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This Day in Labor History: March 3, 1931

[ 14 ] March 3, 2014 |

This post is a special request from Anna in PDX to help her work out some thorny issues she faces in her local. If this series can be of use to your local or organizing needs, drop me a line.

On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed the Davis-Bacon Act, establishing a requirement for the government to pay local prevailing wages on public works projects. Even since its passage, it’s been tainted with an accusation of racism, which will be the subject of today’s post, as we try to untangle the complex knot of race and labor in American history.

The law was prompted by Robert Bacon, a congressman from New York who allied with former Secretary of Labor (1921-30) Senator James Davis. A contractor in Bacon’s home district built a new VA hospital. Rather than hire local workers, he brought in low wage African-American laborers from Alabama. Bacon worried about the government undermining local wages and he sought to put a stop to it. It took the Great Depression to make Bacon’s bill a political possibility. Congress rejected it the first 12 times Bacon introduced it, but the desperation of the Depression created a political force that would lead to the construction of America’s labor law regime. One of the first victories in this was Davis-Bacon. The Hoover Administration itself requested that Congress take up the bill once more in order so that it could seem like it was doing something about falling wages. The law only covered government contracts greater than $5000 (amended to $2000 in 1935) and did not force contractors to hire union labor. As federal labor law often does as well, many states created little Davis-Bacons to cover state contracts, helping to raise the standard of living for construction labor.

James Davis and Robert Bacon

From the time of its passage, opponents portrayed Davis-Bacon as a racist law intended to protect white workers from black competition. Race and labor can’t be separated in this country. The racism that has divided this country since the beginning has also divided workers. Labor deserves no more but also no less blame in perpetuating this than other American institutions, including corporations who openly used race and ethnicity to divide workers, paying black workers lower wages and constructing white workers and black workers as competition against each other. Davis-Bacon intended to stop employers from undermining local standards of living, which they often did by taking advantage of the nation’s inherent racism to bring in workers of color. Today, one certainly cannot blame these black workers for taking jobs significantly better than the cotton plantations of the Jim Crow South, but I don’t think it particularly useful to condemn unionized northern workers for protecting their own jobs either, even if those protections by definition took on a racist tone. After all, feeding their families was a completely legitimate priority.

One however can shake their head at how labor used racist rhetoric to justify what could in principle have been a very reasonable bill. AFL president William Green in supporting Davis-Bacon noted in talking about why it was needed in Tennessee, “Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.” The debate in Congress over the bill also took on the racial overtones of American life in the early 30s. Alabama Rep. Clayton Allgood said in support, “Reference has been made to a contractor from Alabama who went to New York with bootleg labor. This is a fact. That contractor has cheap colored labor that he transports, and he puts them in cabins, and it is labor of that sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country. This bill has merit, and with the extensive building program now being entered into, it is very important we enact this measure.” Some wished it could be extended to protect “white” labor from immigrants as well. Fiorello LaGuardia was among those expressing these sentiments, noting “the workmanship of this cheap imported labor was of course very inferior.”

The law’s wording was pretty vague and both unions and employers have fought over its meanings ever since. For the building trades, Davis-Bacon directly benefited them and they fought for its vigorous use. For contractors, “prevailing wage” was totally undefined and frustrating. It never proved easy to determine or enforce when determined. The Department of Labor was tasked to determine just what the prevailing wage was for a region, but the formulas were increasingly complex and had to cover individual job classifications. In 1979, the General Accounting Office issued an appeal to repeal the law, citing four decades of it not working well.

In 1956, Congress extended Davis-Bacon to cover highway construction, the only controversial piece of the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Southern senators like Harry Byrd sought to reduce union influence by trying to exclude Davis-Bacon from the bill. In 1964, Davis-Bacon was expanded to add fringe benefits, including medical insurance, pensions, vacations, and sick pay into the calculations. This expansion also increased the reach of the law to include the states and municipalities receiving large federal grants for capital construction projects, ranging from schools to roads.

I think the debate over the origin of the law is a separate question over its value today. There is a whole history of terrible racist laws in this country, not to mention good laws passed with racist intent. Are we going to overturn hunting and fishing regulations because they were enacted to save the nation’s game for rich white people to use and overturned hundreds of years of subsistence food traditions by Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, poor whites, and European immigrants? No. Neither should we eliminate Davis-Bacon. Is the law racist today? That’s the key question. And the answer is no.

The argument is basically concern trolling by businesses when what they really want is to avoid paying workers a living wage. Business hopes that by saying that labor law is racist, they can undermine unionism nationally. While northern African-Americans did often have very good reason to be suspicious of white labor unions in the past, today they are among the most union-friendly groups. Research consistently shows that unions have not hurt African-American employment over the years and that today they join unions to protect themselves from wage inequality (see Jake Rosenfeld and Meredith Kleykamp’s “Organized Labor and Racial Wage Equality in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology, March 2012) The NAACP supports the continuance of the Davis-Bacon Act. That support is a lot more important to me than the law’s overtones in 1931.

Opponents also claim Davis-Bacon openly favors union labor. Call the whaaambulance. It actually doesn’t favor union labor per se. It favors paying people the same wage rates unions have negotiated in areas where they control enough of the labor market to do so. Right-wingers use whiny arguments about taxpayers, noting that Davis-Bacon can increase public construction projects by 20 percent. Of course, usually it is less high than this, but those higher costs go back into the community through returned tax dollars, higher purchasing power, better schools, and happier citizens.

Also, high wages are needed for the building trades. Construction is seasonal labor. Without high wages during the work season, you aren’t going to convince young people to join these professions. You are going to lose skilled labor to build your house, fix your toilet, etc. These people have to live and eat and feed their families and I don’t think we should be giving any support for undoing some of the last legislation that helps provide workers with real benefits on the job. Employers should not be able to undermine local wages by importing cheap labor, just as they should not be able to decimate communities by a global race to the bottom to increase profits.

This is the 95th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Doesn’t Make Up for Crash, But Still….

[ 138 ] March 3, 2014 |

Although I probably like Her better overall, 12 Years a Slave is an excellent choice for Best Picture.

It’s also worth noting that it the first major Hollywood production to deal with slavery in a serious way came out in 2013. And no, Amistad was not a serious depiction of slavery. Can we aim for 2 major Hollywood productions dealing with slavery in the second century of film? Even a meh biopic of Frederick Douglass?

Alain Resnais, RIP

[ 23 ] March 2, 2014 |

Night and Fog has a claim as the best documentary of all time.

The Worst Best Picture Winner

[ 462 ] March 2, 2014 |

There are a lot of bad Best Picture winners. And I really dislike Slumdog Millionaire, although the other Best Picture nominees that year are no great shakes. I’d like to give it my vote. And it’s a crime against humanity than Dances with Wolves, off all the dreck out there, won over Goodfellas. But there is not only no worst Best Picture winner than Crash, there is barely a more loathsome movie. OK, that’s a slight overstatement, what with your The Idiots over here and Soldier Blue over there. But my god is Crash a terrible movie. And it was so obviously terrible at the time. I was watching the Oscars with friends the year it won and I remember annoying them with a good bit of angry swearing after it won. And for Christ’s sake, it beat Brokeback Mountain, a film 100 times superior. It also beat Capote, a film 20 times superior. I do have to give Crash credit though–by showing the hellish problem America faces with Iranian on Mexican crime, not to mention the mean the black woman who just doesn’t treat Matt Dillon very nicely which is bad even though Dillon sexually assaulted Thandie Newton and why can’t we all get along and of course Ludarcis carjacking that rich white dude at the beginning of the film after talking about how he hates being stereotyped as a criminal–it demonstrates that all of us are affected by racial prejudice equally and thus we can all equally forget about power structures and come to a nice liberal consensus that racism sucks.

About a year later, I was in Malaysia. There were some Europeans watching the film on a TV at the hotel where I was staying. They were watching it and talking about how messed up the United States well. I felt very smashy.

I think it’s time to turn this over to a better writer than I. Ta-Nehisi Coates, from 2009:

Before we go any further, I need to admit that several people who I love and respect actually like Crash. I need let them know that I don’t hold this against them, and I still love and respect them–though, with Crash in mind, more the former than the latter.

With that said, I don’t think there’s a single human being in Crash. Instead you have arguments and propaganda violently bumping into each other, impressed with their own quirkiness. (“Hey look, I’m a black carjacker who resents being stereotyped.”) But more than a bad film, Crash, which won an Oscar (!), is the apotheosis of a kind of unthinking, incurious, nihilistic, multiculturalism. To be blunt, nothing tempers my extremism more than watching a fellow liberal exhort the virtues of Crash.

If you’re angry about race, but not particularly interested in understanding why, you probably like Crash. If you’re black and believe in the curative qualities of yet another “dialogue around race,” you probably liked Crash. If you’re white and voted for Barack Obama strictly because he was black, you probably liked Crash. If you’ve ever used the term “post-racial” or “post-black” in a serious conversation, without a hint of irony, you probably liked Crash.

The English language does not contain the words needed to express how much I hate Crash.

Douthat Has The Sadz

[ 222 ] March 2, 2014 |

Poor Ross. He reads liberals comparing the recent spate of anti-gay bills to segregation and he can’t understand it. After all, he already considered the ability for an individual to discriminate against someone in their place of business conservatives’ “surrender.” Which terrifies one to think about the victory. Anyway, this is just great:

So what then? One possibility is that this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.

In this scenario, religious conservatives would essentially be left to promote their view of wedlock within their own institutions, as a kind of dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation, while the wider culture declares that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage.

Right–so the people who declare that love and commitment are enough to make a marriage are the wrong ones. I mean, even if you actually think that, and Douthat may be the only person under the age of 40 in the United States to believe marriage is primarily about procreation, shouldn’t you at least change the phrasing to avoid looking so dismissive of basic respect for one’s partner?

Once again, can we fire all of the Times columnists except Krugman and start over? They range from embarrassing to providing no value over replacement columnist.

Lee Lorch, RIP

[ 32 ] March 1, 2014 |

The thing about being a historian is that you think you know a lot about the past and then you read the obituary of a truly amazing fighter for social justice that you’ve never heard of.

The Near Future of Union-Busting

[ 23 ] March 1, 2014 |

This Tennessee politician who wants to ban union picketing as a “preemptive measure” against the growth of organized labor in his state will probably be representing mainstream Republican doctrine by 2017 or so.

Our Generous Welfare State

[ 83 ] March 1, 2014 |

We have a very generous welfare state in this country. Amanda Marcotte:

After three decades of stasis, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is getting an overhaul, with a special emphasis on making it easier for parents to buy fresh produce for their children. Throughout most of its history, WIC has only covered what were perceived as “basic” foods: bread, eggs, milk, infant formula, canned tuna fish. In 2007 there was an interim policy that allowed parents to also buy fresh, frozen, or canned fruit or vegetables. This finalized policy goes beyond that, expanding the allowance for each child’s fresh produce purchases by 30 percent.

On paper, this sounds like a big deal and really good news, but it’s actually a depressing reminder of how small-minded this country has become when it comes to dealing with the problems of poverty and nutrition. As Reuters reports, that 30 percent produce expansion amounts to a measly $2 a month per kid. According to the cost-of-living index website Expatistan, in Indianapolis, that extra $2 will get you about a pound of apples (so, two or three apples) or a little more than a pound of tomatoes for the whole month. If you want to save money by going frozen, you’re not getting a whole lot more. You can get one bag of frozen peas or one bag of frozen corn, with a few coins left over for a small orange, if you’re lucky. Or perhaps you want one can of green beans with enough left over for a banana.

Really, isn’t that can of green beans going to show your 8 year old that the only way to live is off the state? I for one am very uncomfortable with the dependance and laziness that giving that child an extra banana every month is going to create.

When May I Shoot a Student?

[ 214 ] February 28, 2014 |

In a world where we are all going to be armed, Boise State biology professor Greg Hampikian asks a key question in the face of an Idaho bill to allow students to bring guns on campus: When may I shoot a student?

I assume that if a student shoots first, I am allowed to empty my clip; but given the velocity of firearms, and my aging reflexes, I’d like to be proactive. For example, if I am working out a long equation on the board and several students try to correct me using their laser sights, am I allowed to fire a warning shot?

If two armed students are arguing over who should be served next at the coffee bar and I sense escalating hostility, should I aim for the legs and remind them of the campus Shared-Values Statement (which reads, in part, “Boise State strives to provide a culture of civility and success where all feel safe and free from discrimination, harassment, threats or intimidation”)?

While our city police chief has expressed grave concerns about allowing guns on campus, I would point out that he already has one. I’m glad that you were not intimidated by him, and did not allow him to speak at the public hearing on the bill (though I really enjoyed the 40 minutes you gave to the National Rifle Association spokesman).

Knee-jerk reactions from law enforcement officials and university presidents are best set aside. Ignore, for example, the lame argument that some drunken frat boys will fire their weapons in violation of best practices. This view is based on stereotypical depictions of drunken frat boys, a group whose dignity no one seems willing to defend.

The problem, of course, is not that drunken frat boys will be armed; it is that they are drunken frat boys. Arming them is clearly not the issue. They would cause damage with or without guns. I would point out that urinating against a building or firing a few rounds into a sorority house are both violations of the same honor code.

Wussy

[ 36 ] February 28, 2014 |

Been too busy to really post today, but I can at least say this. You should be listening to Wussy.

Also:

Denmark Vesey

[ 381 ] February 26, 2014 |

2010 broke new ground in Confederate nostalgia arguments–defining Denmark Vesey as a terrorist. Global War on Terror indeed.

But there’s now a Vesey statue up in Charleston, honoring the man who planned a slave rebellion in the heart of the slavery beast. There are some angry white people in Charleston.

I will say this. If Vesey had killed every white person in Charleston to free himself and other slaves from the horrors of being raped, beaten, and killed by masters, from seeing their children and siblings and parents and spouses sold, from being paraded naked before white people to be examined like a horse before being purchased (the Paul Giamatti scene in 12 Years a Slave was especially good on this), from having their labor and lives stolen from there by a system that sought to brutalize labor and whose intellectual giants would later commit treason in defense of slavery, leading to the death of 750,000 Americans, if he did all of these things, Denmark Vesey would not be a terrorist.

Save Hag’s Boxcar

[ 13 ] February 26, 2014 |

If it was up to me, the National Park Service would take over the boxcar turned house where Merle Haggard grew up and run it as a National Historic Site, not only with a restoration of it but a museum next door telling the story of the Okies in California.

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