United We Eat–The Phenomenon of Unemployed Leagues Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1934, journalist and author John S. Gambs published an article that described the rise and impacts of so-called unemployed leagues. These organizations were involved not only in providing limited forms of local aid during the Great Depression, but also in active protests–which were sometimes violent–against the local, state, and federal governments over perceived inaction on behalf of the poor. As they grew in number and strength, Gambs reported, their activities expanded to include forming labor networks and affiliating with leftist organizations. Gambs speculated on the future of these organizations: either they would wither away once economic recovery occurred, or they would be forcibly disbanded by police action.

Summary Overview

In 1934, journalist and author John S. Gambs published an article that described the rise and impacts of so-called unemployed leagues. These organizations were involved not only in providing limited forms of local aid during the Great Depression, but also in active protests–which were sometimes violent–against the local, state, and federal governments over perceived inaction on behalf of the poor. As they grew in number and strength, Gambs reported, their activities expanded to include forming labor networks and affiliating with leftist organizations. Gambs speculated on the future of these organizations: either they would wither away once economic recovery occurred, or they would be forcibly disbanded by police action.

Defining Moment

In 1929, the “Roaring Twenties”–distinctive because of the tremendous economic boom that occurred in the United States during this period–came to a dramatic halt. Stock markets crashed, banks folded, industries faltered, and countless jobs disappeared in what would come to be called the Great Depression.

Economists, social scientists, and other scholars have not come to a firm agreement on the specific causes of the Depression. Generally, however, experts point to citizens' inability to repay loans and credit debt, a lack of government regulation of businesses and markets, and a lack of sustainability in the country's leading industries as some of the leading causes of this event. Many scholars point to the sharp divide between the nation's wealthy and poor–including the large percentage of immigrants, who came to the country during the early twentieth century to work in the energy and manufacturing industries–as a contributing factor as well, as the latter group represented a majority of the population that would be adversely affected by any fluctuations in the economy.

Herbert Hoover, the incumbent president in 1929, had only been in office for nine months when the stock market crashed. Hoover believed that government's role in private economic affairs should be minimal and argued repeatedly that the nation's economic infrastructure was still solid and healthy despite the tumult of Black Thursday in October 1929 and other events leading to the Depression's onset. After Black Thursday, Hoover did not look to implement any major reforms or pass emergency legislation that would give direct aid to the poor. Instead, Hoover called upon citizens to cooperate with one another through a spirit of volunteerism. Because of his perceived laissez-faire approach to the crisis, Hoover and the federal government were increasingly seen by the public as distant and unwilling to help. His successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was more open to instituting federal aid programs, but Roosevelt's early attempts to address the growing crisis by creating jobs through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration were not sufficient to aid the millions of unemployed Americans, and unrest continued.

Protests against federal, state, and local governments' perceived indifference to the plight of the poor and unemployed gave rise to organizations known as “unemployed leagues.” The first of these organizations was launched in 1931 in Seattle, when labor leader Carl Branin of the Seattle Labor College established the Unemployed Citizens' League, which raised money to purchase a wide range of goods and food to redistribute to the poor. As more leagues organized, they seized on public discontent with government aid programs and launched their own programs (including short-lived “scrip” programs–replacing unavailable legal currency with substitute money to purchase food and services) to both help the poor and widen the protest against the government. Protests ranged from direct verbal confrontations with government employees to violence and strikes. Over time, leagues began to compete in many ways with organized labor as they sought new members.

Adding to the growing controversy over unemployed leagues was the specter of Communism. Communists were active in the country's major cities, actively recruiting members who had grown disenchanted with their local, state, and federal government. Many government officials and business leaders saw unemployed leagues as willing partners with Communists, if not Communists themselves. This perceived connection only added to the animosity between the government and the leagues, inciting more confrontations and protests as the Depression continued through the 1930s.

Author Biography

Little has been written about the life and career of John S. Gambs. Around the time of publication of the article reprinted here, Gambs was a junior faculty member at Columbia University, specializing in institutional economics. He had studied as a student at Columbia with the noted economist Wesley C. Mitchell. Later, he served as a labor economist at the US War Labor Board and went on to write many books on economics. In 1982, he was awarded the Veblen-Commons Award for distinguished work in institutional economics. He died in 1986.

Document Analysis

John S. Gambs's article, published in the August 1934 edition of the progressive magazine Survey Graphic, provides an illustration of the extent to which unemployed leagues grew in influence and hostility toward the government. Gambs describes the anger and frustration that fueled the leagues as they increasingly launched protests, strikes, and violent confrontations. Furthermore, Gambs examines the validity of the prevailing theory that behind the success of the leagues was the shadowy hand of international Communism. In his article, Gambs recalls a number of incidents in which league organizers and leaders, overtly angry with the perceived inaction and indifference of government officials at aid departments, lashed out verbally and even physically against employed individuals. Gambs describes an environment in which there are two distinct and adversarial groups of Americans: the employed and the unemployed. The latter group's members are empowered by the leagues, as these citizens border on starvation and lack any viable options to return to financial and nutritional health. On the other end of the spectrum are those who are gainfully employed (in the cases Gambs describes, these individuals are representatives of the government), who show little to no interest in helping the most destitute.

Gambs attempts to describe how the leagues were able to generate such support by exploring their roots. These groups began in 1931 as simple aid networks, providing scrip and barter programs to help the poor find food and other necessities. Over time, however, the efforts of these leagues fell short, as “the limitations of scrip were seen and the boundaries of self-help discovered” due to the growing volume of unemployed people in the United States. The leagues turned their attention to the government, seeing a target for the collective frustration and ire of those they claimed to represent. This anger is focused mainly on local government agencies, which Gambs argues is due to “the difference between the fine statements which came from federal officials and the relatively low standard of living that was actually meted out by state and local officials.” Leagues became involved in illegal protests, labor strikes, and other activities. Their activity, Gambs says, can be sorted into two categories: expressed and unexpressed. In the former, leagues work on specific goals, such as finding supplies for a member or protesting the government. In the latter category, the leagues seek members and partners to help maintain their strength and grow their numbers.

Gambs also explores the question of whether the leagues' growth is facilitated by Communists, suggesting that, almost certainly, some leagues are influenced by them. Then again, other leagues are connected to socialists, while others are completely independent. An argument could be made that the leagues are heavily influenced by such groups, Gambs says, but there is no singular influence, such as the Communists, that can be linked to every league. Furthermore, although the leadership of the groups may tend to be affiliated with leftist organizations, the “rank and file of the membership” has a much greater diversity of political opinion.

Gambs concludes that the leagues will meet their eventual end in one of two possible ways. First, the Depression could end, bringing new jobs and relief for the poor–such a turnaround would mean the removal of a driving motivation behind the leagues. The second is that the government could forcibly dismantle the leagues while the Depression persists, which Gambs suggests it is already attempting to do. However, he cautions that, while violent tactics have succeeded in the past against organizations such as the International Workers of the World, they may be less effective under the current economic conditions, “when the workers of the United States have nothing to lose but their skins.”

Essential Themes

Gambs's article looked critically at some of the furor surrounding the unemployed leagues, examining the real reasons behind their formation and growing popularity: not Communist agitation, but a dire economic situation and the failure of the government to aid those affected by it. Without condoning the leagues' more radical actions, Gambs discouraged the use of force against them and suggested that the most effective way to disband the leagues was to address the conditions that had led to their creation.

Indeed, as Roosevelt's welfare reforms and job creation efforts continued, the leagues' membership fell and their power diminished. By 1936, many of the leagues had shut down or merged into other, more general radical labor groups, and many of the former leaders of the movement had left. Though the Depression did not end until the United States entered World War II, the anger of the unemployed was, as Gambs predicted, significantly lessened once they felt the government was listening to their concerns.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Edsforth, Ronald. The New Deal: America's Response to the Great Depression. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2000. Print.
  • “The Great Depression (1929–1939).” Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. George Washington U, n.d. Web. 17 June 2014.
  • McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. 25th anniv. ed. New York: Three Rivers, 2009. Print.
  • Olson, James Stuart, ed. Historical Dictionary of the Great Depression, 1929–1940. Westport: Greenwood, 2001. Print.
  • Whisenhunt, Donald W. President Herbert Hoover. Hauppauge, NY: Nova, 2007. Print.
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