By Dorothy Sue Cobble and Michael Merrill
Published in The Star-Ledger, Sunday, December 18, 2011
Occupy Wall Street is not the first movement to use occupation as a protest tactic. Nor is it the first to use creative political theater to overcome political paralysis and hold elected officials accountable for their inaction.
In April 1936, unemployed men and women in New Jersey occupied the state Assembly chamber in Trenton and called themselves the “Army of the No-Occupation.” They acted to protest the state Legislature’s unwillingness to provide funds for the poor and unemployed, and to show what a determined group of political representatives could do, if they tried. Unlike many of today’s occupations, they took specific action — albeit symbolic — and voted to support certain legislative measures, eventually forcing their elected counterparts to do the same.
The state’s emergency relief fund had shut down on April 15 and people were going hungry. Led by the New Jersey section of the Workers Alliance, a national relief and advocacy organization, a crowd gathered in the Assembly gallery, urging the representatives to take action. When the members adjourned without even discussing the problem, the observers flooded the chamber floor and vowed to stay.
For eight days, the protesters occupied the Assembly and carried out the work of the recessed Legislature. They proposed, debated, voted on and “passed” several bills, including a steep tax on large corporate incomes, a progressive income tax modeled on one already in place in New York and a tax on luxuries. They pressed for idle factories to be opened, devised a new system of unemployment insurance and called for a 30-hour work week and a minimum wage.
The New Jersey Statehouse occupiers showed the same restraint, resourcefulness and good humor generally in evidence among today’s dissenters. Asked how the group would retain possession of the chamber, the Workers Alliance national chairman declared that it did not believe in violence and would leave any “direct action” to the officials. Unfortunately, he added, there had been too little action, direct or otherwise, with respect to the plight of the unemployed.
Eventually, the occupiers were forced to vacate the Assembly in favor of the Senate chamber due to a previously scheduled Civil Service exam, whose passage they favored because it would create jobs. Asked what they could accomplish in their new home, the protesters quipped, “We can accomplish just as much as the Senate has.”
Responding to New Jersey Gov. Harold Giles Hoffman’s claim that without legislative approval, he would only appropriate funds to “repel invasion and put down insurrection,” the group promptly passed a resolution declaring that indeed an insurrection was in progress, at least in the legislative Assembly hall. It was political theater at its finest.
The occupiers got results, too. The following week, having made their point, the group exited the Assembly chamber peacefully, vowing to “be back with votes,” exultant that they had exposed the New Jersey Legislature, in the words of their ad hoc speaker, as “cynically, brutally indifferent representatives of finance capital.”
The Legislature, for its part, voted a new relief plan funded from an inheritance tax windfall. Six million dollars was earmarked for the jobless. Two years later, Congress provided federally funded unemployment insurance and passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, mandating a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour work week for the first time.
The Army of No-Occupation ought to be an inspiration to us all. We need not sit idly by while those elected to “secure the general welfare” do nothing. We too can demand that our elected representatives overcome their political paralysis and respond to the expressed needs of their constituents. We too can find creative ways to make our voices heard and our desires known.
Dorothy Sue Cobble, a professor, holds a joint appointment in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations in Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, and the Department of History in the School of Arts and Sciences. Michael Merrill is dean of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at the State University of New York’s Empire State College.