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“Organize among Yourselves”: Mary Gale on Unemployed Organizing in the Great Depression

The Communist-led Unemployed Councils were the first and the most active of the radical movements that sought to mobilize the jobless during the Great Depression. In this interview, which is taken from the radio series “Grandma Was an Activist,” relief worker Mary Gale, who was sympathetic to radicals and the jobless, described how she worked behind the scenes to encourage her clients to organize and demand better treatment. The jobless and the poor had few advocates for them, and radicals like Gale not only became their champions but also pushed them to organize themselves.

Listen to Audio:

Mary Gale: I got a job in Long Island City, in a home relief bureau, as an investigator, and I was getting $28 a week. And they had just started the thing. We used to meet in a public school in the basement, and we sat on orange crates. They had nothing at all. And I got a caseload of about forty farm workers in Long island City. And the poor—very poor people lived in Long Island City on the waterfront, and I used to go to their homes and talk to them. And I used to give them money to go to meetings—my money. “There’s a meeting. You’ll find out how to organize.”

Also, in Long Island City, they had to go to Astoria to get a sack of coal. “Why do you have to do that? Why don’t you go to a meeting and get organized so they can open a coal office here?” They were poor, they were sick. They had no money.

So after I would visited them in their homes, I’d say, “Now, this is business out of the way. Now I’m going to talk to you as one person to another. Here’s a dime or fifteen cents for carfare. Go down to Astoria. There’s a meeting tonight, and you’ll learn how to get organized amongst yourselves so that the Home Relief Bureau could give you something more than you’re getting.”

There was a woman in Queens who used to organize those people. She’d come up to the Home Relief Bureau and she used to call for the investigator and give the investigator the devil, because the investigator didn’t take care of all the clients. But after she’d get through, and when I’d get through with my day’s work, I’d go down to her home for dinner, and I gave her the names of all those people, and she would go down there and she’d organize them.

Source: Interview done by the Oral History of the American Left, Tamiment Library, NYU for the public radio program Grandma Was An Activist, producers Charlie Potter and Beth Friend.

See Also:"I'm Going to Fight Like Hell"Anna Taffler and the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s