Struggles of the 1930’s—How Workers Fought the Great Depression

With the demonstrations and occupations that started in New York, people are realizing their potential to fight back. On Wall Street and across the world, people are mobilizing. This isn’t the first time that people have organized against an economic crisis. During the Great Depression, people also suffered and took matters into their own hands, fighting against an economic system that isn’t meeting human needs.

Reacting to The Great Depression—People Help Themselves

Half of the workforce lost their jobs in the Great Depression of the1930s. As life got worse the desperation increased, so workers had no choice but to help themselves. Businesses and the government were not helping them. People organized mass actions to prevent evictions imposed by the banks. Fisherman in the Northwest traded their catch with farmers in the fruit industry, while wood workers exchanged firewood for other goods. Barbers, seamstresses, and medical employees would swap their services for other resources as a way to survive in a starving reality. By 1932, 130 self-help organizations were formed by ordinary working people in over 35 states, with over 300,000 members.

1934 Strikes Win Demands

In 1934, a million and a half workers from various industries went out on strike. The longshoreman of the West Coast shut down the Pacific Coastline. Soon, the teamsters joined their efforts in support. In total, 130,000 port workers refused to work. The city was immobilized in a general strike. The strike transformed the waterfront. Gains were made in the workplace for all involved workers. That same year, teamsters in Minneapolis also went on strike. Other workers in the city joined the rank and file and after a month, the teamsters won the right to have a union, embracing all workers in the trucking industry. In Toledo Ohio, auto workers united with the unemployed to demand jobs with better conditions, and the right to have a union. In the Fall of 1934, the biggest strike took place in the textile industry, as 325,000 workers shut down the mills. The strike spread to New England and soon, almost 500,000 workers were on strike.

The 1936 General Motors Strike

In 1936, the GM employees in Flint, Michigan conducted a “sit down” strike, locking themselves in the factory for 44 days to protect their jobs and win better wages. Thousands of workers participated, and over 150,000 supporters came to the plant to show solidarity with those locked inside. The strike spread to other plants, and the bosses had no choice but to meet many of their demands.

The Strikes Spread

The 1934 and 1936 strikes were led by small groups of revolutionary workers. Those provided an example for regular rank and file workers to transform their powerlessness into an unstoppable force that the bosses could not ignore. The strikes of 1934 and the GM strike of 1936 managed to set the tone for many more fight backs to come. In 1937 there were 477 sit down strikes in factories across the U.S. Many workers won union rights and better conditions, and learned their power in the workplace.

Lessons for the Present

Like the people of the 1930’s, we are tired, angry, and ready to demand that our needs are met as workers, students, and parents. Like the revolutionaries and workers of the 1930’s, we will not transform our society into one that serves our needs by picking the perfect politician or law, because these tools are part of a system that serves the wealthy, the banks, and the corporations. We need to begin to organize our forces, and fight back on our own terms.