In many ways, the Depression years were considered times of discontent. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 landslide did not mean unanimous support for the president. Unhappy souls throughout the political spectrum sought government change. On another front, labor unions fought a series of battles for better working conditions. These forces created tensions through- out the 1930s.
An EPIC Campaign
During the 1930s, political movements emerged that critics claimed were more radical than the New Deal. The most famous of these movements occurred in California in 1934.
Upton Sinclair had gained fame as a crusading writer. His 1906 book The Jungle exposed the working conditions of Chicago’s stockyards and helped bring about the Pure Food and Drug Act. Sinclair had a socialist philosophy; he felt the government should control the nation’s economy. Sinclair ran for various offices as a socialist, but received few votes.
In 1933, he changed his tactics. He decided to run for governor of California as a Democrat. The confident Sinclair even wrote a premature history of his administration: I, the Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future.
Sinclair’s book became an instant success, selling two hundred twenty-five thousand copies in one year. It detailed Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) proposal. Sinclair suggested that the state of California take over unused factories and farms. Unemployed workers and farmers would create products. The workers would then be paid in scrip that could be used in other EPIC facilities. Production for use, not for profit, was Sinclair’s aim. He was proposing a government-owned system, which would rival and eventually take over private businesses. EPIC was socialism under a different name.
By August 1934, one thousand EPIC clubs had sprung up throughout California. The EPIC symbol, a bumblebee, appeared everywhere. EPIC sponsored rodeos and drama groups. A newspaper, the Epic News, was distributed to nearly a million homes. EPIC fever hit the polls on the day of the Democratic primary election. Upton Sinclair drew more votes than any other Democrat in California history, more votes than his eight opponents combined.
Industry leaders were worried before the primary, and they were terrified after it. Sinclair, if elected, could alter California’s economic system and put them out of business.
This fear produced one of the most vicious political campaigns in American history. Louis Mayer of MGM Studios (the state Republican chairman), C. C. Teague of Sunkist Oranges, and Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times met for three days in Los Angeles. They plotted a relentless negative campaign.
All major newspapers came out against Sinclair. They did not print his speeches. Instead, some quoted characters in Sinclair’s novels and used those words as the Democrat’s.
More than $10 million poured into the anti-Sinclair campaign. Much of this money went to produce propaganda films. One phony interview depicted a wild-eyed communist saying he supported Sinclair’s plan. Another newsreel pictured a horde of hoboes riding boxcars to California so that they could take over the property of working people.1 These so-called newsreels were blatant lies, but Mayer insisted they be run in California theaters that showed his movies. Many moviegoers hissed and booed the propaganda.
Sinclair might have had a chance if Franklin Roosevelt supported him, but the president refused to back the controversial candidate. He agreed to meet with Sinclair, but only on the condition that they not discuss California politics. Sinclair left the meeting feeling he had positively communicated his message. His supporters waited, but the endorsement never came.
National Democrats hoped Sinclair would drop his campaign, although Republican governor Frank Merriam was too conservative for their tastes. Some voters of both parties backed moderate third-party candidate Raymond Haight, but Democratic Party leaders forged a deal with Merriam. They would support him if he would declare his election a bipartisan victory and support the New Deal.
Merriam won the election with 49 percent of the vote, to 37 percent for Sinclair and 14 percent for Haight. Even so, Sinclair could proclaim victories. EPIC followers won twenty-seven state legislative seats. They included future United States Senator Sheridan Downey and future governor Culbert Olson. Sinclair summed up his campaign, “We threw an almighty scare into the minds and hearts of the people who were running the state.”2
The Priest, the Doctor, and the Kingfish
Roosevelt’s strongest enemies were not Republican politicians. Instead, they were three diverse personalities: a preacher named Charles Coughlin, retired doctor Francis Townsend, and a Louisiana Democratic politician named Huey Pierce Long. Each commanded a large following in the early 1930s.
Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest in suburban Detroit, began reading his sermons over the radio in 1926. Soon stations around the country carried his broadcasts. By 1930, he was attracting a weekly audience of more than 30 million listeners.
At first, Coughlin backed Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Then he opposed the president, claiming Roosevelt’s policies only served the rich. Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice called for a “living national wage” and nationalized banks.
By 1936, Coughlin’s popularity had peaked. After a while, anti-Jewish attacks replaced calls for justice in his sermons. By the end of the year, he was off the air.
In early 1934, elderly physician Francis Townsend wrote a letter to a Long Beach, California, newspaper. The letter proposed a 2 percent sales tax. The government would use this money to pay two hundred dollars per month to each citizen over sixty years of age. Each recipient would have to spend the money within thirty days. Townsend reasoned that with this plan, older people would have the money they needed, the economy would benefit from circulating money, and younger people would take jobs that became open when their elders retired. His plan enjoyed wide popularity. By late 1935, more than 3 million followers joined Townsend clubs.
The plan’s opponents were as numerous and varied as its supporters. Government economists claimed that the monthly payments would surpass the combined budgets of the federal, state, and local governments. Groups as diverse as the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Federation of Labor, and the Communist party criticized Townsend’s idea. Yet Townsend gained at least indirect results. Roosevelt headed off potential presidential opposition from Townsend followers. His Social Security plan, creating a tax to benefit older and disadvantaged Americans, was similar to Townsend’s idea.
Roosevelt’s most powerful foe lived in Louisiana. Senator Huey Pierce Long was a spellbinding orator. “[He would] go to places where he’d never been before, where they had never heard him. When he finished [speaking], he had ’em,” his son Russell recalled.3
As governor, Long had worked wonders with his impoverished state. He created better schools, provided students free schoolbooks, and built roads while keeping Louisiana’s budget in good order. Unlike many Southern white politicians of the time, he refrained from anti-black prejudice. His enemies, however, called him a dictator who ruthlessly squashed those who stood in his way.
He called himself the Kingfish (after a popular radio character) but declared “Every man a king.” His “Share Our Wealth” program promised each family at least five thousand dollars per year.4 Long’s ideas drew a great following, particularly in the South. He made no secret of his desire to become president. Roosevelt allies feared he could siphon enough votes from the president to give Republicans a 1936 victory.
Those fears ended on September 8, 1935. A physician named Carl Austin Weiss, Jr., angered at Long’s criticism of his father-in-law, shot the Kingfish to death in the Louisiana state capitol.
After Long’s death, election threats to Roosevelt from populist groups largely disappeared. The Canadian-born Coughlin was not eligible to become president, and Townsend considered himself too old to be a candidate. Some of the three men’s followers fell behind the candidacy of North Dakota Congressman William Lemke, but Lemke gained relatively few votes.
The New Deal’s National Industrial Recovery Act barely lasted two years. But one section of the NRA survived in an altered form that proved vital to the labor movement. Section 7A gave workers the right to organize unions and deal with owners through collective bargaining. Workers and unions praised the section. Owners hated it.
In the early 1930s, industries went to great lengths to stop independent labor unions. Some formed company unions, which gave workers few benefits. Others took more drastic action. Carnegie Steel near Pittsburgh paid informers thirty-five dollars per day to spy on union activities. The Pittsburgh Coal Company kept machine guns at the mines. Chairman of the Board Richard B. Mellon claimed, “You cannot run the mines without them.”5
Strong union leaders such as John L. Lewis showed that workers could stand up to management. The result was a series of strikes that spread across the country. More than 1.5 million workers walked off their jobs in 1934 alone.
Some strikes resulted in bloodshed. One battle in Minnesota left two workers dead and another sixty-seven injured. Other workers retaliated by killing two members of a so-called “citizens’ army” sponsored by the factory. More than one hundred thousand people showed up at the slain workers’ funeral.
In 1934, a strike by the Longshoremen’s Union rocked the West Coast. Every major Pacific Coast port except Los Angeles closed, because no one would load or unload ships.
San Franciscans expected a peaceful demonstration for the longshoremen on July 5. Many gathered to watch, and some even sold refreshments. Then the shooting started. Workers, spectators, and bystanders fled wildly as police on horseback ran over the crowd and bashed people with nightsticks. The strikers retreated.
A few days later, workers called a general strike. Businesses everywhere shut down. “No street cars were operating,” one journalist wrote. “No buses, no taxis, no delivering wagons except milk and bread trucks which were operated with the permission of the general strike committee.”6 The only restaurants open were those kept open to feed the strikers. The general strike resulted in a compromise that brought gains to the longshoremen.
Lewis saw that workers were making gains. He wanted to see them become even stronger. At the 1935 convention of the American Federation of Labor, (A.F.L.) he proposed that the federation enlist workers in mass production industries such as steel, rubber, and automobile manufacturing. The A.F.L., composed mainly of crafts workers, voted down the idea.
A few weeks later, Lewis formed the Committee (later renamed Congress) of Industrial Organizations within the A.F.L. This C.I.O. was more of an activist group than the A.F.L., and the parent organization ousted it in 1936. Lewis’s C.I.O. fearlessly challenged the giant industries, including the nation’s largest automaker.
Residents of the industrial city of Flint, Michigan, were awaiting the next day’s Christmas activities when they heard the news. Second-shift workers at a General Motors plant there refused to leave their posts or let others enter. The Christmas Eve, 1936, sit-down strike would make headlines throughout the country.
At first, Lewis opposed a General Motors strike. But once it began, it received his complete backing. He declared in a speech that if National Guard troops shot at the strikers, they would have to shoot him first.
Plant managers tried to freeze the workers out by shutting off the plant’s heat. The workers stood their ground. Realizing that frozen pipes might cause mechanical problems when the plant reopened, the managers turned the heat back on.
Next, police stormed the building. Workers, using whatever they could find as a weapon, beat back the assault. After forty-four days, General Motors executives settled the strike. The United Auto Workers, affiliated with the C.I.O., became recognized as the workers’ bargaining agent.
Strikers rejoiced at their victory. One organizer commented, “Those people sang and joked and laughed and cried, deliriously joyful. . . . Victory . . . meant a freedom they had never known before.”7 They were not the only ones with reason to rejoice. After the Flint strike settlement, C.I.O. membership exploded from eighty-eight thousand to four hundred thousand in only eight months.
Memorial Day Massacre
The Flint sit-down strike sent shock waves throughout American industry. It produced some astounding results. U.S. Steel, the nation’s largest manufacturer, had vowed not to deal with the C.I.O. But secret negotiations brought about a March 1, 1937, announcement. The behemoth steel company recognized the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, an arm of the C.I.O.
Other large steel companies, together known as “little steel,” hardly followed the U.S. Steel example. Bethlehem, Republic, National, Inland, and Youngstown Sheets and Tube refused to sign C.I.O. contracts.
Tensions hit their peak at Chicago’s Republic Steel plant. On Memorial Day of 1937, workers there tried to demonstrate for better conditions. Police, fed at company expense, refused to allow peaceful picketing. Workers threw rocks and sticks at police, and the officers answered with gunfire. They shot ten dead and wounded a hundred more. Evidence showed that those slain were trying to run from the police, not toward them to attack.
The “Memorial Day Massacre” scared off many of the would-be organizers. It would be another four years before Ford Motors, Goodyear Tires, and many steel companies would recognize C.I.O. unions.