Most historians, and many textbooks, divide the New Deal into two phases: the first New Deal, the flurry of legislation during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days, and the second New Deal, the more sweeping and long-lasting legislation passed in 1935. They describe this as an era when the government experimented with new and different programs aimed at the same goal: economic recovery. In Roosevelt’s words: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”1
Unfortunately, mainstream histories ignore the social forces pressing for more radical New Deal legislation and fail to explain how the dynamics of power shifted in response to a growing struggle from below.
After exploring the causes of the Great Depression (see “Part I: What Caused the Great Depression?” fall 2015), my 10th-grade U.S. History class at Madison High School in Portland, Oregon, read about the emergence throughout the country of Unemployed Councils. These councils instigated mass protests demanding jobless relief and used direct action to help tens of thousands of people facing foreclosure move back into their homes. We also read about the Bonus Army’s 1932 occupation of Washington, D.C. This encampment of World War I veterans and their families—at its peak, more than 20,000 strong—demanded payment of the bonus promised to soldiers who fought in the Great War. Together, these stories make a compelling case that the decisive blow ending the Hoover presidency was not Roosevelt’s charismatic speeches on the campaign trail, but the militant actions of ordinary people whose lives were devastated by the crisis. The Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), one of the first major laws of the New Deal, which allocated $3 billion for unemployment relief, didn’t spring from the social conscience of Roosevelt, who as late as 1934 called relief “repugnant to American ideals of self-reliance.” Instead, it was the result of pressure from these on-the-ground movements.2
In fact, Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and the legislation that followed did not signal an immediate victory for workers and the poor. Roosevelt differed from Hoover primarily in his willingness to consider greater government intervention into the private market in order to save capitalism. He told his wealthy critics that he was “the best friend the profit system ever had.”3
To help students grapple with the legislation of the early New Deal, I developed the Economic Recovery Conference Role Play (see Resources). I began by seating students in groups of five and introduced myself as President Roosevelt. I explained that I had invited them to the White House to discuss ways the government could aid economic recovery. I told each group which of five economic and social sectors they would be representing: Unemployed, Trade Unionists, Corporate Executives, Wealthy Southern Landowners, and Black Activists. “I promised a ‘New Deal’ to the American people,” I continued, “and you will help advise me on what should and should not be included in the first major law of that New Deal.”
The goal of the role play was to help students understand who among the public supported this early legislation and why. For example, today most people consider the large public works programs implemented under the New Deal among the most radical legacies of the Roosevelt presidency. In the current political atmosphere, a federal jobs program of such scale seems impossible. But this was one of the least controversial aspects of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA). Although the business community vocally opposed programs in which the government directly employed workers, they did not oppose public works appropriations in the early New Deal, which gave grants primarily to private contractors. As the Corporate Executive role explains:
You support a massive “public works” program to put people back to work building roads, bridges, and electrical grids. Creating better infrastructure will allow you to more easily transport goods. Bringing electrical power to communities that don’t have it will allow the people in those communities to buy new appliances and consumer goods they otherwise couldn’t use.
In short, unlike today, large sections of the capitalist class saw public works as a smart, pro-business policy, and I wanted students to grasp that difference.
I also wanted students to imagine the early New Deal within the context of other economic solutions on offer at the time. The guarantee in the NRA of labor’s right to bargain collectively, for example, has been promoted by the labor movement as one of the most important labor reforms of the century. But, as historian Richard Hofstadter explains, “The NRA itself had been rushed into shape partly to head off the strong pro-labor provisions of the Black-Connery Bill,” which would have established a 30-hour workweek in the hopes of spreading jobs and increasing the purchasing power of workers.4 In fact, William Green, the president of the AFL at the time, threatened general strikes if Black-Connery wasn’t passed.5 I incorporated much of this history into the Trade Union role.
The Economic Recovery Conference Role Play
I distributed an “Economic Recovery Conference: Crucial Issues” handout to every student. Together, we went over the questions they would be debating:
- Should the government provide direct relief (money for food, clothing, shelter) to the unemployed? Should it be administered by the states or the federal government?
- Should the government directly employ people for the purpose of building “public works”—roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, parks, public squares, dams, electrical grids—construction that benefits the communities of the United States? If so, why?
- To help raise agricultural prices, should the government pay farm owners not to plant on part of their land and to destroy crops and farm animals? Or should the government buy or take surplus food from farm owners and give it to those in need?
- Should the government strengthen anti-trust laws and more heavily regulate industry—including setting a nationwide minimum wage and maximum hours? Or should the government suspend anti-trust laws to allow businesses to regulate themselves by getting together in “trade associations” and writing codes of fair competition?
- If minimum wages and maximum hours are adopted, should all workplaces have to abide by them or should certain businesses or industries be exempt?
- Should the government guarantee workers the right to join a labor union and bargain collectively?
- Should “company unions” (a workers organization that is dominated by an employer) be banned?
I clarified terms like company union and anti-trust law, and tied questions 3 and 4 to previous lessons on crises of overproduction and underconsumption (see “Part I: What Caused the Great Depression?”). After ensuring that students had a strong grasp of the issues up for discussion, I distributed roles to the groups and encouraged them to highlight and underline important sections as they read. I asked students to decide as a group what stand they would take on the crucial issues. I encouraged them to write their answers in the form of resolutions that could be proposed at the Economic Recovery Conference, and to asterisk the resolutions that were most important to their group. I pointed out that they wouldn’t find answers to every question in their roles—some issues weren’t a main concern for their social group. They could answer those questions later based on the alliances they would make with other groups, or by thinking through where someone in their social position would likely stand on the issue.
When I teach this role play again, I will have students write interior monologues about their hopes and fears for the upcoming conference, to help them connect with their roles before jumping into the questions. Unfortunately, I was in a rush to finish the role play before winter break, so I skipped that step.
As students-in-character filled out their responses to the questions, I circled around the room, helping groups that were having difficulties and pointing out answers that were inconsistent with their roles. I also tried to highlight information from their role that was particularly significant, and encouraged them to share it with the larger group when the conference began.
When groups finished developing answers and resolutions to present at the conference, I explained that they would now have an opportunity to meet with other groups to build alliances. I encouraged them to meet with groups most likely to agree with them on the resolutions they marked with an asterisk. For example, the unemployed might support banning company unions in exchange for the workers supporting unemployment relief. But I also told students not to shun groups they disagreed with; hearing their arguments might help them better defend their own ideas.
When students had made a few alliances and had some sense of where other groups stood on the crucial issues, I asked them to return to their seats and write an introductory speech for the conference. “Don’t just list where you stand on the crucial issues,” I told them. “Root your position in your role. Each group has crucial information that other groups don’t have about what life was like for you during the Great Depression. The goal of the speeches is to explain where you stand on the issues, and also to share information from your role that others don’t have.”
The Conference Begins
When students returned for the next class, I sat them in a circle and began: “Welcome, everyone, to the 1933 Economic Recovery Conference. I am your new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
“Boooo!” Hoang yelled in his role as a Black Activist; two-thirds of African Americans voted for Hoover out of fear that FDR’s Democratic Party might extend segregation.
Taken off guard, I laughed and moved on. “As you know, our country is in crisis and I want to hear your views on how we should move forward.” Then we moved into the introductory speeches.
“People see us as the bad guys,” Andre began, speaking for the CEOs. “They accuse us of crashing the economy, but we’re victims, too. We’re being forced by this crisis to close factories and lay off workers, not because we want to, but because we have to. About 2,000 businesses fail every month. We don’t want minimum wages. We don’t want to be told by the government how much to pay our workers, but that is because we are already struggling.”
Speaking for the Wealthy Southern Landowners, Sarah succinctly explained their proposal for the overproduction of agricultural commodities: “Right now the South is the region hardest hit by the depression. Most of us are farmers, but there is a surplus of crops and nobody is buying them. This means that we don’t have any income. We think that the government should pay farmers to destroy crops and not plant on as much land to even out demand with supply. Farmers are roughly one-fourth of the American workforce, so getting farmers back on their feet would build economic stability.”
Miguel and Jessie explained why this proposal would be devastating for African Americans: “Unemployment for Black people in the United States is more than 50 percent. Most Black people in the South are tenant farmers and sharecroppers. We rent our land. If the government pays farm owners to not plant on part of their land, they might choose our land to stop planting on. So this proposal will only increase unemployment for African Americans. And it’s crazy to pay farmers to destroy food while people all around the country are going hungry. The government should buy the food and distribute it to the people who need it.”
In their presentation for the Trade Unionists, Marta and Brian laid out a plan for expanding workers’ rights and increasing living standards: “As trade unionists we want other workers to have the right to join a trade union. Right now, if workers try to organize a union, businesses can just fire and replace those workers with no penalty. . . . We want company unions banned, and the government to guarantee and enforce workers’ right to organize. We also want the federal government to set a livable minimum wage so no one who is working will struggle to get by.”
Jack, representing the Unemployed, explained: “Most of us here have been unemployed for a year or two and we are having trouble simply providing food for our family. We now make up 25 percent of the population, when only a few years ago it was a mere 3 percent. A lot of people blame us for being unemployed. They say we’re lazy, but how do so many people all of a sudden sit back and say, ‘I don’t want to work?’ We’re struggling to pay the bills and this is not our fault. Many of us have joined unemployment councils that help us keep our houses and our utilities on. But we don’t want to have to keep living like this. We want the New Deal to provide relief, not just immediately but in the long term. There is still going to be unemployment in the best of times. It’s unavoidable. But no one should have to starve because they were laid off or can’t find a job. Also, the government should help us get back to work. Give us jobs repairing roads, and building new schools or other community buildings.”
After each group had presented, I opened the floor for proposals and debate on the first question: providing aid to the unemployed.
Leon’s hand shot up. Representing the Unemployed, he said, “We believe that the federal government should provide permanent federal unemployment insurance that is distributed by the federal government to ensure no discrimination.”
Lisa, as a CEO, disagreed. “Why should people just get money for not doing any work?”
Erica, another member of the Unemployed group, responded: “We didn’t choose to be unemployed. We lost our jobs and can’t find work. We’re starving and we need relief just to get by.”
Michael, as a Wealthy Southern Landowner, put forward an alternate proposal: “In the South we pay workers much less than they do in the North. So relief should also be less. It’s unfair to those who are working if you are paying people a wage that is more than the average worker makes. We think that unemployment relief should be distributed by the states.”
Speaking as a Black Activist, Miguel declared: “In the South the government is controlled by racists. White people get more relief than Black people do. If the state governments distribute relief, this will continue. But we also don’t trust the federal government because Congress is now run by racist Democrats from the South. So we propose that the federal government fund the unemployed councils and the councils can distribute relief to those that need it.”
Although their role didn’t explicitly discuss relief, the Trade Unionists in most of my classes sided with the unemployed. However, in one class, they were swayed by CEO arguments against relief. As Brian said: “We agree with the CEOs that if the unemployed get relief they should only get food—not money or shelter. If people have everything they need to get by they are not motivated to get off their butts and look for jobs.”
Although I didn’t anticipate this alliance, it was actually analogous to the real history. As Danny Lucia explains in an article on the unemployed movement, “At the beginning of the 1930s, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the largest workers’ organization in the country, did not even support unemployment insurance. The AFL, which was comprised mainly of skilled workers’ unions (many of them segregated), did not see itself as the representative for all American workers. . . . Many AFL leaders were only too willing to accept the stereotype of the unemployable worker—unskilled, often African American, or a recent immigrant—to contrast with their own members’ respectability.”6 This narrow view of workers ended up splitting the AFL in the latter half of the decade when John Lewis and other labor leaders left to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Since these two currents existed side by side inside the AFL at the beginning of the Depression, I didn’t include information on unemployment relief or racism within unions in the Trade Union role.
In real life, the biggest influences on the early New Deal were wealthy Southern landowners and corporate executives. Because in most of my classes the Trade Unionists formed alliances with the Unemployed and Black Activists—seeing their interests as intertwined—the students typically ended the conference with proposals that were more progressive than what happened in reality.
The First New Deal: Who Really Won?
In the following class, I asked students to look at excerpts from legislation passed during the first New Deal—the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). (The role play included aspects of all three pieces of legislation.) With the Economic Recovery Conference Role Play as background, students were ready to delve into the difficult language of these laws and analyze parts of them in their social context. As we compared the results of our role play with the actual legislation, I asked students to think and eventually write about which social groups benefited and which ones suffered from the early New Deal. Of course, not all corporate executives opposed unemployment relief and not all unemployed people wanted relief, but the lens of race and class that frames the role play did shape the way people wanted the government to respond to the Great Depression.
As Lejay explained: “Though in class, workers, the unemployed, and Black activists got their way in almost every aspect of the discussion, quite the contrary happened in America during the 1930s. The biggest winners in actual politics were the corporate executives of large companies. Company unions were not banned in the NRA; instead, the government suspended anti-trust laws and allowed the CEOs to create codes of fair competition that gave businesses control over minimum wages and maximum hours. This allowed them to pay workers less while making them work more.” Here Lejay echoes historian Howard Zinn, who wrote in A People’s History of the United States, “From the first, the NRA was dominated by big business and served their interests.”7
Nigel said: “The wealthy Southern landowners were the clear winners of the early New Deal and it was also clear that African Americans were the losers. The AAA paid wealthy Southern landowners not to plant and to destroy their crops so they could sell their product at a profit again, while Blacks would get kicked off their land.”
Erica added that the wealthy Southern landowners “wanted the states to distribute direct relief to the unemployed so they could pay Black people less. They could do this because, according to FERA, Ôthe administrator is authorized to make grants to the several states to aid in meeting the costs of furnishing relief.'”
One of Roosevelt’s fiercest Black critics, John P. Davis, wrote similarly in 1935: “The AAA has used cruder methods in enforcing poverty on the Negro farm population. It has made violations of the rights of tenants under crop reduction contracts easy; it has rendered enforcement of these rights impossible. . . . Farm laborers are now jobless by the hundreds of thousands. . . . The larger portion of these are unskilled Negro agricultural workersÑnow without income and unable to secure work or relief.”8
Students also disagreed about whether trade unionists benefited from the early New Deal. As Andre noted, “Just as in our class, the NRA guaranteed workers the rights to organize unions, but only fined employers $500 for violating that right.” In fact, Sharon Smith writes in Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States: “It soon became clear that Roosevelt had only grudgingly consented to grant workers the right to unionize, and he deliberately wrote Section 7(a) of the NRA so vaguely that it could easily be interpreted as ensuring the ‘rights’ of employers to form company unions. Many employers found it convenient to interpret the NRA in just this way in order to crush genuine union drives. Soon, many workers were referring to the NRA as the ‘National Run Around.'”9
My aim here was not to get students to be critical of Roosevelt, but to help them look at these reforms in their social context, and to better understand the political system at a time of serious social change. It is impossible to evaluate the significance of a reform without understanding the social and historical context. For example, raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour would be a significant reform today—one that would help millions of low-wage workers. But if this minimum wage hike were passed while workers across the country were striking and occupying their workplaces demanding a $20 minimum wage, many would consider it a conservative compromise. The power dynamics influencing reforms shifted dramatically between the first and second New Deal, particularly as workers demanding change shut down multiple American cities in 1934.
The New Deal Is Pushed to the Left
I followed up the Economic Recovery Conference Role Play with lessons on the four major strikes of 1934: the Southern textile strike, the Minneapolis teamsters strike, the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, and the West Coast longshoremen’s strike, which led to a general strike in San Francisco. I explained that workers across the country were paying attention to these strikes and learning lessons from them. As Sharon Smith writes: “Every week, newsreels ran in movie theaters across the country with footage of the strikes as they unfolded. Working-class audiences cheered for the strikers, just as they would cheer for their team in a sports match.”10
Workers learned that mass picketing, self-defense against police and scabs, and active involvement of the rank and file were key to winning strikes. And they learned not to trust politicians, liberal or otherwise, who often called in the National Guard to protect strikebreakers; instead, they placed their trust in radical rank-and-file leaders. The three strikes that ended in victory were led by organized and politically savvy socialists and communists. Indeed, the radicalization of working-class militants threatened the two-party system, as workers increasingly looked outside the mainstream political parties to address their concerns.
Just as the actions of the unemployed councils and the occupation of Washington, D.C., by the Bonus Army preceded the early New Deal, the much more threatening strikes of 1934 preceded the significant and long-lasting legislation passed in 1935. Hoping to secure the working-class vote, Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration and secured the passage of the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Wealth Tax of 1935.
Howard Zinn sums up this result succinctly in the film The People Speak:
What we learn in the schools is that when Franklin Roosevelt was elected, the New Deal came into being and saved the country from total collapse. In fact, Roosevelt’s New Deal did take bold steps to alleviate the situation through Social Security, unemployment insurance, hiring millions of people to do useful work and a minimum wage. But what is often overlooked in the history of this period is that Roosevelt was pushed and pressured into the New Deal reforms by a nation in rebellion. There were strikes all over the country demanding change. As has happened again and again in the nation’s history, the government was only moved to reform by the actions of organized citizens.
This is a crucial lesson for students and teachers. Like Obama’s “change you can believe in,” Roosevelt’s New Deal promises rang hollow during his first few years in office. The New Deal became what we remember it for only when ordinary people demanded a New Deal that benefited them—not just the wealthy. Unions, unemployed councils, and other organizations of ordinary people made history through protests, strikes, and factory occupations that ensured that their demands for a more authentic democracy could not be ignored.
- Economic Recovery Conference Issues
- Economic Recovery Conference Roles
- Economic Recovery Conference — Who Won?
- Roosevelt, Franklin D. May 22, 1932. Oglethorpe University Commencement Address.
- Singleton, Jeff. 2000. The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression. Greenwood Press.
- Roosevelt, Franklin D. Feb. 9, 1937. Letter to Felix Frankfurter.
- Hofstadter, Richard. 1989. The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. Vintage Books.
- Bellush, Bernard. 1975. The Failure of the NRA. W. W. Norton & Company.
- Lucia, Danny. May-June 2010. “The Unemployed Movements of the 1930s: Bringing Misery Out of Hiding.” International Socialist Review, 71.
- Zinn, Howard. 2003. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. HarperCollins.
- Davis, John P. 1966. “The New Deal: Slogans for the Same Raw Deal,” Zinn, Howard, ed. New Deal Thought. The Bobbs-Merrill Company.
- Smith, Sharon. 2006. Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. Haymarket Books.