The Republic of the Penniless

I

A VACATED loft, one flight up from a busy down-town street, serves as headquarters for the Seattle Unemployed Citizens’ League. A few months ago this loft was lavishly hung and decorated, and gay with seductive music and tinkling glasses, for it was then the High Hatters’ Club, an exclusive cabaret. Now all that is reminiscent of former gayety is the orchestra stage at one end of the large room. What was once the dance floor is filled with chairs and used as an assembly hall, and the entertainers’ dressing rooms and the rest rooms are now utilized as executive offices and committee chambers. These walls that not long ago looked down upon gleaming shirt fronts and perfumed ladies, flushed with dancing and merry with drink, now reflect the shadows of sober, worried men in wrinkled, shabby suits — men caught in a bewildering economic cataclysm which has left them jobless and discouraged, but as yet undefeated.

A table or two, a few kitchen chairs, one telephone, and one typewriter constitute the furniture of the executive offices. On the wall hangs a map of Seattle, divided into twenty-two districts, with a red circle marking central headquarters. The twenty-two districts represent local organizations of the Unemployed Citizens’ League — they are the states of this unique Republic of the Penniless, and these bare offices are the capitol. Here the executive committee, headed by the president, meets daily, and once each week a larger assembly is held, attended by five elected delegates from each local.

From these headquarters are directed the activities of what is perhaps the most striking social and economic experiment that has come out of these troubled times. Not satisfied to eat the bread of charity in passive idleness, the unemployed of Seattle have created their own order. They have had no money — only hours unwanted by lagging industries, hours which their self-respect would not permit to remain empty. With time and skills of various kinds as their only capital, they have produced a coöperative economic system significant in its implications, and a self-contained social life strangely touching in the warmth and kindliness it has generated. The members of the League, together with their dependents, number more than 40,000 within the corporate limits of Seattle. In recent months affiliated leagues have sprung up throughout every part of the State of Washington, bringing the total membership to upwards of 80,000.

Without money or paid workers (there are no dues and no employees), this organization, formed in October 1931, directs the distribution of food, purchased by public funds, through the twenty-two commissaries which it has established and which it operates. In addition, it grows and gathers food upon its own initiative; cuts and supplies wood for its members; operates its own self-help manufacturing and servicing industries, and puts in repair abandoned dwellings and deserted apartments to provide shelter for evicted families. It was formed with three purposes in mind: to increase employment, to provide self-help, and to afford relief, but it has added a fourth, daily growing in importance — to influence political action.

The six men and one woman elected to the League’s executive board are literally unemployed and without income. The president, J. F. Cronin, an ex-newspaper reporter now nearing seventy, lives in a $4000 home carrying a $1300 mortgage with interest far in arrears. Other members of the board are in like insecure economic positions. Politically, they represent a cross section of America — some have been Republicans and Democrats, one is independent, and another, who was jailed during the World War for pacifist views, is a Socialist.

II

Beginning with casual neighborhood discussions, a small group formed, in September 1931, to see if steps could be taken coöperatively to gain employment. The men and women who made up this group were not the chronically unemployed; their condition was a new experience to most of them, unbelievable at first, but disturbingly exigent as the depression persisted and jobs became daily more difficult to find. After several similar neighborhood groups had been formed, they consolidated into the present federation, the Unemployed Citizens’ League.

With an organization perfected, the League quite naturally turned to the City Council for aid. Business was finding itself confronted with everdiminishing markets, the usual industrial jobs were nowhere available, and the unemployed, of course, had no means at their command to aid general business recovery. Hence, they proposed to the Council, through their League, that an emergency fund of $1,000,000 be included in the forthcoming tax budget, the whole of this fund to be expended in labor to be employed in such public improvements as might otherwise be deferred. The proposal included the suggestion that the wage scale, fixed by ordinance for city employees at $4.50 a day for common labor, should not be reduced, but that employment should be rotated to provide one week’s work a month for each head of a family. If this were done, it was felt that the winter, and perhaps the crisis, might be passed with a minimum of direct relief.

The City Council was receptive, but indecisive. The numerical strength of the League commanded respect, and the human issues at stake could not decently be ignored. However, there were the usual technicalities. The largest amount permitted by law for emergency purposes was $426,000. This was included in the proposed budget, and an additional amount of $428,000 was found to be permissible for park improvements. Together these totaled $854,000, not so far from the million requested, and the unemployed felt that they had made signal progress. But further technicalities cropped up. It was discovered that park improvement money had to be expended under civil service rules, which limited employment to those already on the city pay rolls. Unexpected difficulties arose, too, as to the expenditure of the permissible emergency fund. The Council could come to no agreement as to what work should and should not be done, and, as a result, of the amount requested only $144,000 was made available for direct labor, and $30,000 for direct relief.

The wages paid for this labor were not the $4.50 requested by the League, however, but $1.50 to $3.00 a day. This lower scale, which the League felt was inadequate when employment was intermittent at best, was made effective at the behest of the Mayor’s Commission on Improved Employment. For a time the League and this Commission had worked together, but complete disagreement on the question of wages led at first to bitterness, and finally to an open breach. Disappointed and disillusioned in its first attempt to provide gainful employment for its members, the League turned its attention to self-help.

III

Seattle, aside from its shipping, is largely supported by three major industries — lumber, fishing, and agriculture. Raw timber was deteriorating in sawmill yards and ponds; warehouses were loaded with canned salmon begging for a market; produce was rotting in farmers’ fields; and, in the midst of this plenty, men and women and children were lacking fuel and food. So far as the unemployed were concerned, these goods might as well have been on another planet.

The situation was surveyed by the League. Timber in the lumberman’s yard could not be touched, but there were tracts near by with scrubby, unmerchantable trees upon them. Canned salmon was private property, but the waters of Puget Sound still abounded in fish. Farm produce which could not be held over until another season might be procurable if transportation could be arranged.

Members of the fishermen’s union, who were likewise members of the League, made arrangements whereby fishing boats were made available. Permission was granted by Yakima Valley farmers for the unemployed to dig potatoes and to salvage unmarketable pears and apples. Owners of scrub timber tracts were persuaded to grant the League the right to cut trees for fuel. Trucks were donated, in some instances by private firms and in others by League members. Crews were organized, and the self-help programme became a reality. During the fall and winter of 1931, 120,000 pounds of fish, 10,000 cords of firewood, and eight carloads of potatoes, pears, and apples were furnished for unemployed relief by the unemployed themselves.

As winter set in, new activities came into existence. Among those out of work were cobblers, dressmakers, barbers, cabinetmakers, and other trained craftsmen. In the various locals, shops were set up, — shoe shops, dressmaking establishments, and barber shops, — while carpenters, plumbers, and electricians were available for home repairs. Children’s shoes were half-soled, women obtained new dresses, men’s and women’s hair was trimmed, houses were repaired, plumbing and wiring fixed, and not one dollar changed hands. In this Republic of the Penniless, honorable unemployment was all that passed for currency.

While these activities were under way, the usual charitable and relief organizations were at work — the Community Fund, Salvation Army, Volunteers of America, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and others; but the majority of the unemployed did not want to go to them for help. Many of the members of the League had been past contributors to the funds of such organizations, but their methods of relief, strict and professional, did not appeal to this large army of men and women desirous of maintaining their self-respect. Besides, the problem of relief had by this time assumed proportions far beyond the powers of these agencies to meet.

With twenty-two local commissaries established throughout the city, the League had conveniently set up depots for food distribution, but the food which could be provided by the League’s own efforts was poorly balanced and undependable. The Mayor’s Commission on Improved Employment, working upon the same problem, had established five depots for the distribution of food to be purchased by county funds. The Unemployed Citizens’ League, however, objected to this plan, and made a counter proposal containing two major points: first, that the distribution of food be handled by the unemployed themselves; second, that it be distributed through the twenty-two locals already operated by the League rather than through the five depots of the Mayor’s Commission.

No words were minced in presenting this proposal. It was argued that the distribution of food through League commissaries would be cheaper, since there would be no paid workers, and, further, that the usual inquisitorial methods of relief workers were revolting. Seattle is a big city, said the League’s representatives, and it would be impractical to serve all districts with only five depots; it would be an imposition to ask that shoe leather be worn out in unnecessary walking. Both points were carried, and the League now has complete charge of the distribution of food through its own locals. The food is purchased with county and city funds by county and city purchasing agents, but not one dollar is paid for its handling and distribution, which are carried on by the unemployed themselves.

Vacated garages, stores, and halls have been utilized as local relief headquarters and commissaries. All the work of building counters, racks, storerooms, desks, chairs, and other needed equipment has been done by the unemployed. All able-bodied men whose families are obtaining relief through the commissaries must contribute work to the common good. This work takes many forms — committee assignments, waiting on ‘ customers,’cleaning, sweeping, investigating, visiting the sick, clerical work, woodcutting; and, whenever possible, the men are assigned to the trades with which they are familiar — carpentry, cobbling, barbering, or whatever it may be.

IV

One local, typical of many in its general features, is housed in what was formerly an automobile salesroom and garage. The plate-glass windows, which once permitted an unobstructed view of the latest models, have been made opaque with green paint, the League feeling that its patrons have a right to as much privacy as it can contrive to give them. The erstwhile showroom is the commissary. A long counter has been built, with racks behind it which hold sales books similar to those used by the corner grocer. Each family is listed, and an accurate record is kept of the food distributed from day to day; $2.16 worth, at wholesale prices, is the maximum amount allowed each week to a family of four. If there are children in the family, milk is provided when available, and, whenever possible, oranges and greens. The diet has been worked out as well as possible by the Home Economics Department of the University of Washington. But the food of charity is bitter; as one woman expressed it, ‘No food tastes like earned food.’

At one end of the room are two windows, one labeled ‘Medical Department’ and the other ‘Wood Delivery.’ In the medical department a few home remedies are available, and arrangements can be made for free medical or dental care. The delivery department handles the distribution of the wood that is cut by the crews of the League. At the other end are the offices. They happen to be well furnished, because this local has among its members unemployed woodworkers who have utilized scrap lumber to make desks and filing cabinets. The activities are well organized and delegated, and when the day’s work is done every record is up to date and available, every paper filed, and every desk clear. Surplus food, if any, is returned to stock; the floor, walls, and counters are made immaculate; the doors are locked, and an unemployed night watchman is on duty to make the rounds until morning.

In what was formerly the repair room of the automobile agency are the shops. These include shoe repairing, woodworking, barbering, dressmaking, and auto repairing. Without funds, their operation is of necessity precarious. One man complained that he had waited three weeks to get his boy’s shoes half-soled. ‘We are out of materials,’ he was told. Since wood is plentiful about Seattle, the cabinet shop is usually amply supplied, enabling it to furnish window frames, doors, coolers, and such things as may be needed to maintain unemployed homes in livable condition. The barber shop bobs and cuts hair, but, having no running water, does no shaving. The auto repair shop takes care of those trucks owned by the unemployed which are utilized in wood hauling and in grocery delivery to homes where illness prevents calling at the commissary.

The basement is devoted to the storage of food and materials — wood, cloth, and other shop supplies. Except for food, all these materials are ‘chiseled,’ to use the term current among the unemployed. To ‘chisel’ means to beg — a word that is carefully avoided. As one man, polished and educated, expressed it: ‘Of course we don’t like to do it, but there is no other way out. We need an expression such as the French had: “C’est la guerre.” With us, “C’est la depression ” ’ — and he shrugged his shoulders eloquently.

The difficulties encountered in the chiseling process are illustrated by the experience of one local with its ice machine. Every part had been supplied and assembled but one, and efforts to obtain the missing part were unsuccessful. Its cost, new, would not have exceeded ten dollars, but it might as well have been ten thousand; so the machine stood idle, and hopes for supplying ice to unemployed homes through the summer months had to be held in abeyance.

As the days have gone on, with no prospect of radical improvement in business conditions, the social life of the locals has increased. Dances and entertainments are held frequently. Usually a five-cent admission is named, — that is, if one has a nickel, one is supposed to pay, — but it is not required, nor particularly expected. Outsiders are welcomed at twenty-five cents each. The meagre funds thus raised are used to augment the materials obtained by chiseling committees. The entertainment is often surprisingly good, professional musicians and former actors adding a touch of trained ability and experienced direction to amateur efforts.

Last Christmas a huge party was held at central headquarters. An old man with natural long white hair and whiskers, who in happier years had played the rôle of Santa Claus for Seattle stores, now performed for the children of the unemployed. A large Christmas tree was decorated with such tinsel and colored gadgets as could be secured, and at its base were piled homemade toys, and old ones repainted and repaired — something for every child. Christmas carols were sung and games were played; but the party broke up early, and parents took their children home through the cold, drizzling rain.

V

When the new year came, bringing with it small hope for improved conditions, the League took stock of its progress. Some amelioration of the circumstances of the unemployed had been brought about, and the activities provided through League work had been helpful in maintaining morale. Still, the ultimate solution — employment — seemed as far away as ever. With a sigh, the League turned to political activity.

Among the unemployed were citizens of every political complexion, and no solidarity or unanimity of opinion existed at first except within a small group of Communists, who have been active agitators throughout the history of the League. These have taken a position against all self-help activity, maintaining that the solution of the economic problem is to be reached only through mass action. They have been in the minority, however, and thus far have made few converts. But as unemployment has persisted, the ties which have bound one unemployed person to another have grown stronger. A common feeling of dissatisfaction with the present economic order has gradually pervaded the organization, and with it has come a desire for changes, fundamental and far-reaching.

Early in the year the League approached the City Council and requested the use of the civic auditorium, rent free, for a mass meeting. A city ordinance specifically prohibited the donation of auditorium facilities to any organization, and the request was refused. Shortly thereafter the city elections were held, and the three councilmanic candidates as well as the nominee for Mayor endorsed by the League were overwhelmingly elected. Sensing a new power, the City Council reversed its decision regarding the auditorium, turned it over to the League rent free, and donated the street cars (which are municipally owned and operated) for the transportation of unemployed citizens without fare.

The mass meeting was attended by more than ten thousand people, an auditorium crowd greater than the one which had greeted Jack Dempsey at his personal appearance in Seattle. In action it was indefinite and inconclusive. Speeches made by city officials were applauded in spots and drowned with catcalls and boos in others. A man who spoke on Soviet Russia received but scant attention. Leaders in League work were warmly received, and listened to with interest and approval, but opinion had not yet crystallized, and the meeting adjourned with little accomplished.

The work of the League, however, was carried on with continued vigor, and its activities and form of organization were studied and adopted by neighboring cities. In the early spring a loose federation of these leagues was formed, and a date was set for a statewide convention of the unemployed to be held in Tacoma, forty miles south of Seattle.

VI

This convention, with delegates from Bellingham, Everett, Yakima, Seattle, and rural communities of the state, convened on May 29. Most of those who attended were penniless, and all were jobless, but the meeting was characterized by warmth and humor. Anecdotes were told of the difficulties overcome in reaching the convention city. One man had driven a dilapidated car seventy miles on its rims. Another had come thirty miles on a mule; he had had neither food nor shelter for man or beast, he said, and while he could stand the depression himself, he feared it would kill the mule.

Resolutions condemning present economic conditions and urging publicworks relief programmes were passed and forwarded to the state and national governments, but the most fundamental decisions reached were two which applied to future activities of the League itself.

The first of these was embodied in a proposal to introduce a system of barter between rural and urban communities. A farmer from Yakima made the motion.

‘We farmers are broke,’ he said, ‘but we still have land. We’ll grow food and trade it for shoes, clothes, and other things you people can make in the city. Since we can’t earn money, we’ll do without it. We’ll return to the ageold method of primitive peoples, barter, and make commodities our medium of exchange.’

This activity, haltingly begun, has since become a reality. The League has delegated representatives who go to the farms, obtain such produce as is available, and make lists of those needs of the farmers which can be supplied by League manufactories. No standard of values has as yet been established upon which to conduct this barter. The produce obtained has largely been that which would otherwise not be marketed; the goods returned in payment have been shoes, clothing, and lumber. The demand for lumber has come from the eastern part of the state, which is for the most part lacking in timber, and the League has obtained the use of an abandoned sawmill to meet this demand. Of the many paradoxes in our economic maladjustments, none is more striking than this, for lumberyards in the western part of the state are piled high with lumber that has grown gray and weather-beaten vainly awaiting a market.

The second proposal adopted by the Tacoma convention had to do with political action. A motion was unanimously carried to the effect that the State Federation was to remain clear of political alliances, holding its voting strength free and unentangled, to be swung to whatever party or candidates, in the Federation’s opinion, offered the most promising approach toward a solution of the economic dilemma.

While the convention was in session, an aspirant for the office of Governor paid for a radio broadcast of the convention’s proceedings, and during the broadcast requested the privilege of a ten-minute address to the assembled delegates. His request was voted down, and he was told that he might discontinue the broadcast if he so desired. There was no enmity implied in this stand, it was made clear, the Federation merely desiring to remain politically uncommitted and uninfluenced. The radio broadcast was not withdrawn.

VII

With the coming of spring, the Seattle League’s self-help efforts were redoubled. Woodcutting crews have provided more than three thousand cords a month, cut into stove lengths and stored in League commissaries. An ex-service man has been in charge, and the work has proceeded with military precision. Camp kitchens were set up and the workers had their noonday meal on the ground. It is estimated that enough wood has been cut to provide fuel for the winter for every unemployed home in Seattle, regardless of League affiliation.

Wherever possible, vacant lots and small tracts outside the city have been utilized for truck gardening, and unemployed women have canned and preserved as much fruit and vegetables as possible. This activity has proved disappointing, however, and there is real concern on the part of the unemployed over the shortage of greens. They have medical opinion on which to base their fears. ‘The food supplied is filling,’ said one doctor who donates his services to the League, ‘but it is too heavy in starch. We are beginning to see rickets in children, and the ill effects of the diet will be felt by all if present conditions continue much longer.’

The problem of housing has been a vexatious one. With the passage of time, rents and payments have gone further and further in arrears, and evictions have increased. Scouting committees have found vacant, rundown houses, and the League has made proposals to owners that it would repair these homes and put the premises in good order in return for free rent. When this has been permitted, skilled workers have been assigned to the job. If painting or other work requiring the purchase of materials was needed, such purchases have been up to the owner to approve or veto as he desired — all labor being free, of course.

Such efforts have helped, but they have not solved the housing problem. Instances of direct action have occurred. One woman, returning with her husband from the city hospital with a new baby, found her other five children and the family furniture moved out on the sidewalk. The husband hurried to a near-by League local and returned with some twenty men, who moved the furniture back in and established a picket. When police were ordered to the scene by an irate owner, they saw men mowing the lawn, sweeping the front porch, carrying in kindling, and washing windows. ‘The case is one for the sheriff’s office,’ they telephoned the owner.

In other cases, when water has been turned off, League members have gone in a body and turned it on, in some instances laying new pipes to the water main. Many ways have been devised to circumvent gas and electric meters, but these are all temporary expedients. In one home, on a cold day in early March, a woman was found heating milk for a sick baby over a flickering candle. There was no fuel, but the League has always remedied such conditions when discovered.

VIII

Within the locals of the League, ideas for various special activities are budding. One of the largest in the city is definitely planning dress and shoe factories with a view to selling their products in the open market. Acting upon legal advice, it has formed a separate organization within itself for this purpose. Funds thus earned, it is agreed, shall go for the purchase of materials — none, for a time at any rate, to labor. Through this method of lifting themselves by their boot straps the members hope eventually to become totally self-supporting — an independent guild of coöperative craftsmen. They admit the unfairness of this proposed competition with existing businesses — ‘But what are we to do?' they ask.

Other locals work to maintain morale and to raise sagging spirits. One holds weekly get-togethers in a colored Baptist church, where speeches are made, ideas interchanged, songs sung, and entertainments staged. Another local, frankly Communistic in personnel, awaits the collapse of capitalism in sullen silence, dispiritedly doing no more than is absolutely necessary to soften the hardships of unemployment.

At headquarters, planning and strategy continue. A march on the state capitol at Olympia, sixty miles away, to demand a special session of the legislature for relief action, was recently organized. Weekly meetings are held jointly with the League for Independent Political Action, and the conviction grows that ultimate salvation lies in a directed use of the ballot. Chiseling committees report increasing difficulty in obtaining materials, as manufacturers refer requests to their secretaries, who are instructed to say no. As I write, midsummer is here; soon what seasonal activity there is in lumber camps and on the farms will cease. Winter looms ahead, and the League faces growth in membership.

‘We don’t want it to grow,’ says the president, a weary old man, as he sits at his deal table in executive headquarters. ‘We’d like to be able to disband, but we must not and we won’t. We’re dreadfully close to this problem, and the outlook is dark. We fail to understand how men in dominating political, financial, and industrial positions can ignore the necessity for fundamental change if the present worldwide breakdown is to be corrected. We’re doing our best to meet a situation not of our own making. We have unworthy ones in our ranks, yes, but they are less than five per cent of our total. Most of our members are good people.’ He rises to his feet and paces the room. ‘Good people!’ he cries. ‘I never knew, until I got into this work, how good people can be! ’

He stands at the window and looks down at the unheeding street. ‘Most of us in this work are near life’s halfway mark or beyond,’ he says, ‘and what happens to us does n’t matter very much. But it’s hard for the youngsters to understand. Human life is terribly short, and to-morrow comes soon. We’d like to see it dawn a little brighter for the children.’