With the giving season upon us, we’ve been thinking about ways Oaklanders have given back in the past. That’s when we ran across an article by John Curl that appeared on countercurrents.org and in a 1983 edition of the East Bay Express. Through the eyes of Oser Price, a former tractor tool designer, Curl tells the story of Oakland’s role in the Depression-era self-help movement and the creation of the Unemployed Exchange Association.
By 1932, the Depression was in full swing, and unemployment in California was cracking 14 percent. In Oakland, hundreds were left homeless, living in shantytowns along the East Oakland waterfront. Down on his luck, Carl Rhodehamel found himself living in “Pipe City,” where large sections of un-laid sewer pipe had become homes for people with nowhere to turn. Before being laid off, Rhodehamel was an electrical engineer for GE, an inventor, and a musician who had earned a small amount of acclaim for a symphony with KGO.
Rhodehamel and several others would go on to start a “reciprocal economy” void of money called the Unemployed Exchange Association, or UXA. They began by focusing on their own neighborhood, fixing each other’s homes and recycling unused items. They began using an abandoned grocery store on Penniman Avenue as their first storeroom and commissary, and eventually held open meetings at their headquarters at East 14th Street and 40th Avenue.
Workers were given points for the hours they worked, and could exchange those points for items in the commissary. Within six months, they had a membership of 1500, and according to Curl, at its peak, the UXA distributed 40 tons of food each week.
The founders of the exchange truly believed the UXA could end the Depression, and in 1933, author Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California on a platform of self-help and cooperative exchange. He would get 900,000 votes, but lose to incumbent Frank Merriam.
Although the group was able to survive political defeat and raids by “The Red Squad,” they were no match for the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration of 1935, which offered paying jobs to the unemployed, and the start of World War II several years later. As UXA members left the exchange for cash-paying jobs and military service, the group faced a shortage of workers and collapsed.
Here are some photos from a time gone by in Oakland, and click here to read John Curl’s original story: