Saturday, January 2, 2010

Unemployed Exchange Association

Hello Ferfal,

I've been reading about a number of different labor exchange organizations that popped up here in the U.S. during the 1930's. The most famous one was the Unemployed eXchange Association, or U.X.A.:

Have you seen anything like this in Argentina? Has anyone tried monetizing labor in some other way?

I think we'll see some of these programs rising again in this country, and soon.

Kudos on your book, by the way. It's been a great resource.


Hi Kyle, thanks for the excellent link!
People, please do read it. That what happens when hard working people have no job, sit all together around a table and finally after trying to fina  job for months with no luck finally tell themselves "ok.... what now?"

Yes my friend something similar happened here with our Barter Clubs, the point system and so on. Eventually most disappeared or turned to dealing back on money.
The point isn't that they dont WANT money, nothing wrong with money, money is very nice, the problem these guys have and Argentines had when the first barter clubs started was that they didn't HAVE money.

Lots of people, products, skills and such. We're unemployed, broke, we have to survive but whe dont have money, lets trade. Even though these barter clubs eventually didn't last for the reasons I mention often, they did provide a way of earning a living during the worst of the crisis.
Another common thing was for workers to reopen the factories after the owners declared bankrupcy. Many stories of hard work, months without making a single cent, even putting money into their dream, but a few happy ending stories as well. 

Here's a bit of the linked article, please, do read the complete article in the link. Learn from history people, it usually repeats itself.


By John Curl

[From the East Bay Express, Friday, November 11, 1983 - Volume 6, Number 5]

U.X.A. Operating Committee, Oakland

At the height of the Great Depression, a group of unemployed Oakland workers decided to take matters into their own hands. The system wasn’t working, so they set up their own system. Money was nearly worthless, so they decided to live by barter. They called themselves the Unemployed Exchange Association and they soon went on to write a remarkable chapter in American economic history. This is their story.
Ju1y 1932. The economy has stopped-cold. Factories are locked, money is scarce. One out of seven Californians is unemployed. Social welfare programs are almost non-existent. Large numbers are destitute, hungry. Buildings stand vacant, boarded up. Food prices are next to nothing, but many thousands have nothing at all. California fields are rotting with tons of fruit and vegetables. Few farmers have money to pay harvesters; there is no market; many small farmers are losing their land. Thousands of children, women, and men have taken to the highways and rails, searching for survival.
"Hoovervilles," shantytowns of the homeless, have sprung up around the country over the past three years. The largest in the Bay Area is "Pipe City," near the railroad tracks by the East Oakland waterfront, where hundreds live in sections of large sewer pipe that were never laid because the city ran out of money. One of Pipe City's frequent visitors is Carl Rhodehamel, once an electrical engineer at GE, a cellist, an inventor of several key technological developments in radio and early “talkies," an orchestra conductor, a composer whose "Little Symphony" had once been a favorite with KGO fans. But now Rhodehamel is unemployed and down on his luck.
But not for long. There is a streak of genius in him that will sweep him out of Pipe City and into the leadership of an organization that will stir California and the country.

Carl Rhodehamel

Rhodehamel and two others find an abandoned grocery store not far away, in Oakland’s Dimond-Allendale district that can be used for meetings. Soon a group of six unemployed men begin to meet and discuss ways out of their problems. All are skilled and experienced workers, but all realize it could be years, if ever, before they'll find work in their fields again. Since the system isn't working to provide their needs, they decide to form their own system. Since money is scarce, they dispense with money altogether. From now on they will try to provide themselves with everything they need to live by barter.

They begin by going door-to-door in the neighborhood, offering to do home repairs in exchange for "junk" from people's basements and garages. But to make their system really work they realize they'll have to grow larger. They distribute fliers, trying to gather all the unemployed in the neighborhood into the group.
On the evening of July 20, 1932, some twenty people meet at the Hawthorne School and organize the Unemployed (or Universal, as they'd later call it) Exchange Association, a title they immediately abbreviate to UXA. The X stands not only for exchange, but also for the "unknown factor" in an algebraic equation.
The UXA offers a new social equation to one neighborhood in Oakland – one whose echoes will soon be heard around a nation desperate for change.
* * * * *
I first heard of the UXA in 1978. It was election time at the Berkeley Co-op grocery, and I was looking at photos and statements of board candidates in the Co-op News. Alongside a picture of a thoughtful ageless face, surrounded by a long mane of white beard and hair, was a candidacy statement different from all the rest. It began with a description of the UXA, and went on to call for the Co-op to expand its role as a marketing organization by undertaking the "ownership of the natural resources used to produce most of the goods it sells." The candidate pointed out that "time-killing" had been a fatal disease for the UXA and chided the reigning Co-op establishment for a similar affliction. The candidate's name was Oser Price.
The UXA sounded so unusual that I cut out Price's statement and saved it. I don't remember if I voted for him but as he said to me later, "I didn't run to get elected; I ran to get this information out."
A couple of years later at an Oakland Museum exhibit of California history in photography, I saw several pictures of the UXA taken by Dorothea Lange. My interest caught, I began rummaging through card catalogs in various East Bay libraries for more information, and. discovered a surprising wealth of literature written in the early '30s about the "self-help movement" and particularly about the UXA. I realized I had stumbled upon an important but now forgotten corner of American history, a visionary social movement whose collapse had left artifacts scattered all over my own back yard...

“We are not going back to barter: we're going forward into barter. We're feeling our way along, developing a new science.” – Carl Rhodehamel
Their first focus was the neighborhood itself. They began by fixing up each other's homes and circulating unused articles of every variety among themselves, cycling the useless into the useful. There had been little work in the neighborhood in the three years since the crash of 1929, so there was a great backlog of home repairs to be done. An abandoned grocery at 3768 Penniman became their first storeroom and commissary; it was soon overflowing with household and industrial articles. Broken items were repaired or rebuilt. The neighborhood, previously immobilized and choked with despair, was suddenly bustling with activity and confidence. People poured into the new organization.

U.X.A. Coordinators (L-R) foundry, lumber, odd jobs; trading, graphic arts, special contacts.

They soon began sending scouts around Oakland and into the surrounding farm areas, to search out salvageable things they could acquire in labor exchange deals. Labor teams followed. All work was credited by a point system; one hundred points were awarded for an hour's work. UXA members exchanged points they'd earned for a choice of items in the commissary. Each article brought in was given a point value that approximated the labor time that went into it, with some adjustment for comparable monetary value. Many services were also offered for points, eventually including complete medical and dental care, auto repair, a nursery school, barbering, home heating (firewood), and some housing. At the UXA's peak it would distribute forty tons of food per week.
They called their system "reciprocal economy." They made no distinction in labor value between men and women, unskilled and skilled, lesser and greater productivity. Members could write "orders" (like checks) against their accounts to other members for services provided. It was all done on the books, without a circulating script.
A General Assembly made up of all UXA members held final power. The assembly selected an Operating Committee in semi-annual elections, to coordinate the functions of the group. The UXA was divided into various sections: manufacturing, trading, food, farming, construction, gardening, homeworking, communications, health, transportation, bookkeeping, maintenance, fuel, personal services, placement, and food conservation. There was also a sawmill and a ranch. The headquarters' staff represented a section as well. Coordinators from each section met with the Operating Committee to form a Coordinating Assembly, the basic ongoing decision-making body.
The Operating Committee met four nights a week at the UXA's headquarters on East 14th Street at 40th Avenue. These were open meetings at which plans were hashed out in democratic discussions. Anybody with an idea – member or not – was welcome to sit in and was heard after the day's job commitments had been dealt with. The only rule was to speak one at a time.
On Friday nights the section coordinators joined in and formed the Coordinating Assembly. Oser Price was coordinator of the manufacturing section between 1932 and '35. He describes the meeting: “The Coordinating Assembly had a big round table – nobody was at the head. There we held weekly brainstorming, sessions. We could solve some of the most difficult problems by everybody tossing in their ideas - no matter how wild they were – and we would come up with answers that would work."
The section coordinators were appointed by the Operating Committee, with the workers in each section holding veto power. The coordinators had no authority over members; and could be recalled at any time. Power flowed from the bottom up. The workers in each section decided issues relevant to their work, approved or disapproved committee and assembly actions, and determined the admittance of new members into their section. Outsiders often expressed amazement at how well they functioned with no boss, foreman, or manager. In order to make decision-making viable, the numbers in each section were kept down to about twenty-five; when sections got much larger than that they split into two. "We were too busy," Oser Price says, “scratching around getting all the things we needed to survive to have many hassles."

Oser Price at a former U.X.A. site in Oakland in 1983

News of the new organization quickly reached certain vigilant ears. Word was passed to the proper channels of the Oakland police department that the UXA was a "revolutionary" group with "Communist" leaders. Meetings were raided by the Red Squad. The commissary was once closed on the pretext that they were violating an ordinance prohibiting the sale of food and clothing from the same store. Utilities were shut off.
But the UXA bounced back, explaining to whomever would listen that organizing to barter was not the same thing as organizing to overthrow the government. Despite the harassment, the UXA grew, within only six months, to a membership of 1500. They began producing articles for trade and sale. They set up a foundry and machine shop, woodshop, garage, soap factory, print shop, food conserving project, nursery and adult schools. They rebuilt eighteen trucks from junk. They branched outside of town maintaining a woodlot in Dixon, ranches near Modesto and Winters, and lumber mills near Oroville and in the Santa Cruz mountains.
A typical Coordinating Assembly meeting:
Twenty-five women and men crowd about the, huge round meeting table, elbows touching. Another twenty form a second circle around them. In the center of the table is a foot-high lighthouse; as its light revolves, the letters UXA flash. It's already past 8 p.m. Better get started; there's a lot to get done. The secretary takes down the day's commitments, detailed in an indexed looseleaf book and written on small yellow slips of paper. They go through the commitments one by one. What has been done and what not? What deals made? Which jobs have progressed, which have been finished? The different coordinators speak about their sections. They quickly go through twenty or thirty items. Fields have been harvested; trenches have been dug; wheelbarrows have been salvaged; cars have been painted; orders have come into the foundry; carpentering and plastering have been done; a deal has been made for wood; arms have been made for dental chairs; a contract to build a barn has been agreed on; a barge and tug have been leased to haul produce and wood; a group of apartments have been rented for labor and services; a wrecking deal has been discussed; an idle planing mill has been discovered; an order for office furniture has come in; a gasoline trade is in the works; a potato chip slicer is being converted for a sauerkraut project. Voorhies reports that a farmer near Hayward will trade sixty percent of his apricot and plum crops for harvesting labor. Can the UXA do it? Rutzebeck of personnel says labor is available. Hill is made coordinator. Price of manufacturing reports that the swing saw bearings have been cast and are ready. Hanson says the saw needs a new motor. Llewellan knows of a motor but the owner wants a piano. Pugh says the trading section has one listed: they can get it for digging out part of a cellar, but it needs tuning. Is a piano tuner on the exchange list? Yes, three of them. After all the items are finished, there is a general discussion of ideas for new activities, how to get more labor power, and how to build leadership. By that time it is 11 p.m. and, since all have had their say, the chair, Rhodehamel, calls the meeting to a close. But people linger afterward; discussion continues far into the night. Impressed with their success, they talk about how to implement barter on a social scale, so all who can find no place in the capitalist economy can join into cooperatives and create a new American way of life. They are convinced that a "reciprocal economy" could bring the whole country out of the Depression – from a U.S.A. of despair for the unemployed to a U.X.A. of mutual aid and hope.   ....  Read the rest of the Story


Anonymous said...

Interesting piece of history I never knew about.

It sounds like they just had a "collective" in the sense that a community was built around their "exchange." The exchange was basically just a place to trade information.

It sounds like they weren't exactly a real barter system. Labor was bartered for things, but then points were used to represent labor, which if you recorded it on pieces of paper, would look a lot like paper money.

Definitely a different and unpredictable way to allocate value to an item. If someone gives you a truck in exchange for you picking apples for them for 10 hours, that truck could be "sold"/traded at the exchange for 1000 points. If someone finds a farmer that will only give them a wheel barrow in exchange for 10 hours of apple picking, each laborer works equally hard, but one brings a lesser item to the exchange (lesser in the sense that its easier to acquire a wheel barrow than a truck.)

The hours/points basically works on the honor system, unless you document it. I guess if people cheated, they could be kicked out of the exchange and the person who needs labor could be "blacklisted'/boycotted/denied labor -- but you'd have to either have everyone agreeing to blacklist, or threaten "scabs" with kicking them out if they broke the boycott.

Anonymous said...

Facinating. Something like that could work in our small isolated town. There is already a strong sense of community and it aleady pulls together to help out individuals and families. Barter with labor in the area is already practiced on a mirco scale. Barter with goods more so. The idea is not foreign and in fact apart of the culture here. We have remnants of the past. It is as if the area was in part, frozen in time. Traditional America is still alive in these samll towns.

Whether it works longer term or not, it would be good thing to a do while we waited. It can happen here. Thank you.


The last cause said...

Karl Hess's OP Community Technology was a very similar idea, and happened much later, in the mid to late 70's.

They were far more extreme, they set up a trout pool in a basement and raised cockroaches to feed them.

In Oakland it sounded more like a pooled barter for labor system with recycling tossed in, I'd be such a system exists in Castro's Cuba to this day.