• U.S.

RELIEF: Engineer’s Extravaganza

4 minute read

“See here, you’re doing all the talking!” bellowed Pennsylvania’s Lieut. Governor Thomas Kennedy one night last week at an unidentified speaker in the State Senate gallery in Harrisburg. “I happen to be the President of the Senate, not you!” “Boo,” chorused some 500 men, women & children as they pounded the brass gallery railings with sticks. “Quit stalling! Pass bills! Pass bills!” they screamed, raining their sticks down on the Senate floor below.

Three days & nights of such rowdy high jinks by organized jobless in the galleries last week forced Pennsylvania’s General Assembly into submission. For 13 weeks its Democratic House and Republican Senate had haggled in special session over relief for the State’s 560,000 needy. Last month when funds ran out, a small group of unemployed rolled into Harrisburg by bus, made themselves so obnoxious that Republicans and Democrats advanced $3,000,000 for temporary relief. Last fortnight the $3,000,000 were gone and the army trooped back in greater numbers. Kept alive & kicking by a hand-out of $4,000 from the State’s homeless and transient relief funds, the determined demonstrators last week forced the House and Senate to agree in principle on a program of some $45,000,000 to furnish relief until next February.

Stage manager of this legislative demonstration last week was slim, almost chinless, 34-year-old President David Lasser of the Workers Alliance of America. By now a thoroughgoing professional at marching his squads of unemployed into a State capitol and virtually taking over the legislative proceedings in the name of higher relief standards, Lasser and his Workers made their headline debut at Madison, Wis. last March. There soft-hearted Governor Philip La Follette welcomed them into the State House, provided them with food, advised them to “turn the heat” on the Legislature. After they had camped in the Senate chamber for ten days, Governor La Follette realized his mistake, had them turned out.

Last April 700 Workers Alliance delegates marched on Washington to hold convention and see Franklin Roosevelt, who was vacationing in the South. After tongue-lashing the Government’s relief policies, they voted by “129,958-to-21,413” to unite with other jobless unions, notably the National Unemployment Councils, Communist Herbert Benjamin’s organization of radical-minded unemployed which had been staging intermittent “hunger marches” on the U. S. Capitol ever since 1931. Three weeks later, members of this new and larger Workers Alliance invaded Trenton, N. J., occupied the State House, jeered the Legislature with abandon, were finally thrown out by police for their bad manners (TIME, May 4). Last week’s Harrisburg extravaganza was on a pattern rapidly becoming standard practice whenevera State Legislature stalls on jobless relief.

No veteran rabble-rouser is modest, soft-spoken Leader Lasser. Born in Baltimore, he got into the War when 15 by lying to an Army recruiting officer about his age, was gassed in overseas service. Graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in civil engineering in 1924, he shifted from one technical job to another, was fired by New York Edison Co. in 1929 when he protested a staff cut. For a short period later on he was president of the American Interplanetary Society, which propagandized the cause of sending rockets to the Moon. In 1932 he edited the only two issues of Technocracy Review, worked for Gernsback Publications through the summer of 1933.

Just before quitting his job, Lasser helped organize the Lower West Side Unemployed League in Manhattan, merged it with two other local organizations, managed to keep the leadership. Unofficially backed by the American Federation of Labor, he organized the Eastern Federation of Unemployed in 1934, last year formed his Workers Alliance as a means of consolidating local unemployed groups in a single national movement, focusing public attention on the discontent and despair of doletakers. The amalgamation in Washington last April, he claims, swelled the membership of his organization to 800,000 with chapters or affiliates in 43 states. Monthly dues are either 10¢ or 25¢, dependingon whether the Alliance member is on home relief or a WPA job. From this income the Alliance pays its three salaried officers $20 per week.

Explains President Lasser: “This is a labor movement. It has no connection with the Communist or any other party. . . . Furthermore, the Workers Alliance . . . does not want relief primarily. We want jobs. We are not dole seekers. Any leaders urging just living on relief would be kicked out.”

Though he voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928 because he believed that a fellow engineer was needed in the White House, Engineer Lasser supported Socialist Norman Thomas in 1932, will support him again this year. Says this onetime inter-planetarian: “I have decided that it is necessary to remake the Earth before delving into life on the Moon.”

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