A textbook protest

Issue section: 

In Chicago the Great Depression led to the witholding of teachers' wages. John Newsinger shows how the teachers fought back - and won

The Great Depression hit US state education hard. By 1933, when the economic crisis was at its worst (the US economy had shrunk by a third), in most states educational provision had been seriously cut back. Indeed, in 1932 and 1933 many schools did not open at all because of lack of funds. In Georgia, the worst hit state, over 1,300 schools were shut, leaving 170,000 children without schooling and their teachers laid off. Their pay was already in arrears to the tune of $7 million. At the national level, big business was pushing for the introduction of charges for secondary education.

For teachers, the Depression involved a sustained attack on pay and conditions. Average pay levels fell back to the 1921 level, but that was when teachers were actually paid. In many places pay was months in arrears and many school boards had replaced cash with scrip - IOUs that, if they could be redeemed, could often only be redeemed at a heavy discount. Thousands of working teachers were destitute and going hungry. In some places (New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example) teachers were employed without pay at all, working for bed and board, sometimes housed in "teacherages" where they had to submit to puritanical discipline and close supervision of their private lives. Elsewhere, they took jobs for as little as $45 a year, the post going to the candidate prepared to work for the least amount of pay.

By 1933 the pay of teachers in Chicago was eight months in arrears and in April the school board introduced payment in scrip, which the banks refused to honour. The crisis was worsened in the city by a tax strike by big business. Orchestrated by these same banks, Chicago's capitalists were demanding cuts of a third in educational expenditure and property taxes were being withheld until they got their way. The city's tax income had been halved. For 14,000 teachers, mostly women, this meant poverty and hunger.

The teachers fought back. On 5 April the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) organised a protest march by 15,000 school students, demanding their teachers be paid. On 15 April, 20,000 parents took to the streets. Then, on 24 April, the teachers took to the streets themselves. Led by John Fewkes, a games teacher, some 5,000 assembled for a march on city hall. Before the march got under way, stewards were handed envelopes to be opened en route that contained a change of plan. At a given signal, the march split into five columns, rushed to the city's five main banks, including the First National, and occupied them.

At the First National hundreds of teachers barracked the bank's chairman, Charles Dawes. He was one of the most important members of the US ruling class: the architect of the 1924 Dawes Plan, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and a former US vice-president. One teacher denounced him: "There's the man who borrowed $80 million from the government for his own bank, but won't lend any to the teachers." When Dawes told them they could go "to hell", the teachers wrecked the bank's foyer.

On 26 April teachers held another demonstration, marching through the streets, carrying textbooks. A heavy police guard protected the five banks occupied two days earlier, so this time they rushed another bank, the Chicago Title and Trust. When mounted police tried to prevent this they were pelted with textbooks. Every window in the bank was broken as police and teachers fought each other. Police reinforcements rushed to the scene, whereupon other teachers once again occupied the First National, chanting "Pay us! Pay us!"

Confronted with starving teachers fighting with the police, newly inaugurated President Franklin D Roosevelt intervened behind the scenes. The Chicago banks, heavily in debt to the Federal government, were leaned on to end the tax strike. The protest produced the payment of some arrears and the resumption of payment in cash. It was a textbook protest!