Liberal-left Washington Commonwealth Federation is founded on June 8, 1935.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 10/09/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2722

On June 8, 1935, the liberal-left Washington Commonwealth Federation (WCF) is founded in Seattle as a coalition of groups to work for political and economic reform during the Great Depression. The WCF combines the unemployed with organized labor and liberals of the Democratic Party, mostly from the Puget Sound region. The WCF's first program is production-for-use instead of profit. Not inaccurately derided as a Communist Party front for its pro-Soviet positions, the Federation was also a political party for the city of Seattle, and the left wing and New Deal faction of the Democratic Party.

Predecessor Organizations

In 1931, jobless men and women in Seattle gathered into a self-help group which they called the Unemployed Citizens' League (UCL). They organized relief measures and gathered together reformers, liberals, trade unionists, and radicals who had been inactive since the early 1920s. The UCL supported the successful campaign of John F. Dore (1881-1938) for mayor of Seattle in 1932, but Communists in the group damaged its credibility.

Upton Sinclair's manifesto for a "California Commonwealth" offered a fresh, more democratic vision during his ultimately unsuccessful 1934 campaign for that state's governorship. The same year, the UCL embraced a broader base and formed the Commonwealth Builders Inc. (CBI). The CBI sought to work within the Democratic Party for social and economic reform. They saw that the answers to relief and long-term reform lay with the state and federal governments. Democratic Governor Roland Hartley and other conservatives believed that relief for the poor and unemployed was the responsibility of the family and the community and that any able-bodied man could find work.

Despite their beliefs about reforms through state and federal governments, the Commonwealth Builders Inc. was nevertheless heavily oriented toward Seattle. In June 1935, CBI members met in the Jade Room of the New Washington Hotel with some Democratic Party clubs, Technocrats (who believed in government by technicians guided solely by the imperatives of their technology), farmers, and representatives of organized labor, and agreed to form the WCF.

Production for Use, Not Profit

They held conventions in Tacoma and Everett to develop a statewide plaform advocating production-for-use, instead of profit. Idle factories and farms would be brought into production, and goods would be distributed through publicly owned chain stores where workers could redeem scrip received for their wages. WCF was a coalition and generally adopted the agendas of the member groups. The first president was former UCL leader Cyrus Woodward and the executive secretary was Howard Costigan.

In 1936, the WCF managed to dominate the state Democratic convention which elected King County Prosecutor Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) as permanent chairman. The WCF also floated Initiative 119 establishing its production-for-use program. The WCF-supported Democratic candidates won their races (including Magnuson for Congress), but voters resoundingly defeated Initiative 119. Production-for-use was the peak of the WCF's radicalism.

A Few Dozen Individuals

According to historian Albert Acena, "In practice, the WCF really meant the few dozen individuals who could be called upon to perform the tasks of speech making, organizing and volunteering in the WCF office." The organizers excelled at staging rallies, conferences, and conventions, and "serving as an umbrella for a variety of affiliates." Mostly, the WCF tried to control the Democratic Party.

Members of the Communist Party were active in the WCF, and WCF support of liberal ideas (nationalizing banks, public ownership of natural resources, old-age pensions), and pro-Soviet foreign policy positons left it vulnerable to accusations that it was a Communist front.

In 1939, the WCF drew the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1881-1945), who was interested in support for a third term in office. Roosevelt also found the WCF supportive of his anti-facism and collective security against German and Italian agression. Executive Secretary Howard Costigan (an active Communist) met with Roosevelt and his advisers in Washington, D.C., and helped deliver Washington Democrats to Roosevelt's reelection campaign in 1940.

During World War II, WCF influence waned and the active membership dwindled to about a dozen. In 1945, the group dissolved, "having fulfilled its historical and anti-Fascist role."


Sources:

Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: From Boom to Bust, (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992); Albert A. Acena, The Washington Commonwealth Federation, (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1975), 95, 88, 446, 448, 453-455.


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