In this 75th anniversary year of the WPA, it’s time!
by Dave Welsh
Seventy-five years ago, on April 8, 1935, Congress passed legislation creating the largest public works program in U.S. history. A month later, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order founding the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created 8.5 million jobs during the Depression of the 1930s.
But the WPA didn’t just happen because of the kindness and concern of President Roosevelt. It was a response to a tremendous mass movement in the streets and workplaces all over the U.S. – from the World War I soldiers’ Bonus March and the Ford Hunger March of 1932, to the San Francisco general strike and large industrial actions in Toledo and Minneapolis in 1934, to later sit-downs in the auto plants of Michigan, to militant actions by Unemployed Councils in hundreds of cities.
It was this pressure from below that got us the WPA, which put millions of people back to work. It’s also what got us New Deal programs like Social Security, which many of us depend on for daily survival to this very day.
Today’s economic crisis is much worse than the media lets on. Unemployment in manufacturing is almost at Great Depression levels. What we have now is an economy based on permanent high unemployment and low wages … a political and economic system that provides trillions of dollars in bailouts for Wall Street and trillions of dollars for war but nothing for large numbers of workers and the poor, who face growing joblessness, foreclosures, evictions, layoffs, low wages, hunger and homelessness.
The money is there! It’s just a question of who gets it.
It seems the bankers and war profiteers are always first in line to get paid! But when it comes to money for jobs or housing or schools – anything that will benefit workers and their families – better forget it! I found a good explanation of this problem in a recent article by Fred Goldstein, author of the eye-opening new book, “Low Wage Capitalism: Colossus with Feet of Clay.” He points out that public education is being brutally cut back, and the reason given is that city and state governments face declining revenue due to the bad economy. Their reasoning: “Budget cuts must be made. It is a matter of arithmetic. You cannot spend what you don’t have.”
“But that is capitalist arithmetic,” Goldstein continues. “If you cannot spend what you don’t have, then how can the federal government write a $750 billion check to the biggest banks, buy up their bad debts and guarantee their loans to the tune of $10 trillion while handing the Pentagon more than $700 billion each year?
“Apparently you can spend what you ‘don’t have’ when it is going to the super-rich” – the top 1 percent of the population that owns 42.7 percent of all the financial wealth in the country. But the money is suddenly unavailable when schools are being closed and teachers laid off. Class sizes are going up and our children suffer. “Meanwhile, hundreds of billions of dollars that these state and city governments owe to banks and bondholders in interest payments are going to be paid out on time,” writes Goldstein.
“So there is money. It is just a matter of who is going to get it.” His proposal? – spend the money wisely for real needs like schools, jobs, health care and housing, and cancel the debt to the banks and wealthy bondholders!
To get what we need, there’s no substitute for huge throngs of people in the streets, shaking the established order.
Yes, the money is there to put America back to work. But where is the mass movement that will be necessary to make this a reality?
The AFL-CIO has a worthy five-point Jobs Plan, but unless we can generate a lot more “street heat” it’s going nowhere in Congress. Many local and state unions have proposed a massive labor-community march on Washington, and the Oct. 2, 2010, “One Nation” march in the nation’s capital is a step in the right direction.
Look around you. Our infrastructure is falling apart. Schools and health care facilities are understaffed. Houses sit vacant while homelessness spreads. We need the same kind of bold, sweeping jobs program that people demanded – and got – in the 1930s.
There are between 20 and 30 million unemployed and underemployed people in the country today. We need a real WPA-type program that is big enough to ensure that those who need work get work – work that is socially useful and paying union wages and benefits – a real jobs program fully funded by the government.
Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated the final months of his life to starting a movement for the right of everyone to a job or a guaranteed income – and we need a movement like that now. The issue of jobs is on the front burner: All it needs is a flame. And as in the 1930s, only a massive movement in the streets and workplaces will bring about a real public jobs program like the WPA.
In this 75th anniversary year of the WPA, which created 8.5 million public jobs during the Depression of the 1930s, we need to call on community, church and women’s organizations, the AFL-CIO and all of organized labor to do two things:
1) Fight for a real WPA-type program that is big enough to ensure that those who need work get work – work that is socially useful and paying union wages and benefits – a real jobs program fully funded by the government.
2) Organize a massive labor-community march on Washington and regular actions in cities and towns all over the U.S., with the urgent demand: Put America back to work!
David Welsh is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council. He was a writer and senior editor for Ramparts Magazine in the 1960s, edited “Soul on Ice,” the prison essays of Eldridge Cleaver; and served for many years as executive vice president of the Letter Carriers Union in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.