Piven and Cloward: Case Studies of Poor People’s Movements

So I outlined Piven and Cloward’s principal arguments found in Poor People’s Movements in the previous post, but in a nutshell they are that mass social movements must always be looked at as separate from social movement organisations. That organization generally tends to tame and reduce the power of mass movement. That the role of organisers should be to maximise disturbance while people remain enthusiastic, to mobilise not organise to push as hard and fast as possible to get everything they can. But the form of that protest and its demands will be found in the structural conjuncture overcoming people’s resistance to uprising and causing this spontaneous rush towards change. Again, organizations don’t cause or shape it, they just slow it down.

So the case studies, I learned a lot despite disagreeing with almost all of the above analysis.

The Unemployed Workers Movement

I like this:

The habit of work, and the wages of work, underpin a way of life. As unemployment continued to grow, and wages of those still employed shrivelled, that way of life crumbled. (47)

I liked too learning more about struggle during the Great Depression, which consisted (among other things) of

  • organized looting of food
  • mass demonstrations of the unemployed
  • rent riots and blockades
  • Unemployed Councils formed

But I read this and it was full of things I felt counteracted Piven & Cloward’s argument because in the background? Activists from the communist party, organizers working with the unemployed councils, creating strategies and acting on them. The Council for Progressive Labor Action formed in May 1929, trade unionists and socialists. A.J. Muste a leading figure after running the Brookwood Labour College. He would go on to lead the Fellowship of Reconciliation FOR, which played such a key role in the civil rights movement. They worked to form Unemployed Leagues. Multiple local groups, Antioch College forming the Mideast Exchange, Inc, to support self-help and barter. United Mine Workers played a key role in local protests in West Virginia and Gallup, NM. People with deeply held larger goals of social change and experience in organising and protest are running around all over this damn scene. Where did they come from, what revolutionary struggles in Europe and elsewhere might they have been trained in? There is no look at legacy here, it’s like they all emerged spontaneously. They might have got some things wrong, but shit, some of this stuff was pretty amazing.

Still, it is interesting to try and understand what they got wrong —

Through 1935, these local movements attempts to create a national movement, and created the Workers’ Alliance of America. This was the big mistake apparently, knocking the heart out of local organising. Piven and Cloward argue that they were slowly bought off by New Deal, moved into administering funds and programs, attempted reform through institutional and electoral pressure, left direct action to one side.

Still, they had never seen anything like the New Deal before. How were they to know, and actually the New Deal transformed our expectations of labour law, introduced welfare and care for the elderly, public housing… I have a big critique, but to win it was something. I don’t blame anyone who thought they would take it, and try to get more.

So this seems an…unkind account. Ungenerous. Piven and Cloward are good enough to include critiques of their account by the leaders involved. They argue that the Alliance did not take advantage of the unrest to increase the turbulence and win more, rather diverted attention into organization, and won less.

‘The tragedy, in sum, is that the alliance did not win as much as it could.’ (92)

I just had to copy one amazing quote from Horace Cayton, eating in a restaurant, joined a long march of black people though he didn’t know where they were going. His description of one ‘rent riot’:

We were met at the street by two squad cars of police who asked us where we were going. The black crowd swarmed around the officers…no one moved. Everyone simply stood and stared at them. One officer lost his head, and drew his gun, levelling it at the crowd…No threats, no murmurs, no disorder; the crowd just looked at him. There the officer stood. Just then a siren was heard–the whisper went around–the riot squad was coming! … four cars full of blue-coated officers and a patrol wagon. They jumped out befor ethe cares came to a stop and charged down upon the crowd. Night sticks and “billies” played a tattoo on black heads. :Hold your places!” shouted the woman. “Act like men!” answered the crowd. They stood like dumb beasts–no one ran, no one fought or offered resistance, just stood, an immovable black mass. (55)

the Industrial Workers’ Movement

The main argument, again:

Their power was not rooted in organization, but in their capacity to disrupt the economy. For the most part strikes, demonstrations, and sit-downs spread during the mid-1930s despite existing unions rather than because of them. (96)

They also argue it was not divisions within the labour force that brought labor down, but that

‘they were smashed by the coercive power of the state’ (98)

They were right about that. You forget just how the state did smash workers, and it’s good that they remind you. They quote numbers like

in the years 1902-1904 alone, 194 persons were killed and 1,986 injured. Overall Taft and Ross were able to identify 160 occasions on which state and federal troops were called out to deal with labor agitation (104).

In a footnote:

By the end of the nineteenth century, the ranks of Pinkerton agents and “reservists” outnumbered the standing army of the nation’ (105, quoting Brecher, p 55)

The violence escalated through the 1930s as workers struck, marched, buried their dead. You see the rise of the sit-down strike:

When they tie the can to a union man, Sit down! Sit down!
When they give him the sack, they’ll take him back.Sit down! Sit down!
When the speed-up comes, just twiddle your thumbs, Sit down! Sit down!
When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk, Sit down! Sit down!


Before 1937 was over, nearly 2 million workers had engaged in labor struggles in that year alone (145).

Some of the unions opposed this, sure. Those old, small craft unions.  But many organizers helped make it happen, shaped it? Where did those organizers come from? Unions here are treated as blocks, not as schismed entities containing a multitude of view points. The unions themselves were battlefields for how to organise, and how to win rights for the workers.

That’s not to say I don’t think the wrong side won out most of the time. I like this quote from Len De Caux:

The workers were waiting for CIO, pounding on its doors long before CIO was ready for them. (150)

You had your old members of the IWW, Musteites and Communists. You had amazing organizers alive to racism and sexism like Wyndham Mortimer in the UAW.

John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations did not create the strike movement of industrial workers; it was the strike movement that created the CIO. In the longer run it did this mainly by forcing the federal government to protect unionization by law, and to enforce that protection administratively. (153)

That’s all right though, a union coming into power and driven to the left by the actions of the rank & file — a number of whom belonged themselves to other organisations.

Of course I agree it was problematic that unions clamped down, joined in the red baiting, concentrated on electoral power, and agree there is a critique that:

This dismal overall record in electoral and legislative politics was accomplished by the largest issue-oriented voting bloc in the nation. (170)

But I think this reflects the politics of the faction that took power in the union, and ignores the fact that they were challenged by both organizers and rank and file. Thus it was not a predetermined outcome that

unionization also ritualizes and encapsulates the strike power, thus limiting its disruptive impact on production, and limiting the political reverberations of economic disruptions as well. (174)

Nor that

the unorganized disruptions of industrial workers in the 1930s produced some political gains, but the organized electoral activities of the unions could not sustain them. (175)

From what I have read, where good organisers were in place, they pushed gains further and better consolidated them.

The Civil Rights Movement

They limit this to the South, and after reading both Morris and Cobb, it is hard to give any credence to their arguments, but here they are.

They argue there were two main goals. Formal political rights in the South, especially the franchise, and economic advances. Only political rights were won.

No one much argues that.

The conditions that gave rise to this amazing mass movement?

The alliance of the national government and southern state and local governments was an overwhelming force. It would require some fundamental change, some large transformation, to disrupt this collusion. That transforming force was economic modernization in the South, a force that gradually altered national politics and, by doing so, helped give rise to an insurgent black movement. (189)

Race? They don’t really get it. This becomes even more visible in their next case study, but there’s this

but the deliberate exacerbation of racial competition for jobs was a strategy long used by employers to control labor both in the North and in the South, and was far from being equivalent to a system of caste. As a social system to allocate and control labor, in short, southern caste arrangements were becoming obsolete. (193)

Funny reading now that people could think to argue caste arrangements were obsolete everywhere, apparently, on their way out. There’s a long logical reasoning behind this. Because of course racism is logical.

I hate that this kind of thinking is so ingrained in the left, but this was written some time ago.

Again in these descriptions they mention organisations over and over: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, NAACP, yet they still argue for spontaneous disruption only harmed by organization. Black Power…well, you can imagine they don’t really get that either. They quote Carmichael & Hamilton:

Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks…solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society.

Piven and Cloward’s critique?

Defined this way the concept was especially suited to the ideological needs of a black leadership stratum seeking to exploit the new possibilities for electoral and bureaucratic influence (253).

Political gains, Great Society, Model City all swallowed protest up. I just don’t think this analysis gets us much further in understanding what was achieved, how it was achieved, and why the economic demands were not possible to achieve.

National Welfare Rights Movement

This is the campaign Piven and Cloward were themselves involved in, what got them on Fox news and pasted into conservative power points and rants across the country. The strategy they argued for was based on rapidly rising numbers on welfare rolls. They proposed building on this grassroots movement already taking place, focusing work to enroll hundreds of thousands more onto welfare rolls. this would not only improve each family’s quality of life but also

set off fiscal and political crises in the cities, the reverberations of which might lead national political leaders to federalize the relief system and establish a national minimum income standard. (276)

They write, interestingly:

At that particular moment, civil rights activists activists, and especially northern activists, were shifting away from caste problems to economic problems. This, together with the rising insurgency among urban blacks signified by rioting, suggested that a powerful movement directed toward economic gains could be developed. (276-277)

Of course they argued for mass disruption, but in this found opposition from the organizers, who wanted to work to build mass organization: They write

we maintained that political influence by the poor is mobilized, not organized. A disruptive strategy does not require that people affiliate with an organization and participate regularly. (284)

They describe a movement that becomes lots of case work, meetings, institutionalisation, and fairly quickly fades away…

It is hard not to be as equally unkind and ungenerous as I feel they often are in looking back from today’s vantage point. Today when we know this was a key point in electoral politics as white fear skyrocketed at the prospect of losing some privilege. As ‘welfare mother’ became understood as equaling black inner-city mother, as discourse around welfare rights became in the right wing press a racist discourse around race, around scroungers. This seems a bit crazy to have proposed as an open strategy, feeding right wing fears and helping to fan racist flames as well as the great white withdrawal to tax enclaves and suburban safe zones. Of course I blame racist white people not those demanding welfare for this. I do think, though, this wasn’t the best thing to state openly and a better understanding of race in this country would have pointed to that.

I am glad they wrote this, it challenges unquestioned assumptions about organisation. This is both useful and necessary, and I feel that this was definitely a useful book to think about.

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