Mar 18, 2002
In 1929, the financial bubble of the “roaring ’20s” burst. The stock market crashed. Companies and even banks went bankrupt. Factories closed. Millions of workers across the country lost jobs, homes, their life’s savings.
There was no unemployment insurance, no public assistance, no social security in 1929. Those without jobs survived only by their wits – or they starved.
In many cities, socialist and communist militants formed Unemployed Councils which attempted to organize the unemployed to demand food and other aid.
In Detroit, by March of 1932, 225,000 were unemployed. Over one-third of those were laid off from the Ford Motor Company. Detroit’s Unemployed Council organized a march on Ford’s River Rouge manufacturing complex, to demand that the unemployed be given their jobs back.
This march of about 4,000 workers went peacefully until the Ford marchers crossed from Detroit into Dearborn – when police tear-gassed them, the fire departments hosed them with blasts of icy water, and Ford’s private police force, the “service men,” opened fire on the crowd, with Dearborn police following suit. Four of the organizers, in the front, were killed instantly. One wounded worker died weeks later. About 60 others were wounded – shot in the back as they fled.
The Unemployed Council held a massive public funeral march for the four murdered. A massive crowd, tens of thousands strong, took over the broad main street. Detroit police decided it was better to disappear. For several miles, through the downtown area, stopping all traffic and all business, the crowd escorted the victims to their graves. Nothing like this had ever been seen in Detroit.
The Ford Hunger March of 1932 may have marked a set-back to the workers’ movement – for a brief period – as did a number of other strikes during 1932 and 1933. But these first actions gave heart to the workers and unemployed who were ready to fight. By 1934, workers had begun to win a few very important strikes which then gave a huge impulse to the workers’ movement and finally to the “sit-downs” of 1936-37 – that is, to the workers’ take-overs of their factories.
Out of these struggles were born the fighting unions of the 1930s. The movement forced the giant corporations and their government to accept the workers’ unions. They were forced to install the “social safety net” of social security, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, and public welfare.
The power and audacity of this movement rested on the leadership and inspiration of political militants, of socialists and communists.
Today, 70 years after the Hunger March, some union officials and some politicians celebrate its anniversary and try to borrow its credit for themselves. But had it been left up to bureaucrats and politicians like those today, no Unemployed Councils would have existed. No leadership would have been available to workers ready to wage a relentless battle against capital and its defenders.
The next upsurge of the workers’ movement will need to find its leadership from the same sources as did that of the 1930s.