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The Unemployed "Army" Is Now Bigger Than the Actual Army

There are now two million "99ers"—those who have maxed out their unemployment benefits after 99 weeks without work. How did America get here?

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 1:20 PM EDT

Initial reactions were varied and dramatic. Local governments rushed to pass punitive laws against tramping and vagrancy, mandating terms of six months to two years of hard labor in workhouses. Meanwhile, the orthodox thinking of that moment raised steep barriers to government aid for those in need. During the devastating depression of the 1870s, for instance, President Ulysses Grant's Secretary of the Treasury put things succinctly: "It is not part of the business of government to find employment for people."

Punishment and studied indifference were, however, by no means the only responses as emergency relief efforts—some private, some public—became common. The ravaging effects of unemployment, the way it spread like a plague, and its chronic reappearance also put more radical measures on the agenda, proposals that questioned the viability and morality of what was then termed the "wages system."

Calls went out to colonize vacant land and establish state-run factories and farms to productively re-employ the idled. Infuriated throngs occupied state houses demanding public works. Elements of the labor and populist movements advocated manufacturing and agricultural cooperatives as a way around the ruthlessness of the Darwinian free market. Business "trusts" or monopolies were often decried for driving other businesses under and so exacerbating the unemployment dilemma. In some cases, their nationalization was called for. Militants of the moment began to demand work not as a sop to the indigent, but as a right of citizenship, as precious and inviolable as anything in the Bill of Rights.

The greatest and most prolonged mass mobilization of the mid-1880s was the national movement for the eight-hour work day. It was animated partly by a desire for more leisure time, but also by a vain hope that its passage by Congress might effectively raise wages. (Industrialists, however, had no intention of paying the same amount for eight hours of work as they had for 12.) Its main impetus, though, was a belief that mandating a national reduction in the hours of work would spread jobs around and so diminish the ranks of the reserve army.

Some were convinced that capitalism's appetite for human labor was too voracious for business ever to agree to such limits. So long as the business cycle was on its upward arc, the compulsion to exploit labor power was insatiable. When the market went south, all that surplus humanity could be left to fend for itself. Its partisans nonetheless believed that the movement for an eight-hour day would expose the barbarism of the economic system for all to see, opening the door to something more humane.

In other words, a wide spectrum of responses to unemployment was enfolded within a broad and growing anti-capitalist culture. Within the organized labor movement, that proto-union, the Knights of Labor, was immersed in the idea of an anti-capitalist insurgency. Most trade unions of the time, however, accepted that the "wages system" was here to stay and focused instead on the issues of job security, fighting for unemployment benefit funds for members, seniority, prohibitions against overtime, and the shortening of working hours.

Even agitation to ban child labor and limit female employment was motivated in part by a desire to temper the pervasiveness of unemployment by curtailing the pool of available labor. Other trade union procedures and proposals were more mean-spirited, including attempts to ban immigration or exclude African-American and other minorities or the unskilled from membership in the movement. That insularity bedevils trade unionism to this day.

As part of this tumultuous season of upheaval, which lasted from the 1870s through the Great Depression, the unemployed themselves organized demonstrations. A gathering in Tomkins Square Park of thousands of New Yorkers left destitute by the panic and depression of 1873 was dispersed with infamous brutality by the police. Local newspapers labeled the protesters "communards." (The recently defeated Paris Commune had ignited a hysterical fear of "un-American" radicalism, a toxin that has never since left the American bloodstream.)

Although the Tomkins Square rally was mainly a plea for relief and public works, there was some talk of marching on Wall Street. Such radical rhetoric, not to speak of actual violence, was hardly unusual in such confrontations then, a measure of how raw class relations were and how profoundly disturbed people had become by the haunting presence of mass unemployment.

Just as telling, the unemployed and those still at work but at loggerheads with their bosses frequently displayed their solidarity in public. During the "Great Insurrection" of 1877, when railroad strikers from coast to coast faced off against state militias, federal troops, and the private armies of the railroad barons, they were joined by regiments of the "reserve army." Often these were their neighbors and family members, but also strangers who, feeling an affinity for their beleaguered brethren, preferred setting fire to railroad engine houses than going to work in them as scabs. Amid the awful depression of the 1890s, a cigar maker caught the temper of the times simply: "I believe the working men themselves will have to take action. I believe those men that are employed will have look out for the unemployed that work at the same business they do."


Marching Armies (of the Unemployed)

Demonstrations of the unemployed resurfaced with each major economic downturn. In the depression winter of 1893-1894, for example, ragged "armies" of the desperate gathered in various parts of the country, 40 of them in all. (Eighteen-year-old future novelist Jack London joined one in California.) The largest commandeered a train in an effort to get to Washington, D.C., and was chased for 300 miles across Montana by federal troops.

The most famous of them was led by Jacob Coxey, a self-made Ohio businessman. "Coxey's Army" (more formally known as "the Commonwealers" or the "Commonwealth of Christ Army") made it all the way to the capital, a "living petition" to Congress. It was led by his 17-year-old daughter as "the Goddess of Peace" riding a white horse.

In the nation's capital, the "Army" lodged its plea for relief, work, and an increase in the money supply. (Jacob's son was called "Legal Tender Cox.") President Grover Cleveland wasn't hearing any of it, having already made his views known in 1889 during his first term in office: "The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include support of the people."

Christian charity was not Cleveland's long suit. Others of the faith, however, believers in the social gospel and Christian socialism especially, staged spectacular public dramas on behalf of the "shorn lambs of the unemployed"—even a mock "slave auction" in Boston in 1921 during a severe post-World War I slump, in which the jobless were offered to the highest bidders as evidence of what "wage slavery" really meant.

The Great Depression brought this protracted period of labor turmoil to a climax and to an end. In its early years, the ethos of "mutualism" and solidarity between the employed and unemployed was strengthened. In those years, railroads began to report startling jumps in the numbers of Americans engaged in "train hopping"—the rail equivalent of hitchhiking. On one line, the "hoppers" went from 14,000 in 1929 to 186,000 in 1931.

In 1930, when the unemployment rate was at about today's level, in cities across the country the first rallies of the unemployed began with demands for work and relief. Later, there were food riots and raids on delivery trucks and packinghouses, as well as the occupations of shuttered coalmines and bankrupt utility companies by the desperate who began to work them.

"Leagues" and "councils" of the unemployed, sometimes organized by the Communist Party, sometimes by the Socialist Party, and sometimes by a group run by radical pacifist A.J. Muste, marshaled their forces to stop home evictions, support strikes, and make far-reaching proposals for a permanent system of public works and unemployment insurance. Muste's groups, strong in the Midwest, set up bartering arrangements and labor exchanges among the jobless.

In support of striking workers, unemployed protesters shut down the Briggs plant in Highland Park, Michigan—it manufactured auto bodies for Ford—pledging that they would not scab on the striking workers. A march of former and current employees of the Ford facilities in Dearborn, Michigan, made the unusual demand that the company (not the government) provide work for the jobless. For their trouble, they were bloodied by Ford's hired thugs and five of them were killed.

President Herbert Hoover took similar action. In a move that shocked much of the nation, he ordered Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur to use troops to disperse the Bonus Expeditionary Army, World War I jobless veterans gathered in tents on Anacostia Flats in Washington asking for accelerated payments of their war-time pensions. They were routed at bayonet point and MacArthur's troops burned down their tent city.

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