there was also a massive fightback by workers and the unemployed that significantly changed the face of organized labour and brought us gains like a social safety net that we still enjoy - or, more accurately, that we are fighting to hang on to today.

Tonight we're going to look at some of the ways workers fought back. I'm going to talk about what was going on among workers, especially the fight for industrial trade unions in workplaces. Phil [the other speaker that evening] will talk about how communities and the unemployed were organized to fight.

The situation of trade unionism in the lead-up to the Great Depression

Although the Great Depression was a global phenomenon it was harshest in North America, particularly in the US. An active period of radicalism after WWI had expanded trade unions. But by the mid-1920s employers unleashed an offensive of intimidation and violence that led to a decline in trade union membership.

The result was a low level of trade unionism by start of the Depression. Also, trade unions that existed were still based on the craft union model in which workers were organized based on their occupation, which meant that workers in the same workplace might be in different unions.

Also, workplaces were open shops, meaning that there could be a mix of unionized and non-unionized workers. Obviously this provided the employer with easy opportunities to divide workers against each other.

The umbrella union federation at the time was the American Federation of Labour, the AFL. It supported the craft union model and was not militant, preferring to work with employers and the government.

Depression conditions - years of deepening unemployment

So, at the start of the depression in 1929, trade unions were weak. And by 1933 millions were unemployed and those with jobs were subject to speed-ups, wage cuts, extended hours on threat of being fired.

The US elected Roosevelt president in 1932 on a promise of a "New Deal" — basically government stimulus to the economy. Roosevelt was no particular friend to workers but in the effort to stabilize capitalism he offered a sop to workers in 1933, when he introduced the National Industrial Recovery Act. It included a clause that gave employees the right to organize and collectively bargain with employers through representatives of their own choosing. Roosevelt's intent was to prop up the conciliatory AFL, and dampen worker militancy, but the act had the opposite effect, electrifying the working class who demanded to form industrial unions putting the idea of the open shop under attack.

In 1933, one of the worst years of the depression, after years of harsh conditions, pent up anger exploded. There was a wave of strikes across the country with demands for industrial unions and better working conditions. In July of 1933, there were 300 strikes in the US; in August there were another 400.

These strikes received no support from AFL, which called for letting Roosevelt take care of things. Some craft union leaders publicly denounced the strikes. The strike wave was met by a vicious campaign of attacks by employers using vigilantes and private police and abetted by local police and politicians. The scenario was often that vigilantes would break up meetings and pickets lines, beating workers. Local police would "arrive late" and arrest the beaten workers for disturbing the peace.

It was clear government paid only lip service to workers rights because they did nothing to stop the violence. Just to give you a sense of the level of brutality unleashed on strikers, by 1934, 55 strikers had been killed and hundreds beaten.

The Role of the Left

By 1934, the massive strike wave was starting to be pushed back by repression. But in 1934, there were several significant strikes that would turn the tide back to radical engagement and in the process transform the labour movement.

In all cases these strikes were led by militants carrying socialist politics and organizing at the level of the rank and file. They stepped into a contradictory situation - a radical mood that was turning to despair, plus the vacuum of leadership. A Trotskyist from that period recalled it as a time when "one leftist among a thousand workers was enough to give the group direction and stimulus".

On one occasion:
We hired a hall that seated 30 people and gave out leaflets inviting workers of a certain shop to a meeting. Of the 275 employees more than 200 turned up; we had to adjourn to a nearby parking lot, where all the workers present signed application cards.

It was, he remembered:
An exhilarating time for young radicals. When I got on the bus, strangers were talking freely about how the union drives were going in their shops. I have never seen anything like it before or since. This must be, I thought to myself, how things are during a revolution.

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Part two, coming very soon. (This time I mean it!)

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