By James P. “Jim” Dougherty
INDIANA — In 1933, the nation’s fourth year of the Great Depression, 37 percent of Pennsylvania’s workforce was jobless. Those fortunate enough to find work faced declining wages and shortened weeks.
In May of that year, members of the Indiana Workers Unemployment Council voted to change the organization’s name to the Workers’ Federation of Indiana County and to join a new state-wide organization called The Workers Federation of Pennsylvania.
A press release said, “Many of our members are employed, both part-time and full-time, and the old name seemed to exclude them.” But the real reason for the change was that local members wanted to become more involved with an organization that sought to bring about social change on the state level. These members thought grassroots organizing had to be amplified with state-level political advocacy.
In the summer of 1933, tensions between the unemployed and the county’s welfare officials heightened. In the community of Armagh, 300 members of the Workers Federation protested against the unfair treatment they were receiving from their local welfare board.
On July 19, more than a thousand members of the Workers’ Federation gathered at the County Relief Board to protest the “present allowance of relief.” They were given a conference with the Indiana County Emergency Relief Board, where they presented an extensive list of demands.
One was for the removal of eight relief investigators who were notorious for harsh treatment of the unemployed. The mistreatment reportedly included verbal abuse and general searches of houses to gather evidence for reports. Federation members proposed a “fairer” allotment system for the distribution of relief based upon family size and asked for increases in clothing, shoes and medical care.
After the meeting, they marched down Philadelphia Street and rallied in front of the Fifth Street School, where more speeches were made before disbanding.
ON AUG. 8, federation members held a large meeting in the community of Glen Campbell, which was attended by more than 2,500 federation delegates. During the meeting, it was reported that the organization had 36 local chapters throughout Indiana County totaling more than 20,000 members. The meeting announced a large federation parade in Indiana to make their concerns more known to the general public.
On the following Tuesday, delegations from throughout Indiana County converged on Indiana and assembled for the march near the East End school. Reports of crowd size varied. According to witnesses, they ranged from a low of 150 to a high of 700. After a series of speeches, federation President Jack Blaney and Treasurer William Dias led the procession down Philadelphia Street to the welfare office.
Upon arrival, the crowd formed a committee of three men, including Blaney and Dias, to enter the office and meet with the executive secretary of the Indiana County Welfare Board, Hugh M. Bell. Testimony given at a subsequent hearing on the incident varied on what happened next.
Bell said that when the men entered his office, they were “insistent” and “unfriendly” and “demanded that he go out and talk to the crowd.” Bell declined.
A defense witness at the hearing said Dias went to the front of the building and opened the doors for the crowd to come in. The office became packed full of protestors who, according to welfare employees, made disorder by “weeping, swearing, cheering, pushing about, etc.”
The Pittsburgh Press reported, “The demonstrators smashed partitions, destroyed papers and locked the executive director in his office.” The doors to the welfare office were later wired shut from the outside so no one could get out. The protestors voiced various threats, including “if you don’t remove some of the welfare investigators, we will get them.”
Local police were called in and convinced the crowd to disperse. Blaney, Dias and a third man were arrested for inciting a riot. They were jailed and posted bonds of $2,000 each ($39,000 in 2020 dollars).
Reports of the incident spread throughout the state. Charles T. Doubs, secretary of the Western Pennsylvania Security League (a welfare rights organization), sent a telegram to Gov. Gifford Pinchot asking him to order an immediate investigation of relief administration in Indiana County.
Later that summer, a seven-hour preliminary hearing was held at the county courthouse. It featured testimony from more than 30 witnesses.
Defense attorneys argued that there were no leaders responsible for the crowd; therefore, the three accused men were not responsible for any single person’s actions.
The commonwealth called 17 witnesses to testify and asked that “the defendants be held for Court, a prima facie case having been made out by the commonwealth.”
The defense twice moved that the case be dismissed because “the commonwealth had not provided evidence to connect the defendants with riot, or inciting to riot.” The motions were denied.
The commonwealth asked that the defendants be held for court. The court agreed and ordered the defendants to appear for a September hearing and be released on bail.
COURT RECORDS of that hearing have been misplaced in the Indiana County Courthouse. But a front-page story in The Blairsville Dispatch reported that defendant William Dias was ordered expelled from Indiana County by Judge Jonathan Langham. He found that Dias, an unemployed “Negro,” had a long police record of leading strike activities for the United Mine Workers of America and had been arrested for the welfare office “riot.”
Langham issued an ultimatum: If Dias didn’t move out of Indiana County, he would be incarcerated in the county jail. Dias immediately moved to Monessen, Pa.
It appears that the other two defendants were not given the same ultimatum: Their names continued to appear in newspaper stories about Worker’s Federation activities after the trial.
James P. “Jim” Dougherty, Ph.D., is a former professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an organizer of the annual Northern Appalachian Folk Festival in Indiana, Pa.
This article is excerpted from a longer 1988 monograph, “The Great Depression in Indiana County: Local Officials’ and Unemployed Workers’ Response to the Economic Crisis of the 1930s.”