The arts projects, along with the rest of the WPA, now faced a dilemma. By most objective measures, the jobs program had been a success. Both the women’s and professional projects division that included the arts and other white-collar programs, and the much larger construction division, had met the twin goals of providing jobs and adding significant improvements to the national landscape, physically, aesthetically, and socially. But for an agency like the WPA, created to cope with an emergency, the price of success was retrenchment.
By 1936, the massive spending that had characterized the New Deal since its launch in 1933 had eased the economic crisis but not erased it. Unemployment had fallen from its March 1933 high of 24.9 percent to below 17 percent as manufacturers cautiously took on new workers, and farm income had climbed back almost to its 1930 levels. But the cost of even this limited comeback was growing pressure to halt the deficit spending that had fueled it.
Roosevelt had made the first cuts in July, well ahead of the November election, when he slashed the WPA budget by 25 percent and Federal One by a third. In September, Hopkins rescinded the exemption he had given the arts projects at their outset that allowed them to employ 25 percent non-relief workers instead of the standard 10 percent in order to get the projects off the ground. Many of the laid-off workers were recalled in the weeks leading up to the election, but once the November landslide was in the books, the WPA was cut again. Almost 2,000 arts workers received pink slips in New York, and twice that many across the country.
The New York workers responded to the layoffs with a series of disruptive “stay-in” strikes. On December 1, more than 200 arts project workers took over the project’s headquarters in the College Art Association Building on East 39th Street. They pushed desks and chairs against the doors of the eighth-floor offices to keep the police from entering, and cut the telephone wires. When seventy-five policemen arrived, crashed through the barricades, and ordered the strikers off the premises, the workers formed a ring around them and locked arms. At that, the police pulled their nightsticks, began to club the workers on the wrists and arms, and dragged them out into the elevator lobby. Some went quietly, but others fought. When the melee ended, seven men and five women, along with one policeman, had been injured, and 219 arts workers were in the Tombs, New York’s holding jail, charged with disorderly conduct. One of them was poster artist Theodore Egri, who said the workers gave the police names such as Picasso and Cézanne and laughed away the night in their cells.
Writers’ Project protesters were more successful at their own office takeover two doors away. They used a clothesline, telephone wires, neckties, and yarn from an unraveled sweater to haul boxes of sandwiches from the sidewalk all the way up to their redoubt on the seventh floor, defying the efforts of the police to starve them out.
The protests spread to a shutdown of the Theatre Project offices, and on December 7, a hundred men and women occupied the space in the old bank building that served as the New York headquarters. They vowed to stay for two days, and no police showed this time. More ominously, however, seventy-five agents of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI moved onto the premises and watched them. No one would say who had called the FBI, and the agents would say only that they were there to protect government property. Still, despite the layoffs and the government surveillance, the project’s plays went on, and so did the seasonal concerts of the music project.
Mayor La Guardia sped off to Washington to try to get the layoffs reduced or rescinded altogether. Somervell headed to Washington at the same time, less to lobby for the arts workers than to assess cuts in his entire New York City program. Confirming Audrey McMahon’s view that he was no friend of the arts, he sent an abrupt memorandum to employees participating in the sit-ins on December 4: leave or be fired. Strikers marching in picket lines responded caustically; their signs read, “Merry Christmas—Wish You Well; Here’s Your Pink Slip—Somervell.”
Even the usually equable musicians protested the job cuts. On Christmas Eve several hundred New York schoolchildren came to City Hall for a round of caroling next to the lighted outdoor tree. They had been trained by WPA music teachers and were accompanied by a WPA band, but as they sang, demonstrators from the music project drowned them out with shouts of “We want jobs!”
Hopkins, in Washington, eventually eased the New York layoffs, relying on his usual tactic of dipping into unused PWA funds and persuading Roosevelt to go along. As Somervell observed on January 15, his roster of arts workers before the cuts was 10,560, and “after all the trouble, the strikes, the walkouts, the picketing and name calling, we have 10,566.”
Roosevelt was sworn in for his second term on January 20, 1937. It was another cold and rain-drenched inaugural day in Washington, so foul that Senator George Norris of Nebraska was forced to defend his authorship of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, which had shifted the inauguration from March to January. Almost two inches of rain fell before the day was over, but Roosevelt refused to move the ceremony inside to the Capitol rotunda; if the crowds outside could take it, so could he. The ancient Roosevelt Bible was another story; someone wrapped it in protective cellophane before the president placed his hand upon it and took the oath of office.
The rain did not diminish the president’s customary eloquence as he addressed the nation, and his words gave heart to those for whom the government represented the only prospect of a job; despite the WPA layoffs, he made clear his intention to keep fighting on behalf of workers. He spoke of the distance traveled “from the days of stagnation and despair,” and of the journey still ahead. Here, he said, “is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens…'who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life. I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day. I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago. I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions. I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
“One-third of a nation” quickly joined the short list of Roosevelt’s iconic phrases. But in his second term, he would not enjoy the consensus on fighting the depression that had come so easily to him in the first. The economic weakness would continue, the result in part of his own policies as his advisors, led by Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, argued for spending cuts and deficit reduction; while at the same time the conservative opposition would regain its voice and frustrate continued efforts at reform. These developments were to reverberate throughout the WPA and ultimately the entire country.
First, however, an urgent new task loomed for the WPA. The storm clouds that blanketed Washington on inauguration day stretched back across the midsection of the country. They had been hovering there for weeks, and they were bringing the WPA a new chance to demonstrate its prowess. The agency had many services on offer to the nation—roadwork, building, sewing, professional services, the arts. All of these brought organizational talent and administrative will to bear in directing a mass of available workers. But now the stakes were raised. A major natural disaster loomed, and the WPA would slash red tape and hurdle bureaucratic roadblocks in its all-out fight to save lives and property.