Three years before President Franklin Roosevelt enacted Social Security, the Communist Party issued a pamphlet saying: “Social insurance is a system of government support to give workers financial assistance, thus affording them a measure of security in case of accident, sickness, death of the wage earner, unemployment, child bearing, or dependent old age. … The fight for social insurance must go on because it is a fight for security in the daily struggle for existence faced by every member of the working class.”
Social Security’s roots are in the campaign launched by the Communist Party with formation of the National Unemployed Council in 1930.
Local unemployed councils were set up in scores of cities all over the country. Besides the unemployed, this movement also included trade unions, fraternal societies, Black organizations, and others.
The Unemployed Councils fought for unemployment insurance, immediate cash and work relief, public work at union wages, food for school children, and against evictions, discrimination towards African-Americans, and so on. They used mass meetings, parades, petitions, picketing, hunger marches and many other forms of struggle. They formed block committees to organize workers in their homes.
The Unemployed Councils, in the face of widespread police brutality, conducted a mass of activities to bring pressure upon employers, local relief boards, and the city, state and national governments. They led hundreds of demonstrations on a local and national scale.
The Unemployed Councils’ mass movements attracted tremendous attention and roused the working class — 350,000 people were in the streets May 1, 1930, under their leadership. They declared Feb. 25, 1931, National Unemployment Insurance Day and brought out 400,000 demonstrators. Their nationwide mass meetings on Feb. 4, 1932, involved 500,000 workers. Three times the Unemployed Councils’ mass petitions with a million signatures or more were presented to Congress. They also led hunger marches to many states’ capitols as well as national hunger marches to Washington, including those on Dec. 7, 1931, and Dec. 6, 1932.
The Unemployed Councils made unemployment insurance a burning national issue. Social Security would not exist without the fighting history of the National Unemployed Council.
The other important group to launch the drive for unemployment insurance and Social Security was the rank-and-file trade unionists of the AFL Committee for Unemployment Insurance. Their main organizer was Louis Weinstock, a 10-time re-elected secretary treasurer of District Council 9 of the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Plasterers. Weinstock was known for fighting racketeers in his union.
The AFL Committee for Unemployment Insurance arose in a fight against AFL leaders, including the federation’s president, William Green, who scorned unemployment insurance as a dole. Under the Green leadership, organized workers yielded to the repeated deep-cutting wage slashes of the economic crisis years. The top AFL leaders believed that wage cuts were necessary and helped the bosses put them through. Green and other AFL leaders sharply opposed the AFL Committee for Unemployment Insurance from the moment of its birth in January 1932.
The AFL Committee for Unemployment Insurance won the direct support of 3,000 local unions, 35 city central labor councils, six state federations, and five international unions. The work of this rank-and-file union body was responsible for forcing the AFL to reverse its attitude and to give at least lip service to unemployment insurance at the AFL convention of 1932.
The AFL Committee for Unemployment Insurance concentrated its general political demand on the Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill (HR 2827) of the early 1930s. The fight for this legislation pressed on until 1934. “Our first action was to circulate a referendum in the AFL unions to see if the workers in this body were for or against unemployment insurance,” said Louis Weinstock in an April 1934 interview with the Daily Worker. He added: “The great amount of endorsements we got for the Workers’ Insurance Bill in this referendum was a heavy blow to William Green and the Executive Council members who fought against any form of unemployment insurance.”
Class struggle, not the goodwill of a bourgeois government, runs like a red thread throughout the history of the founding of Social Security. The National Unemployed Council and the AFL Committee for Unemployment Insurance fought tooth and nail for unemployment insurance and the Social Security act signed by President Roosevelt, Aug. 14, 1935.
The lessons are obvious. Social Security was won as a concession to the militant working-class fightback. That kind of struggle can defend Social Security from Bush and Wall Street. As history is witness, we working-class people have a choice: either to remain on our knees forever begging for crumbs or stand up and fight for what is rightfully ours.
Michael Wood is a reader of the PWW in Minneapolis.