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This Day in Labor History: March 1, 1936

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On March 1, 1936, Boulder Dam (both prior and later known as Hoover Dam) was turned over to the federal government for operation. Examining the labor of its construction is a useful window into conditions of work during the early years of the Great Depression.

The dream of damming the Colorado River went back to the nineteenth century. Ever since John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the river, Americans had saw the water resources of the Colorado River as potentially fueling the growth of an American empire in the desert southwest. As California rapidly grew in the early 20th century and as Arizona and other western states became first tuberculosis treatment sites and then tourist and residential attractions of their own, the need for water grew. A big dam on the Colorado River could provide electricity and regulated water for agriculture though much of the Southwest. The ideal site was Black Canyon on the Nevada-Arizona border.

The employment needs of the Great Depression brought new interest in building the dam. President Hoover responded poorly to the Depression, but the building of Hoover Dam was a useful public works project, even if it did not put a meaningful dent in the nation’s economic problems. Plus whatever credit you might want to give Hoover for even this, the dam was authorized during the Coolidge administration. The government contracted out for its construction with Six Companies. This single company was a conglomeration of building companies that merged to attract the winning bid. The builders had a concrete reason to get the dam built quickly–they would be charged for every day they were late. This would lead to the exploitation of workers and unsafe working conditions. This started with a 2 1/2 year deadline to divert the river.

The dam was authorized in 1928 and construction started in 1930. Doing something as profound as diverting the Colorado River in a tight canyon would require remarkable engineering and a lot of workers. There were 21,000 total workers on the building of the dam over the years. At its peak, over 5000 were laboring on it. If one job experience ties these workers together, it was the heat. The Lower Colorado River is scorching hot. Black Canyon is one of the hottest areas of the United States. In the summer, temperatures reach 120 degrees. Yet in the winter, it can be bitterly cold. Workers made 50 cents an hour, with more for skilled labor. Workplace dangers were ever-present. Blasting through rock to divert the river kept lives at risk. Carbon monoxide was a huge problem. Electrocution was something workers always had to worry about.

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Building Hoover Dam

Entering into this situation was an IWW organizer named Fred Anderson. By the early 1930s, the IWW was a shell of its former self, having never recovered from the oppression of the World War I, changing ideological, political and cultural conditions, and the infighting that destroyed the remnants of the union over the class war prisoner releases in the 1920s. But in isolated circumstances when workers had no other options, the IWW could cause problems for employers. Anderson didn’t make all that much headway with the workers because they were fearful of IWW radicalism and of losing their jobs. Some of the workers had also previously dealt with IWW actions in Idaho (which is probably the state the Wobblies were most relevant in during these years) and had disliked the confrontational strategies of the union. But the companies were scared of Anderson and he, as well as seven other Wobblies, was jailed in Las Vegas on vagrancy charges, which long were used against any working person challenging labor exploitation.

But Anderson’s work and increasing dissatisfaction on the job did lead to workplace organizing and on August 7, 1931, when Six Companies reassigned some tunnel blasters to lower paying work, workers went on strike not only to get those workers their jobs back, but in protest against the working conditions. They demanded clean and cold water and flush toilets and that Six Companies obey the mining laws of Arizona and Nevada. They also wanted a safety officer placed at each tunnel in order to help save workers’ lives. This was pretty risky given it was 1931 and Las Vegas had thousands of people desperate for jobs in a society where Hoover was not doing anything to employ the masses. The bosses rejected all of these demands outright and an appeal to the Secretary of Labor failed as well. The strike collapsed, achieving nothing immediately. But it did convince Six Companies to start providing better water and toilet facilities and to speed up the construction of worker housing, which had lagged significantly and which had forced workers to live in tents in the scorching desert. Interestingly, in the strike, the workers openly distanced themselves from the IWW or any organized union. A strike committee member told a reporter, “We wish to make it plain that the strike has nothing to do with the IWWs or the United Mine Workers. It is a matter distinctly among the workmen on the project. We’re not Wobblies and don’t want to be classed as such.”

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The 1931 strike

The contract with the government only required the Six Companies hire citizens and no “Mongolians,” i.e., Chinese. The first 1000 workers hired were all white. This led the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas to protest in 1931. Caring only about getting the dam built in time to avoid the financial penalties, Six Companies wanted to do nothing that would make workers angry and impede construction. So it made work at the dam de facto white to create racial solidarity and ensure continued work. Finally, 24 African-Americans were hired to work in the gravel pits on the Arizona side of the river, which was the hottest and hardest labor on the project. But African-Americans could not break into these jobs with any more success than this. They also could not live in worker housing and so had to travel over the bad road to their homes in Las Vegas back and forth each day.

The hardest and most dangerous labor took place in the blasting of the tunnels. Ninety-six workers died total on the job, although sometimes death tolls are listed as high as 112 if those who perished before the dam started construction are included (such as those exploring the canyon doing preliminary work). Of those, 46 died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were classified as deaths from pneumonia in order to avoid workers’ compensation claims.

The dam was handed over to the federal government two years ahead of schedule. Six Companies would go on to build dams across the West, including Bonneville and Grand Coulee. To what extent not speeding up work and ensuring safer working condtions would have saved workers’ lives will never be known.

This is the 134th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Ben

    Although I have read and enjoyed LG&M for several years, I come here today as the FNG in the Reply Department: this is my first, and likely only, reply to an article, and it’s not really a “reply” as much as it is a suggestion for a new book on American Labor and its struggles. Plus, this is the only way I know to correspond with Erik Loomis or to post on LG&M.

    The Devil is Here In These Hills, subtitled West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom, is a 2015 publication written by James Green, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Massachusetts. As the subtitle states, this is a comprehensive history of West Virginia’s labor-management “wars,” in the literal sense of the word. I found the book to be quite readable. I commend it to anyone interested in the history of American labor.

  • slh

    “Blasting through rock to divert the river kept lives at work.”
    ….kept live at risk, maybe?
    Good post. I wish more American’s were aware of the sacrifices made to get us what we have. Sure, everyone praises those how fought wars on our behalf, but how about some recognition for those before us paying taxes (even for roads when they didn’t have cars!) and truly risking their lives in some audacious engineering construction.

  • cpinva

    the construction of the Hoover Dam was a big deal in my high school history class. oddly enough, scant mention was made of all the negative aspects of that project. it wasn’t until I did some reading on my own, that I discovered how it was a study, in microcosm, of almost all the social, political and economic ills festering in the country at the time.

    prof. Loomis, I’ve probably asked you this before, but do you have plans to put this series of posts together in book form, and try and get it published? I think it would make a great addition to the capital v labor pantheon, possibly even a textbook. but hey, that’s just me.

    • Brett

      Only 234 more Days in Labor History and then he’ll be good to go!

  • An amazing feat when you realize this was pretty much built with Model T technology.

  • Bruce Vail

    I don’t recall the year of the original broadcast, but my local public television affiliate showed a good documentary on this subject a couple of years back:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/hoover/player/

    I recall that the documentary was very up-to-date, and did not try to gloss over important race, class and labor issue.

  • JR in WV

    Erik, another great piece on an American symbol and how it was built… and the institutional suffering included in the monumental building project.

    I don’t recall if you ever did a story on the Hawk’s Nest tunnel catastrophe, wherein workers were compelled to work drilling and blasting a tunnel through a very hard sandstone very high in silica. Many (perhaps hundreds) died of silicosis before the tunnel was even completed.

    The tunnel was built to funnel water from the New River under a mountain to a hydroelectric generating plant, which was built to power a metals mill, where electric arc furnaces were used to make complex alloys not possible to manufacture with traditional blast furnaces. They made the tunnel wider than strictly necessary because the high-silica rock being removed was valuable as a source of silicon for the Alloy mill downstream.

    All this equipment is still in use every day. We will never know how many men died, as the companies involved understood very well the advantages keeping the tragedy as hidden as possible.

    Much of the history of working people in America is as grim and horrible as the genocide of the Native Americans or the slaves of the south. As grim as Bangladesh, really.

    My Dad died of a rare form of leukemia caused by his exposure to solvents as a youngster back in the 1930s. Benzine and carbon tetra-chloride (now recognized as toxic) were common solvents used in the family business to clean presses and machinery. Obviously if Granddad had known of that danger no one would have been using it… but if the dangers were known to anyone, they kept that danger to themselves.

  • creature

    I second (third, etc.) the calls for Eric Loomis to compile a book of these articles. I’m old Union officer, a local president of an International that merged with the Steelworkers when their membership has diminished to the point of losing effectiveness at the bargaining table. I was not a member when that occurred, but it brought a bittersweet feeling- that the old was gone, but the spirit carries on. Such a book would tell the stories of how and why we, as a nation, prospered and grew, how our society raised itself up from a near peasant existence, to a proud, strong and confident people. My children need to know those other stories, not just the ones I tell them about their great-grandparents, who helped build that Union, or my father’s involvement in his Union, or even my small contributions to the spirit of solidarity.

  • RobertL

    I saw a documentary on the Hoover Dam once. I was amazed and horrified that the company paid squillions to pump refrigerated water through the concrete to help it harden quickly, but didn’t pump fresh air into the tunnels to stop worker deaths.

    Arseholes.

    • I agree with your point, but one minor correction: the cold water wasn’t to speed the concrete curing but to make the construction possible without damage. The reaction as cement sets creates a lot of heat and if not cooled in a huge mass like the dam, the curing heat would destroy the concrete.

      It is, of course, possible to pump both cold water and fresh air simultaneously.

  • Rob in CT

    Of those, 46 died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were classified as deaths from pneumonia in order to avoid workers’ compensation claims.

    USA! USA! USA!

    I discovered that little tidbit a few years ago, in the course of having a discussion with a friend about why modern (American) infrastructure projects seem to take forever and cost so much. The Hoover Dam came up, so I went down the wikipedia rabbit hole on it. I ended up arguing that, in part, the fact that we now actually give two shits about the health of the workers* means things will be a bit slower and costlier. That’s not all of it by any means, but it’s part of the answer.

    * not that the present day is perfect in this regard, but it’s better than the 1930s.

    • Wearing proper fall protection slows down high steel by about five to ten percent, IMO, and it’s worth every extra minute.

    • Vance Maverick

      Right at the awkward junction where the bike path winds up from under the south approach to the Golden Gate Bridge and around onto the sidewalk of the bridge itself is a concrete block with a plaque honoring the workers who died building it. It’s such a bad place to stop that I’ve never counted: here I see it was eleven.

  • Bruce Vail

    I wonder if in later dam building projects by the Six Companies whether the feds ordered them to slow down, so as to provide greater employment opportunities for the Depression-era workers?

  • jroth95

    Semi-related:

    Erik, do you know about this book? All about the coal industry in WV, including (especially?) the ugly bits. The linked review is pretty positive from the Post-Gazette’s labor beat reporter (yes, we still have one! Although I think he also covers local business news as well).

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