By John Curl
[From the East Bay Express, Friday, November 11, 1983 – Volume 6, Number 5]
U.X.A. Operating Committee, Oakland
At the height of the Great Depression, a group of unemployed Oakland workers decided to take matters into their own hands. The system wasn’t working, so they set up their own system. Money was nearly worthless, so they decided to live by barter. They called themselves the Unemployed Exchange Association and they soon went on to write a remarkable chapter in American economic history. This is their story.
Ju1y 1932. The economy has stopped-cold. Factories are locked, money is scarce. One out of seven Californians is unemployed. Social welfare programs are almost non-existent. Large numbers are destitute, hungry. Buildings stand vacant, boarded up. Food prices are next to nothing, but many thousands have nothing at all. California fields are rotting with tons of fruit and vegetables. Few farmers have money to pay harvesters; there is no market; many small farmers are losing their land. Thousands of children, women, and men have taken to the highways and rails, searching for survival.
"Hoovervilles," shantytowns of the homeless, have sprung up around the country over the past three years. The largest in the Bay Area is "Pipe City," near the railroad tracks by the East Oakland waterfront, where hundreds live in sections of large sewer pipe that were never laid because the city ran out of money. One of Pipe City’s frequent visitors is Carl Rhodehamel, once an electrical engineer at GE, a cellist, an inventor of several key technological developments in radio and early “talkies," an orchestra conductor, a composer whose "Little Symphony" had once been a favorite with KGO fans. But now Rhodehamel is unemployed and down on his luck.
But not for long. There is a streak of genius in him that will sweep him out of Pipe City and into the leadership of an organization that will stir California and the country.
Rhodehamel and two others find an abandoned grocery store not far away, in Oakland’s Dimond-Allendale district that can be used for meetings. Soon a group of six unemployed men begin to meet and discuss ways out of their problems. All are skilled and experienced workers, but all realize it could be years, if ever, before they’ll find work in their fields again. Since the system isn’t working to provide their needs, they decide to form their own system. Since money is scarce, they dispense with money altogether. From now on they will try to provide themselves with everything they need to live by barter.
They begin by going door-to-door in the neighborhood, offering to do home repairs in exchange for "junk" from people’s basements and garages. But to make their system really work they realize they’ll have to grow larger. They distribute fliers, trying to gather all the unemployed in the neighborhood into the group.
On the evening of July 20, 1932, some twenty people meet at the Hawthorne School and organize the Unemployed (or Universal, as they’d later call it) Exchange Association, a title they immediately abbreviate to UXA. The X stands not only for exchange, but also for the "unknown factor" in an algebraic equation.
The UXA offers a new social equation to one neighborhood in Oakland – one whose echoes will soon be heard around a nation desperate for change.
* * * * *
I first heard of the UXA in 1978. It was election time at the Berkeley Co-op grocery, and I was looking at photos and statements of board candidates in the Co-op News. Alongside a picture of a thoughtful ageless face, surrounded by a long mane of white beard and hair, was a candidacy statement different from all the rest. It began with a description of the UXA, and went on to call for the Co-op to expand its role as a marketing organization by undertaking the "ownership of the natural resources used to produce most of the goods it sells." The candidate pointed out that "time-killing" had been a fatal disease for the UXA and chided the reigning Co-op establishment for a similar affliction. The candidate’s name was Oser Price.
The UXA sounded so unusual that I cut out Price’s statement and saved it. I don’t remember if I voted for him but as he said to me later, "I didn’t run to get elected; I ran to get this information out."
A couple of years later at an Oakland Museum exhibit of California history in photography, I saw several pictures of the UXA taken by Dorothea Lange. My interest caught, I began rummaging through card catalogs in various East Bay libraries for more information, and. discovered a surprising wealth of literature written in the early ’30s about the "self-help movement" and particularly about the UXA. I realized I had stumbled upon an important but now forgotten corner of American history, a visionary social movement whose collapse had left artifacts scattered all over my own back yard…
“We are not going back to barter: we’re going forward into barter. We’re feeling our way along, developing a new science.” – Carl Rhodehamel
Their first focus was the neighborhood itself. They began by fixing up each other’s homes and circulating unused articles of every variety among themselves, cycling the useless into the useful. There had been little work in the neighborhood in the three years since the crash of 1929, so there was a great backlog of home repairs to be done. An abandoned grocery at 3768 Penniman became their first storeroom and commissary; it was soon overflowing with household and industrial articles. Broken items were repaired or rebuilt. The neighborhood, previously immobilized and choked with despair, was suddenly bustling with activity and confidence. People poured into the new organization.
U.X.A. Coordinators (L-R) foundry, lumber, odd jobs; trading, graphic arts, special contacts.
They soon began sending scouts around Oakland and into the surrounding farm areas, to search out salvageable things they could acquire in labor exchange deals. Labor teams followed. All work was credited by a point system; one hundred points were awarded for an hour’s work. UXA members exchanged points they’d earned for a choice of items in the commissary. Each article brought in was given a point value that approximated the labor time that went into it, with some adjustment for comparable monetary value. Many services were also offered for points, eventually including complete medical and dental care, auto repair, a nursery school, barbering, home heating (firewood), and some housing. At the UXA’s peak it would distribute forty tons of food per week.
They called their system "reciprocal economy." They made no distinction in labor value between men and women, unskilled and skilled, lesser and greater productivity. Members could write "orders" (like checks) against their accounts to other members for services provided. It was all done on the books, without a circulating script. (read HERE)