by Barbara G. Ellis
Occupy Portland’s Labor Solidarity committee’s first effort at helping the area’s long-term unemployed restart the Great Depression’s public-works program didn’t pack SEIU/503’s ballroom on a sunny Sunday afternoon (April 15). But participants from East County/Clackamas County received significant advice and materials from area experts on two successful routes to launch a Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Greater Portland and Oregon.
One route was heavy lobbying for a WPA by the organized jobless directed at Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams and Gov. John Kitzhaber. The other was to start Labor party, modeled after Minnesota’s long-ruling Farmer-Labor party (today’s Democratic Farmer-Labor party) and Britain’s Labor party. Both are still dominant because of the 99%’s sizable membership.
Both routes were successful in getting President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) to launch the federal Works Progress Administration by Executive Order power on May 6, 1935. Within seven months, the WPA had hired 3.5 million unemployed people to repair/build America’s crumbling infrastructure, as well as hospitals, schools, parks and an array of vital other projects, including teaching more than one million people how to read and write.
To get a fiercely hostile Congress to fund the program (initially, $1.4 billion), FDR reminded them it was a federal election year and that doing nothing about a 25% unemployment rate might well result in a revolution stoked by the busy Communist Socialist parties. These parties had already organized thousands of unemployed people into Councils that successfully demanded mayors of major cities provide increased welfare payments, food, shelter, clothing, and, above all, public-works jobs for the Depression’s victims.
Heavy lobbying prods from officials of hard hit cities and states also helped start the WPA, especially when accompanied by citing the use of Executive Orders in two states.
In Minnesota, a long-dormant party (Farmer-Labor) was revived by those victims just before the 1929 stockmarket crash and quickly swept Democrats and Republicans from power. The party elected a governor, both U.S. senators, five out of 10 U.S. House members, and a legislative House majority. The governor (Floyd B. Olson) used the Executive Order power in 1932 to raise welfare payments, set up a two-year moratorium on farm foreclosures and statewide conservation measures, and started old-age pensions. His tough and courageous additional order instituting the state’s first income tax for funding was quickly passed by the legislature. In Louisiana, meantime, the equally tough populist Governor Huey Long was using Executive Orders to do many of the same things for his monumental unemployed numbers, including building schools and back-country farm-to-market highways. Both men were repeatedly re-elected by grateful residents (even Republicans).
The OP Assembly was keynoted by Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who provided the latest data on the state’s unemployment crisis, and largely reviewed the current steps he and the Commission have been taking to address this growing problem now and in future.
The expert in lobbying public officials was Mary Botkin, senior political consultant for AFSCME Council 75. She explained the do’s and don’ts of this art from over 30 years experience in lobbying, chiefly members of the Oregon Legislature. Expertise on the A-B-C’s of how to start a political party in Oregon was presented by Dan Meek, co-chair of the Oregon Independent party and legal counsel for the Oregon Progressive party. The Independent party is the fastest-growing entity in the state, from 475 voters in 2007 to 73,703 by March 31 of this year.
Both speakers provided pamphlets and handouts to participants: The Oregon Legislature: A Guide on How to Use It and Make It Work for You on lobbying and Minor Party Formation in Oregon, a brief compilation of laws and regulations. Copies are now available and free in Occupy’s library at the St. Francis annex headquarters.
Editor’s Note: Barbara G. Ellis is a Pulitzer nominee and former journalism professor at Oregon State University. Her presentation at the Occupy Assembly focused on the history of the WPA and the two labor parties, with an emphasis on the major role played by the unemployed in both lobbying and party membership to secure public-works jobs through Executive Order. Session speeches and Q&A discussion can be seen at http://youtu.be/g9Fk5RTXLpl.