The Self-Help movement of the early 1930s attempted to overcome the social effects of the Great Depression through barter cooperatives of the unemployed. This article focuses on California, where the movement had its greatest impact, and on the Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA) of Oakland, probably the most highly developed group in the country. Included are photos by Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham, quotes from a novelized history of the movement by Upton Sinclair, and an interview fifty years later with a former member of the UXA.
July 1932. The economy stopped. Factories locked, money scarce. One out of seven Californians unemployed. Almost no social welfare programs. Large numbers homeless, destitute, hungry. All around vacant buildings stand boarded up. The fields are rotting with tons of unharvested fruit and vegetables. Small farmers have no cash to pay harvesters, and there is no market; many are losing their land. Food prices are next to nothing, but many thousands in the cities and towns have nothing at all. California highways and rails are crowded with the homeless searching for survival, including thousands of "wild children." While over the static of every radio station flows the soothing voice of Franklin Roosevelt promising if elected to bring a New Deal.
"Hoovervilles," shantytowns of the homeless, have sprung up around the country over the past three years. The largest in the San Francisco Bay Area is Pipe City, near the railroad tracks by the Oakland waterfront, where hundreds live in sections of large sewer pipe that have never been laid due to lack of funds.
Carl Rhodehamel, unemployed and down on his luck, walks through Pipe City, talking to the inhabitants. Rhodehamel was once an electrical engineer at GE, a cellist, an inventor of several key technological developments in radio and early "talkies," an orchestra conductor and composer whose "Little Symphony" had once been a favorite with KGO fans. There is a streak of genius in him, that will sweep him into the leadership of an organization that will stir California and the country.
He and two others he met in Pipe City, find an abandoned grocery store that can be used for meetings, and a group of six unemployed begin to meet and discuss ways out of their problems. Rhodehamel says, Since the money system isn't working, we should form our own system, and not use money at all: we should aim at providing ourselves with everything we need to live, by barter.
He is not the only one with that idea. Barter groups of the unemployed are already operating in Seattle and L.A., and are forming all around the country.
The other five, like Rhodehamel, are skilled and experienced workers, but all realize it could be years, if ever, before they'd find work in their fields again. They decide to try the idea. They begin going door to door in the neighborhood, the Dimond-Allendale district of East Oakland, offering to do home repairs in exchange for "junk" from people's basements and garages. It works.
They decide to try to gather all the unemployed in the neighborhood into their group; they distribute fliers throughout the area. On the evening of July 20, 1932, about twenty people meet at the Hawthorne School and organize the U.X.A., the Unemployed Exchange Association (or Universal Exchange Association, as they'll call it later). The X stands not only for eXchange, but for the "unknown factor" in an algebraic equation, a social algebraic equation.
Six months later the UXA will be the object of a series of five articles in the San Francisco Chronicle. and another series of three in the Examiner. It will be noticed in news media around the country as the most highly developed group in the Self-Help cooperative movement springing up everywhere in America. Two young photographers, Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham, will journey around the UXA together snapping a series of now-classic shots. Upton Sinclair will take the UXA as his model for the EPIC (End Poverty In California) Plan that he will run for governor on, and will come close to winning; later he'll write a thinly fictionalized account of the UXA and EPIC in Co-op, a Novel of Living Together. For a brief moment the country's consciousness will turn to East Oakland. Even FDR will look and listen.
To a nation of dispossessed people hungry for a new social equation, it will seem that all that is required to get from the U.S.A. to the U.X.A. is a daring leap into the unknown.
Their first focus was the neighborhood itself, a depressed workingclass area, then (but not today.) predominantly white. They began organizing the residents to fix up each others' houses and to recirculate every variety of article and item among themselves to where it would be useful. There had been little work done in the three years since the crash of 1929, so there was a great backlog of home repairs to be done. The abandoned grocery became their first storeroom and commissary, soon overflowing with household and industrial articles. Broken items were repaired or rebuilt. The neighborhood, previously choked with despair and immobility, was suddenly bursting with activity and confidence. People poured into the new organization.
They soon began sending scouts around Oakland and into the surrounding farm areas, to search out salvageable things and make deals with their owners for them. Labor teams followed. All work was credited at one hundred points per hour. Members exchanged points earned for their choice of items in the commissary. Each article brought in was given a point value, which approximated the labor time that went into it, with some adjustment for comparable money value. They also offered many services for points, including complete medical and dental, garage, nursery school, barber. They provided some housing and all of their firewood needs. At their peak they would distribute forty tons of food per week to their 1500 members.
They called it Reciprocal Economy. They made no distinction in labor value between men and women, skilled and unskilled, lesser and greater productivity. At first they functioned entirely by barter; it was all done on the books, without a circulating scrip. Members could write "orders" - like checks - against their account to other members far services provided. Eventually they began making trades that involved part payment in cash.
The General Assembly of members held final power, They selected an Operating Committee in semi-annual elections, to coordinate functioning. The UXA was divided into various "sections": Manufacturing, Trading, Food, Farm, Construction, Gardening, Homeworkers, Communication, Health, Transportation, Bookkeeping, Maintenance, Fuel, Personal Services, Placement, Food Conservation, Headquarters Staff, Saw Mill, Ranch. The workers in each section decided issues relevant to their work, approved or disapproved Committee and Assembly actions, and determined the admittance of new members into their section. They kept the numbers in each section down to about twenty-five, to make decision-making viable; when numbers got much larger, the section split into two.
The Operating Committee met four nights a week at their headquarters on East 14th Street at 40th Avenue. These were open meetings at which plans and decisions were thrashed out in democratic discussions. Sitting about a huge round table, the only rule was to speak one at a time. Anybody with an idea, member or not, was welcome to sit in and was heard after the current commitments of jobs that individuals had agreed to had been dealt with. On Friday nights the Coordinators of the sections met with the Operating Committee to form the Coordinating Assembly, the basic ongoing decision-making body, The section Coordinators were appointed by the Operating Committee, with the workers of each section holding veto power. The Coordinators had no authority over members, and could be recalled at any time. Power was from the bottom up. Outsiders often expressed amazement at how well they functioned with "no boss, no foreman, no manager."
Word of the new organization quickly reached certain vigilant ears. Word was passed to the Oakland police department that the UXA was a "revolutionary" group with "Communist" leaders. UXA meetings were raided and shut down by the Red Squad. The commissary was closed on the pretext that they were violating an ordinance prohibiting the sale of food and clothing from the same store. Utilities were shut off.
The core group, in the fall of 1932 about thirty strong, met in secret to decide what to do. In the early hours of the following dawn they finally agreed on an unusual plan. Here becomes apparent for the first time the particular genius of Rhodehamel who, as chairman, would steer the UXA through its life cycle. The entire organization, then about one hundred members, went around town spreading a rumor that the police and fire departments had changed their mind, and were now helping the UXA, They made sure that the story found its way into the rank-and-file of the police. Then they began holding open meetings again and, as they'd hoped, members of the police force came, not on orders evidently, but out of curiosity. Some of them wound up participating constructively in the meetings. The raids stopped and relations between the local government and the UXA actually became helpful. They had forced the Oakland police to open their minds, no small order then or now.
By the beginning of 1933 the UXA had a labor force of six hundred. Anyone over eighteen could join; applicants were screened, but only a small number with unconstructive motivations were rejected. There were provisions for expelling people but these were almost never used. Such matters were dealt with in a different way: when someone was known to be stealing, for example, instead of making accusations, "We make it easy for them," Rhodehamel said. Before long the offender, becoming aware that others knew, would either stop stealing or shamefully disappear.
Beyond organizing barter and labor exchange, they began producing articles for trade and sale. They set up a foundry and machine shop, a woodshop, garage, a soap factory, a print shop, a food conserving project, nursery and adult school . They had eighteen trucks that they'd rebuilt from junk. They branched outside of town, and maintained a woodlot in Dixon, ranches near Modesto and Winters, lumber mills near Oroville and in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Twenty-five men and women crowd about the table, elbows touching. Another twenty form a second circle around them. At the table's center a foot-high lighthouse stands, its top constantly revolving, with the letters UXA flashing. 8 PM: Rhodehamel ("Rhodie") calls the meeting to order. Mary McCanna takes down the day's commitments, detailed in an indexed looseleaf book and written on small yellow slips of paper. They go through the commitments one by one. What has been done and what not? What deals made? Which jobs progressed and which finished? The different coordinators speak about their sections. They quickly go through twenty or thirty items. Fields have been harvested; trenches have been dug; wheelbarrows have been salvaged; cars have been painted; orders have come into the foundry; carpenting and plastering have been done; a deal has been made for wood; arms have been made for dental chairs; a contract to build a barn has been agreed on; a barge and tug have been leased to haul produce and wood; a group of apartments have been rented for labor and services; a wrecking deal has been discussed; an idle planing mill has been discovered; an order for office furniture has come in; a gasoline trade is in the works; a potato chip slicer is being converted for a sauerkraut project. Voorhies reports that a farmer near Hayward will trade sixty percent of his apricot and plum crops for harvesting labor. Can we do it? Rutzebeck of Personnel says labor is available, Hill is made coordinator. Price of Manufacturing reports that the swing saw bearings have been cast and are ready. Hanson says they need a new motor for it, Llewellan knows of a motor but the owner wants a piano. Pugh says the Trading Section has one listed, and they can get it for digging out part of a cellar; but it needs tuning. Is a piano tuner on the exchange list? Yes, three of them. After all the items are finished, there is a general discussion of ideas for new activities, how to get more labor power, and how to build leadership. By that time it is eleven o'clock and, since all have had their say, Rhodie calls the meeting to a close. But people linger afterward, and far into the night the discussion continues, of how to implement barter on a societal scale, so all who can find no place in the capitalist economy might join a cooperative and create a whole new American way of life.
The UXA was far from the only Self-Help group in California or in the Bay Area. In the summer and fall of 1932, at the same time as the UXA was forming, similar groups were organizing around the state and across the country, over one hundred in California alone. They appeared wherever conditions were ripe among the unemployed and underemployed, particularly near farming areas, It was truly a spontaneous mass movement, spread by the wind, an idea whose time seemed to have come. By the spring of 1933, there were at least 100,000 members in about 175 groups in California, and another 50,000 in 100 groups around the nation. Over the next two years over half a million people were involved in at least 29 states. A survey in December 94 counted 310 different groups, Among the earliest was the Seattle Unemployed Citizens League, which set up labor exchanges with farmers in the summer of '31. By 93 California clearly assumed national leadership, with about two-thirds of the groups. Although not the largest in the country, the UXA was seen by almost all observers to be the most highly developed of all the self-help co-ops in America.
Numerically the largest concentration was in Los Angeles county, vhere about 75,000 people in 107 groups participated in the harvest of fall 1932, Among the earliest in the state were the LA Exchange, started by Bessie Mays, the Compton Relief Association, begun by a group of World War I veterans, and the Unemployed Association of Santa Ana (in Orange county). Since farming areas were easily accessible in the south, most of these groups organized large numbers of people to harvest produce in exchange for a share of the crops. Nearby Orange county was also an area of concentration.
Several forms of Self-Help were usually distinguished, although most groups practiced them all to varying degrees: exchange among members, exchange of labor for goods or services, cooperative production for trade or sale. Exchange among members was the most widespread, and commonly involved part-payment in cash. It was only in the later stage of the movement that many groups turned to production, and most never did to an appreciable extent.
By March 93 there were 32 Self-Help groups ringing the Bay: 22 in the East Bay, 9 in San Francisco and the Peninsula, one in San Jose. All had begun the previous summer and fall. Besides the UXA there were a number of other distinctive ones.
The Berkeley Unemployed Association, at 2110 Parker Street, had sections that included sewing, quilting and weaving, shoe repair, barber, conserving, wood yard, kitchen and dining room, commissary, garage, machine shop, woodshop, and mattress factory. At their height they involved several hundred people and had full medical and dental coverage. A visitor to the wood shop in December 1934 reported them working on office desks and furniture, as well as fruit lugs for the farm exchange section. They later changed their name to the Berkeley Self-Help Cooperative, typical of many groups who considered themselves no longer unemployed.
A few blocks away, on Delaware Street, was the Pacific Cooperative League (PCL), which operated a garage, flour mill, wood yard, store, canning and weaving projects, and ran a newspaper, the Herald of Cooperation, later called the Voice of the Self-Employed.. They laid claim to having organized one of the earliest labor exchanges of the Depression, when they traded an Atascadero rancher their harvesting labor for part of his apricot crop in September 1930. The PCL was not a new organization like almost all the rest, but dated back decades to when it had been part of a consumer co-op store movement of the same name, begun in 1913. The chain, based in San Francisco, had at its peak fourteen stores in California and 33 more in seven other western states. It was promoted at one point by Upton Sinclair. But the old PCL collapsed in 1921, strangled by centralization and by a feud with the Atlantic coast based Cooperative League. The East Bay PCL group managed to survive the death of the parent organization, and staggered along at a low level until sparked to rebirth by the depression and by the other Self-Help groups nearby.
The San Jose Unemployed Relief Council (later called the SJ Self-Help Co-op) was formed by a group of laid-off cannery workers. They soon had a wood yard, a fruit-and-vegetable drying yard, a store, laundry, farm, soap factory, barbershop, shoe shop, commissary, sewing project and contracted for a wide variety of jobs and services, At their height they were about 1200 strong. The Peninsula Economic Exchange, in Palo Alto, was organized by a group of unemployed white collar workers, professionals, and bankrupt merchants. With about a hundred member families, they had a store on Emerson Street, a farm, a cannery, woodyard, and fishing boat. Unlike most of the other northern groups, they issued scrip, in-house currency, to members for hours worked. "Scrip exchanges" were more common at first in southern California, but were usually plagued with problems.
The southern California co-ops, in general, developed a different approach from those in the north. While the UXA and other northern groups defined their goal as developing permanent production facilities to create an independent survival system for their members, the southern groups, with the early leadership of C.M. Christofferson, saw their aim as getting food, clothing, and shelter for their members by any means necessary. These means included direct action and "chiseling." Most southern groups never developed from simple "vegetable exchanges" into a production phase. They took to direct action to put evicted members back into their homes, and to turn disconnected utilities back on. They "chiseled" necessities out of farmers, businesses, and local governments. Unlike the northern groups, which distributed items to members according to work performed, many southern groups distributed "according to need," in a somewhat indiscriminate manner. In the late fall of 1932 many of the southern groups came together and set up the Unemployed Cooperative Relief Association (UCRA). Christofferson was first chairman, and later "Pat" May of the Huntington Park unit. Under Ray's leadership, UCRA changed from a loose federation to a highly centralized organization claiming to speak for a combined membership of 200,000 state-wide.
The first form "chiseling" took was workers not showing up to perform promised labor, although the items exchanged for had already been taken. Soon they began to "chisel" the local government for grants. Mass "hunger marches" and large demonstrations forced the LA County Board of Supervisors and municipal government to grant them gasoline, trucks, and food staples. UCRA took to supporting candidates favorable to their goals in local elections, and packed considerable clout. The focus of the southern groups shifted from labor exchange as they became primarily distribution organizations. "No more work! We've produced too much already," became a rallying cry.
The worst tendencies of "chiseling" culminated in one southern town in a "co-op" run by a sort of ward-boss using a goonsquad, who used the elimination of UCRA "radicals" as a lever for his rise to power, backed by the local business community.
The northern co-ops criticized "chiseling," scorned the idea of trying to get "something for nothing," objected to getting involved in electoral politics, and declined becoming relief organizations. Nonetheless, when UCRA moved to become state-wide, many of the northern groups, including the UXA, affiliated.
In January 1933, UCRA parented five units in San Francisco and several others in the East Bay. San Francisco UCRA #1 was quartered at 101 Webster Street, with Emily Martin as chairperson. By the next month there were five units in the city with over 900 member families. But the SF groups suffered from long distances to farming areas, from intense political factionalization, and from comparatively available government "relief". In July 1933 UCRA held its quarterly convention in San Francisco and, in the midst of bitter fighting, split into two. The local groups never recovered, and by the end of the year four had totally collapsed.
Down in LA, UCRA was undercut by governmental agencies creating and fostering parallel organizations, first the Area Conference, to which most UCRA units became affiliated, and later the Unemployed Cooperative Distribution Association (UCDA), fostered by the federal government in the fall of 1933. May's group from UCRA took over the administration of UCDA, while UCRA became functionally defunct. Over the year, May managed to preside over the "chiseling" and distribution of $120,000 in federal grants for staple foods and gasoline.
With the New Deal came the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA). Rhodehamel, H.S. Calvert of the Pacific Cooperative League, and other California leaders were called by the congressional committees drafting the bill to confer on provisions concerning grants to cooperatives to purchase means of production. Due in part to "Rhodie" and "Cal"s efforts, funds were suddenly available. Rhodehamel however argued in vain that they should not be outright grants, but loans repayable in labor exchange. Furthermore, the law stipulated that production facilities set up with FERA funds could not be used in money transactions, while the self-help groups usually tried to include money in their exchange arrangements whenever possible. This last provision seriously undercut the co-ops' ability to function.
Rhodehamel tried to prevent the UXA from applying for a FERA grant, out of fear of the strings attached, but the membership decided to anyway. It was written in the UXA books as a loan, although the feds considered it a grant.
By the end of 1934, FERA had distributed $411,000 to 81 groups. The UXA received grants for their sawmill, for printing equipment, gardening, and canning. The Berkeley Self-Help Co-op received grants for furniture, mattress, and shoe operations. The Pacific Cooperative League received grants for housing, milling, and weaving. The San Jose Self-Help Co-op for dehydrating and other equipment, and for renting farm land.
In southern California, under a different program administrator, in order to become eligible for a production grant a co-op was first forced to "demonstrate its managerial ability" by running a distribution program for government staples and gasoline. It was in order to administer this program that the federal government set up UCDA and got the co-ops to join, making the independent UCRA functionally obsolescent. Large "blanket grants" for gas and staples were issued to UCDA, to be passed on to the affiliated groups. There was a double-bind however: acceptance of blanket grant money by a unit made it ineligible to obtain an individual federal grant for productive equipment; UCDA applied for a blanket million-dollar production grant, but this was eventually denied. Later however, after federal blanket grant money stopped, the southern co-ops became individually eligible again. Some did get production grants and turned in that direction, but with not as much success as in the north,
Federal money was used as a carrot to influence the internal affairs of many co-ops. A typical case was the San Jose Co-op, whose grant was held up due to the presence of a "radical faction" in the organization. This touched off a bitter struggle in the group. The "Reds" lost and the grant came through.
Thus FERA money was a double-edged sword for the Self-Help movement. But the co-ops would have survived it. The real kiss of death for the movement was the WPA. But before that kiss descended, the co-ops sparked one of the great grassroots electoral uprisings in American history, EPIC.
In September 1933, Upton Sinclair, novelistic chronicler of American social reality, long a leading member of the California Socialist Party, suddenly changed registration and threw his hat into the ring for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with a program he called EPIC: End Poverty In California.
With "Production For Use" as its rallying cry, the EPIC plan would have created state agencies to take over idle farms and production facilities and turn them over to the unemployed, to "establish State land colonies whereby the unemployed may become self-sustaining, to acquire factories and production plants whereby the unemployed may produce the basic necessities required for themselves and for the land colonies, and to operate these factories and house and feed and care for the workers..., (to) maintain a distribution system of each other's products..., thus constituting a complete industrial system, a new and self-sustaining world for those our present system cannot employ."
Public bodies titled California Authority for Land (CAL), for Production (CAP), and for Barter (CAB) would reside respectively over rural, urban, and exchange. Besides this central plan were provisions for a series of social welfare programs (there were virtually no state programs at the time), and for a general redistribution of the wealth downward through changes in tax laws.
EPIC took its immediate inspiration from the Self-Help cooperatives, with the UXA as the classical model. Here was living proof that these were not idle utopian dreams, but could actually work. They didn't shun the label Utopian as pejorative, but wore it as a badge of pride.
EPIC clubs sprang up around the state like grass after rain, ultimately 2000 of them. The EPIC News reached a circulation of 1.5 million.
Most of the co-ops, considering themselves economic and not political organizations, decided it was out of their sphere to endorse electoral candidates directly. Sinclair declared this position correct, even though much of his core support came from them and from the unemployed who had created them. The support of local candidates by UCRA in LA and by the Unemployed Citizens League up in Seattle had led to betrayal in the first case and defeat in the second. It was better left to members to participate individually. And participate they did. As Sinclair said later, "Of course (self-help) was 'production for use', and those people automatically became EPICs." Hjalmar "Hans" Rutzebeck, personnel coordinator of the UXA, took a leave of absence and became a key aide in the campaign.
Sinclair, who had garnered 50,000 votes running as a Socialist for governor four years previously, now swept the 1934 Democratic primary with 436,000 votes, more than the other six candidates combined. But the California Right, entrenched for decades, had not yet begun to fight.
Most of the Democratic Old Guard defected to the Republicans; the state organization declined to be of any support. Newsmedia, which at first had usually reported favorably on the Self-Help movement and on Sinclair, now turned around and attacked without quarter. Almost every newspaper and radio station came out against him. An anti-EPIC newsreel was shown in every theater in the state. Gigantic sums of money (for that era) were spent to defeat Sinclair, in possibly the most vicious and libelous campaign in California history.
Sinclair countered by going to the New Deal for support. Roosevelt, in office only a year and a half, had decided not to single out any particular Democrats for special endorsement. Sinclair noted that this did not exclude his endorsing any particular plan. He conferred with Harry Hopkins, the Relief Administrator (later to set up the WPA). Hopkins announced that he was ready to work with EPIC; he presented it to FDR as a potential hothouse for a national plan. Sinclair met with Roosevelt. Sinclair recounts the conversation:
"At the end he told me that he was coming out for production for use. I said, 'If you do that, Mr. President, it will elect me.' 'Well,' he said, 'I am going to do it.'"
FDR indicated he would come out for the plan during a nationwide radio address scheduled for the week before the election, and Sinclair hinted publicly that this would happen. On the night of the broadcast, the entire EPIC movement was glued to the radio. When Roosevelt signed off, few could believe the speech was over and he'd said nothing about production for use. A mood of doubt suddenly permeated the organization, where joyous optimism had reigned.
Sinclair's main antagonist was the incumbent Frank Merriam, seventy and somewhat senile, who'd saved himself from being dumped by his own party by his violent suppression of the San Francisco longshore strike and general strike, which took place shortly before.
The unions and the Self-Help groups had mostly positive relations. A good number of workers belonged to both a union and a co-op. Some Self-Help co-ops, such as the San Jose Unemployed Relief Council, were staffed by unionists. Others, such as the UXA, decided specifically that they would not seek to take over any jobs already being performed by steadily employed labor.
This friendship paid off in mutual solidarity during the San Francisco General Strike. The co-ops of the Bay Area were able to move about freely, while "normal" commerce was blockaded. Both the unemployed and the strikers had fruit and vegetables "at a time when money could not procure them."
Upton Sinclair gives a fictionalized account in Co-op:
The cutting of wages and discharge of union workers brought its inevitable result... For a week the unions ran the town... They issued a list of restaurants which were allowed to remain open; the hospitals and a few such institutions would be served; everything else was blockaded... The Self-Help Exchange was of course on the white list. There were numbers of unemployed teamsters and longshoremen who belonged to it, and all the trucks got permits and went freely through the picket lines. They were hauling food for the workers; and you may be sure their contact men were out picking up all the perishable stuff that was lying about... Everybody connected with the strike had bananas for breakfast, lunch and supper for several days. And just as they were beginning to tire of them, came sauerkraut, barrels and barrels of it; and then crates of lettuce, and sacks of sprouting onions and potatoes.
Can there be any doubt that those barrels came from the UXA kraut factory?
The unions, like the co-ops, declined to get directly involved in EPIC in any major way, though Sinclair did have the support of the working as well as the "workless", and offered them the thirty-hour week.
For his repression of the General Strike Republican Governor Frank Merriam suddenly became the darling of the reactionary right, who threw all their forses behind his re-election campaign.
In the end, Sinclair got almost 900,000 votes, 37%, to Merriam's 49%, while a liberal third party candidate got the difference.
The EPIC uprising, even in electoral defeat, took much of the bite out of the state's right wing for decades afterwards. The reflection of many of EPIC's proposals can be seen in later New Deal programs.
Sinclair went on to offer a national version of EPIC, win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and later be nominated for a Nobel Prize by a group that included Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, and Bertrand Russell.
After the electoral defeat, EPIC leaders split on what to do next. While Sinclair took off on a national speaking tour, a group led by Frank Taylor set up a Production for Use Committee and worked to turn the EPIC energy into a consumer co-op movement. The consolidation of buying power would be a step to gaining control of the economy, they hoped.
A large number of EPIC groups planned buying clubs and stores; by the next fall there were 210 consumer co-ops in California, with 50,000 members, almost all the groups newly organized. Among the most successful at first were New Day Co-op in Oakland, with 1000 members, and Producers-Consumers Co-op at 668 Haight Street in San Francisco. But these and the great majority of the others quickly collapsed. Former members of New Day however became leaders in Pacific Cooperative Services, organized in 1936. In January of the next year they opened a tiny store, to which the Berkeley Co-op, with around 100,000 member families at its height, traced its central root.
The Works Progress Administration of 1935, promising a cash job at a decent wage to every unemployed person able to work, undercut the entire Self-Help movement. The government had cut off cash incomes for cooperators using FERA-funded production facilities, and now dropped the other shoe. Members could not be in two places at once, and had to choose between the limitations of barter or an assured cash income. The New Deal did not really want independent cooperatives as a permanent part of the economy; Sinclair wound up calling WPA "that arch-enemy of self-help." Rhodehamel tried to prevent a mass exodus from the UXA by arguing that these government programs would be temporary and, if they let the UXA collapse, members would have no cooperative to come back to when WPA was shut down. Nonetheless the exodus took place. Hundreds of groups around the country collapsed. The UXA, like the rest, found a sudden labor shortage, They now had difficulty delivering on work promised, and fell deeper and deeper into a hole.
Sinclair pleaded with Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins to no avail to let work in the cooperatives count as WPA hours. This would have saved the co-ops. As a last-ditch effort, the UXA sent Rutzebeck, their personnel director, to Washington to try to plead their case directly to FDR. Rutzebeck describes the interview in a fictionalized account of the movement he later wrote, Hell's Paradise, which covers much of the same area as Sinclair's book Co-op. (Sinclair made Rutzebeck the central character in Co-op, so Hjalmar wrote his own version in part to set the record straight.)
Even though FDR showed interest and openness, Rutzebeck knew that WPA director Hopkins was no longer favorable toward independent co-ops. Hopkins was committed to the top-down centralized WPA bureaucratic approach. Rutzebeck left the interview with Hopkins knowing that "the Relief Administrator would see to it that the papers on Reciprocal Economy were kept as far away as possible from the occupant of the White House."
It is one of the little-known ironies of history that at the same time as Adolph Hitler was destroying the German cooperative movement with blood and fire (as Mussolini had done earlier), Roosevelt was destroying the American movement with love.
The New Deal was far from the only problem of the Self-Help movement. Besides the usual personality clashes and leadership disputes that are a fact of life in all organizations, especially democratic ones, the co-ops were beset by a number of particular difficulties.
In production-oriented groups, such as the UXA, productivity was an ongoing problem. When they decided that all work would be worth the same on a time basis, they hoped that spirit and education would make up for the inevitable unproductive attitudes in same members. Despite weekly classes, the UXA School of Reciprocal Economy was never able to overcome the "employee mentality" of some members, who tried to put in as many hours as possible with no care for productivity. The result was the piling up of more points on the books than the organization had products to redeem them with. This was a problem in all the groups that kept track of hours. The southern co-ops which distributed "according to need" circumvented this problem on paper but in reality had a similar affliction. The scrip exchanges were hit with particular severity, as the groups tended to issue too much and it quickly depreciated in value. They were further hampered by a state law prohibiting scrip to be used in the payment of wages.
The field of scavenging operations of the co-ops became slowly diminished. Their work eventually decreased the surplus products in their areas. This was a natural and unavoidable process, as the depression was brought on in part by "over production," and time depleted surpluses over a few years. High turnover rate of younger members was a problem. These tended to move on when they found job openings, while the older members, largely "unemployable," tended to stay in the co-ops for the long run. The result in some instances was a dearth of muscle power. The median age of the UXA was 48.
Many co-ops were "entered into" by members of radical groups who had little interest in the actual day-to-day work, but were there mainly in an attempt to turn the co-ops to political ends. Since by their very nature co-ops have a radical aspect, this was inevitable; many co-ops were founded by social revolutionaries. Outsiders guilty of disruptive "entrism" were usually isolated and soon gone. The attitude of the Communist Party of the time (pre-Popular Front) was that the co-ops and EPIC were not far enough "left;" they attacked Sinclair continually during his campaign, while a short time later they were supporting people far to his right.
Oser Price was Coordinator of the Manufacturing section of the UXA from late in 1932 until the organization started to collapse in mid-1935, He joined the UXA after having been laid off from his job as a tractor tool designer in June 1930. Born in northern California in 1900, he was a Berkeley resident when I interviewed him in 1983, a student of welding, and as vehement a proponent of cooperation and self-help as he was fifty years before.
Here are some of his thoughts about the UXA fifty years later:
"The Coordinating Assembly had a big round table - nobody was at the head. There we held weekly brainstorming sessions. We could solve some of the most difficult problems by everybody tossing in their ideas, no matter how wild they were, and we would come up with answers that would work.
"We were too busy scratching around getting all the things we needed to survive to have any sort of hassle.
"Initially the organization had no capital. Member production generated most of it. The accumulated capital would have formed the basis for ownership of natural resources had not member-created inflation intervened. Timekilling caused fatal inflation. Production was no longer the name of the game for many members.
"The thing that killed it was the cash flow from the WPA. It drained off people who needed money - and everybody did need some. People couldn't be in both the UXA and in WPA at the same time. Those who had to have cash took WPA. Soon there weren't enough people available to make the UXA work.
"Consider this: socialism as far as absolute necessity goes, and free enterprise the rest of the way. All of us work a certain amount of time or produce a certain amount, whatever it takes to produce a minimal survival: one-and-a-half, two, four hours a day, whatever it takes. Beyond that everybody's on his own, and can produce or make all he can. That way you don't squelch creativity or initiative. To reduce bureaucracy to zero, you have to have as much as possible of what's done and how it's done in the hands of the people who are doing it.
"Worker ownership, that's the key. I don't care how big the organization, if you have nothing but worker ownership, it'll work.
"Franklin Roosevelt was criticized bitterly by business for instituting the relief programs, but he kept this country from going into a revolution, and a bloody one... Maybe it would have been good: we could have cleaned house on a lot of evils that were going on.
"As to the future, it can happen again if you make it happen; it's all up to you."
Although Roosevelt's programs alleviated some of the problems of the depression, the "New" Deal turned out to be temporary, and California, like the nation, slumped back into lethargy as the late thirties progressed. WPA ended, but the Self-Help movement did not revive, as the country and the world braced for war. Rhodehamel, like many others, saw it coming, and felt that the movement would not revive until after it was over. "But all wars end, and when this one is ended... we or such as we shall proceed again." Finally World War II snapped the country and the economy out of the depression, created "full employment," and gave birth to the mighty industrial machine that emerged at the war's end. By that time Rhodehamel and many of the others who made the movement were no longer with us, and the movement on which they pinned their hopes and dreams was but a faint memory in America's mind.
If the government had not undercut the cooperatives, would they have become a permanent part of the economy? What if EPIC had won: could it have actually ended poverty and unemployment? Rather than speculate about what might have been, let us instead note that around us today is a situation in many ways reflecting that of 1932, and consider what might yet be.
Rhodehamel stressed that a primary reason that cooperatives were needed was that a growing body of people were being permanently displaced by technological changes. The ranks of the unemployed in the thirties, like today, were filled with highly trained and skilled people who would never find a job in their fields again, particularly middle-aged people. Today that process has accelerated; we are being told continually to prepare ourselves for a permanent situation of high unemployment. As America changes from a production economy to a "service economy" and production shifts to multinational firms with factories in Asia, a "permanent" underclass of unemployed, underemployed, and never-employed is being formed. Unemployed associations and self-help cooperatives are the natural organizational forms that spring from people in this situation, just as labor unions are natural for the employed.
Will the unemployed settle for "permanent unemployment"? Or might the unemployed rise again in a social movement? Could there be a new version of EPIC and the UXA?
Perhaps the final curtain on the Self-help movement has not yet been dropped.
Copyright © 1983, 1997 By John Curl. All Rights Reserved.
This article was originally published in the East Bay Express.