Project of the Day: The Unemployed Cooperative Relief Organization and Unemployed Exchange Association

Two projects from earlier times:

1. Jonathan Rowe on the Unemployed Cooperative Relief Organization:

“In the spring of 1932, in Compton, California, an unemployed World War I veteran walked out to the farms that still ringed Los Angeles. He offered his labor in return for a sack of vegetables, and that evening he returned with more than his family needed. The next day a neighbor went out with him to the fields. Within two months 500 families were members of the Unemployed Cooperative Relief Organization (UCRO).

That group became one of 45 units in an organization that served the needs of some 150,000 people.

It operated a large warehouse, a distribution center, a gas and service station, a refrigeration facility, a sewing shop, a shoe shop, even medical services, all on cooperative principles. Members were expected to work two days a week, and benefits were allocated according to need. A member with a wife and two kids got four times as much food as someone living alone. The organization was run democratically, and social support was as important as material support. Members helped one another resist evictions; sometimes they moved a family back in after a landlord had put them out. Unemployed utility workers turned on gas and electricity for families that had been cut off.

Conventional histories present the Depression as a story of the corporate market, foiled by its own internal flaws, versus the federal government, either savvy mechanic or misguided klutz, depending on your view.The government ascended, in the form of the New Deal; and so was born the polarity of our politics—and the range of our economic possibilities—ever since.

Yet there was another story too. It embodied the trusty American virtues of initiative, responsibility, and self-help, but in a way that was grounded in community and genuine economy. This other story played out all over the U.S., for a brief but suggestive moment in the early 1930s.

The UCRO was just one organization in one city. Groups like it ultimately involved more than 1.3 million people, in more than 30 states. It happened spontaneously, without experts or blueprints. Most of the participants were blue collar workers whose formal schooling had stopped at high school. Some groups evolved a kind of money to create more flexibility in exchange. An example was the Unemployed Exchange Association, or UXA, based in Oakland, California. (The UXA story was told in an excellent article in the weekly East Bay Express in 1983, on which the following paragraphs are based.) UXA began in a Hooverville (an encampment of the poor during the Depression, so-called after the president) called “Pipe City,” near the East Bay waterfront. Hundreds of homeless people were living there in sections of large sewer pipe that were never laid because the city ran out of money. Among them was Carl Rhodehamel, a musician and engineer.

Rhodehamel and others started going door to door in Oakland, offering to do home repairs in exchange for unwanted items. They repaired these and circulated them among themselves. Soon they established a commissary and sent scouts around the city and intothe surrounding farms to see what they could scavenge or exchange labor for. Within six months they had 1,500 members, and a thriving sub-economy that included a foundry and machine shop, woodshop, garage,soap factory, print shop, wood lot, ranches, and lumber mills. They rebuilt 18 trucks from scrap. At UXA’s peak it distributed 40 tons of food a week.

It all worked on a time-credit system. Each hour worked earned a hundred points; there was no hierarchy of skills, and all work paid the same. Members could use credits to buy food and other items at the commissary, medical and dental services, haircuts, andmore. A council of some 45 coordinators met regularly to solve problems and discuss opportunities.

One coordinator might report that a saw needed a new motor. Another knew of a motor but the owner wanted a piano in return. A third member knew of a piano that was available. And on and on. It was an amalgam of enterprise and cooperation—the flexibility and hustle of the market, but without the encoded greed of the corporation or the stifling bureaucracy of the state. The economics texts don’t really have a name for it. The members called it a “reciprocal economy.”

It would seem that a movement that provided livelihood for more than 300,000 people in California alone would merit discussion in the history books. Amidst the floundering of the early 1930s, this was something that actually worked. Yet in most accounts the self-help co-ops get barely a line.

The one exception is Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor in 1934. Sinclair was a kind of Ralph Nader of his day. He based his campaign on a plan he called End Poverty in California, or EPIC, which was based in turn on the self-help cooperatives, UXA in particular. It would have taken the state’s idle farmland and factories and turned them into worker co-ops.

The idea of a genuine economy shorn of Wall Street contrivance touched a chord. Some 2,000 EPIC clubs sprang up. Sinclair won the Democratic primary, but California’s moneyed establishment mustered $10 million dollars to pummel him. EPIC died with his campaign, and the idea has been associated with quixotic politics ever since.

To say UXA and the other cooperative economies faced challenges is to put it mildly. They were going against the grain of an entire culture. Anti-communist “Red Squads” harassed them, while radicals complained they were too practical and not sufficiently committed to systemic change.

But the main thing that killed the co-ops was the Works Progress Administration and its cash jobs. Those WPA jobs were desperately needed. But someof them were make-work, while the co-op work was genuinely productive.

The co-ops pleaded with FDR’s Administration to include them in the WPA. Local governments were helping with gasoline and oil. But the New Dealers weren’t interested, and the co-ops melted away. For years they were period pieces, like soup lines and Okies.”

2. Bernard Marszalek on the Unemployed Exchange Association:

“In times of economic collapse, like often during natural disasters, protective shells are discarded and solidarity emerges and social creativity erupts. No money, barter. No food, grow it and share it. Need help, people pitch-in. Most recently in Argentina, during their economic collapse in 2002, neighbors in Buenos Aires held daily outdoor meetings to discuss how best to survive and teams were established to look after the needs of the local people.

Closer to home, throughout California during the Depression, unemployed workers formed associations to bring food from farms, repair housing, and create a modest economy based on labor exchanges, not money.

Thousands of Californians spontaneously established these democratic associations. There were so many of them that they began to form networks of convenience to lay a deep foundation of survival. They were creating out of devastation a new society based on social needs not individual profit, self-help not charity.

The short history of the local Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA), written 25 years ago by John Curl ( author of the forthcoming “For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism In America,” ) provides a snapshot of this grassroots economic revival by focusing on the form it took, over 75 years ago, in the neighborhoods of Oakland. He recounts how desperate people, many unemployed for several years, found the means to recreate livelihoods without money, but with the better currency of cooperation. These people took what had become valueless in monetary terms and transformed it into common wealth. As if moving from one dimension to another, things found social uses where before they had been junk.

The old economy of the market, private ownership and individual pursuit melted away to reveal a previously under-utilized treasury of human creativity and a capacity to recreate, through solidarity, an economy based on needs.

The UXA story may read like a utopian tale only because the history of mutual aid, of self-help ventures, is largely untold. And yet the rhizomes of cooperative, grassroots endeavors reaches forward to The Intercollective, the cooperative economy of the 70’s and 80’s in the SF Bay area, that John mentions at the end of this essay.

And from there the influence reaches to the present where we have in the SF Bay area not only the largest concentration of worker cooperatives in the country, but also a fast growing network of alternative economic ventures of all sorts. From urban agriculture to eco-friendly transportation, from land trusts to locally controlled alternative energy start-ups, a new society is taking root. And none too soon.

This vast diversity of mainly volunteer-run projects has the dynamic to demonstrate another way of living – an infrastructure of a new society. They are the stepping stones from a waste-filled, stressful and joyless present to a future where abundance is defined by more than material possessions. Faint glimpses of that richer society appear while reading John Curl’s “Living In the UXA”.”

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