Don’t starve, fight!

Children were among tens of thousands communists and unemployed who marched on New York’s City Hall in a similar protest in 1932. Photograph: NY Daily News

Ninety years ago, on March 6, 1930, over a million people demonstrated across the United States for unemployment relief. The Great Depression had broken out a few months before, punctuated by the stock market crash of October 1929.

By the time 110,000 people gathered in New York City’s Union Square to demand help, the number of jobless had almost tripled. By 1933, 13 million people were unemployed, a quarter of the workforce. 

Those were “the good old days” before unemployment insurance and SNAP benefits (food stamps) were won. If you didn’t have family members able to help, you faced homelessness and hunger. New York City hospitals reported 94 deaths from starvation in 1931. 

The Communist International called for an International Unemployed Day on March 6, 1930. In the United States, the Communist Party and the Trade Union Unity League organized protests.

“Don’t starve, fight!” was the famous slogan used. A leading demand was “work or wages.”

“Last hired, first fired” is still the rule for Black workers in the U.S. It was worse 90 years ago. By 1934, 60 percent of African American men were jobless in Detroit. 

Black and white organizers in the Communist Party made special outreach efforts to African Americans. Black, white and Latinx workers rallied together on March 6, 1930. 

In Detroit’s Cadillac Square, 100,000 people gathered. Fifteen thousand people turned out in Flint, Mich., despite the police arresting the organizers before the demonstration.

Chicago’s police chief claimed that communists were threatening “bombings and assassinations.” That didn’t stop 50,000 workers from marching in the Windy City. Thirty thousand came out in Milwaukee. 

Fifty thousand marched in Pittsburgh, while 30,000 assembled in Philadelphia. In Ohio, 30,000 turned out in Cleveland and 15,000 in Canton. Large demonstrations were also organized in Baltimore, San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Daily Worker, March 7, 1930)  

Firefighters sprayed workers in Washington, D.C., with cold water as they approached the White House. New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker mobilized the entire police force to prevent people from marching to City Hall. 

Walker’s cops viciously beat workers with their clubs. Communist Party leaders William Z. Foster, Robert Minor and Israel Amter were arrested and sentenced to six months in jail for participating in an “illegal” demonstration.

Struggle wins some justice

A widespread myth is that President Franklin Roosevelt gave the people Social Security, unemployment benefits and the right to organize unions. None of these concessions were given. People had to fight for them.

Unemployed councils led by the Communist Party fought evictions and demanded jobs. During one struggle to keep a family in their home, Chicago police killed the Black activists Abe Gray, John O’Neil and Frank Armstrong on Aug. 3, 1931.

Thirty thousand people marched to protest this atrocity. Chicago Mayor Cermak was forced to halt all evictions. Everybody knew that it was the “reds” who won this moratorium.

A working-class upsurge began that organized millions of workers into unions. A 44-day sitdown strike shut down General Motors — then the world’s largest corporation — and won a union contract.

United States Steel agreed to sign a union contract, too. But not all struggles were victorious, at least at first. The strike against “Little Steel” — the smaller rivals of U.S. Steel — was drowned in blood.

Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Ed Kelly had his cops kill 10 striking steelworkers on Memorial Day in 1937. President Roosevelt’s cynical answer was to quote Shakespeare: “A plague on both your houses,” meaning that both the labor movement and big business were responsible for this bloodshed.

But how could any unions be organized at all when a fifth of the working class was jobless? The 19th century railroad tycoon Jay Gould bragged that he could hire one-half of the working class to shoot the other half. Some workers would be so desperate that they would cross picket lines just to eat. 

But the 1930s were different. All the anti-eviction struggles and hunger marches helped organize unions, too. So did the demonstrations to save the lives of the Scottsboro defendants — nine young Black men in Alabama falsely accused of rape — and to protest Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. 

Thousands of protests forced Roosevelt to establish the Works Progress Administration, which hired millions of jobless workers. 

Millions of the unemployed knew that the strikers at General Motors were fighting for them.

That’s the spirit that today’s labor movement needs to copy. The capitalist class wants to privatize both Social Security and the U.S. Postal Service. They want to get rid of everything that poor people won in the 1930s and 1960s.

Stopping the billionaire class from turning back the clock goes hand-in-hand with organizing workers at Amazon and Walmart. So does denouncing police brutality, defending immigrants and supporting Indigenous struggles. Don’t starve, fight!