I suppose it’s fine to try and carve out positions that explicitly appeal to white male voters, but not if it means watering down the core values of the Democratic Party. If fighting for a higher minimum wage attracts white males, great. But if Democrats equivocate on support for gay marriage, then it’s not worth it. I’d like to say the same thing about gun control but since the major political fallout of the thousands of people killed every year but stupid gun violence/accidents in this country is Colorado state legislators being recalled for trying to do something about it, I can see why Democrats don’t center the issue.
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.
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?
I mention it below, but it’s worth reiterating how facile the “resolve” argument is with respect to Russia’s incursion into Crimea. The causal argument runs thus: Putin believed, because of Obama’s unwillingness to launch military strikes on Syria, that the United States would not interfere with Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Because the United States had refrained from using military force in a case where Obama had made a (relatively) clear commitment to the use of force, the US would not use force to defend an area it had no (serious) legal obligation to defend.
Phrased in these terms, the argument is very nearly self-refuting. Essentially, partisans of the Resolve Fairy are demanding that Obama create in Putin’s mind the belief that a Russian invasion will be met with US military force, despite the fact that there is nearly zero chance that any administration, in a similar position, would use force. Say what you will about Vladimir Putin, but he is not a stupid man. If the most hawkish administration in recent history failed to counter a Russian invasion of a US client in 2008, what are the chances that the United States will do so now? Any threat to use force in defense of Crimea (or Georgia, for that matter), is a bluff, and not a particularly strong one. The notion that even a wildly successful military campaign against Assad would have convinced Putin that the US would intervene in Crimea is very nearly absurd.
And it gets worse, of course. Let’s imagine a world in which cruise missiles, a no fly zone, and a few airstrikes had managed to topple Assad (just work with me). It is widely believed that the destruction of a Russian client in Libya at the hands of NATO added to Putin’s conviction to support Syria at all costs. There’s every reason to believe that the US induced collapse of the Assad regime would have made Putin more, not less, risk acceptant; prospect theory is a thing. The same people whining about Obama’s “indecisiveness” about Syria would, in this case, have drawn a clear line between the Russian setback in the Middle East and Russian aggression in Ukraine.
And while we’re here, a moment about the Precedent Fairy. Partisans of the Precedent Fairy (generally associated with either the realist school or the left), argue for the causal power of US precedent on Russian behavior. The most common argument runs thus; because the United States intervened on behalf of an ethnic enclave in the Kosovo War, the Russians feel secure in making similar interventions on behalf of their own preferred enclaves. It’s worth emphasizing that the Precedent Fairy isn’t as wrong as the Resolve Fairy, or as dangerous; international society is a complex ideational system of laws, norms, and understandings, and the behavior of major powers does often affect how other states interpret the parameters of the possible. But it’s almost certainly wrong, in this case, to try to draw a direct line between Kosovo and South Ossetia, or Kosovo and Crimea. For one, Russia began intervening on behalf of favored enclaves before the Soviet Union formally collapsed, so precedent wasn’t particularly necessary. For another, Russia cares a lot more about Crimea than the US will ever care about Kosovo. It would have ample reason to intervene even without the precedent set by NATO.
What partisans of the Resolve Fairy and the Precedent Fairy do share is a substantial over-estimation of the importance of US behavior in Russian decision-making. The US is big and important, but stuff happens in the world that doesn’t have much to do with the attitudes or behavior of the United States. Russia has a rich foreign policy history to draw on, and assuming that Russia’s behavior depends on the last three things that Obama said is almost always going to be wrong.
Glenn Kenny ponders the Best Picture nominees while making the Sunday gravy. I was prepared to get on my favorite Eastwood fanatic for the overrated Million Dollar Baby, only putting it into the context of the kind of crap that typically gets honored makes me think that Eastwood fantatics have a point. I’m also happy to see that even shrewd critics were (like me) at least partially snowed by American Beauty on the first viewing. It holds up so badly it’s probably still to high on Glenn’s list, although I’d still rather watch it than snoozefests like Chicago or A Beautiful Mind or irredeemable hateful trash like Crash (if only for the humanity Benning is able to lend her disgracefully written character.)
Moving things to the present, I also liked his post about The Wolf of Wall Street, but I’ll get back to some of this year’s movies later this week…
In comments on Erik’s Douthat post below, there is some discussion of the staggering and utter vacuity and general uselessness of the non-Krugman* op-ed writers there. Erik promises a post on who, ideally, should be occupying those roles. While I have some ideas myself, I want to instead question the model? Why 6-7 people writing twice a week? The defects of this model seem obvious to me. First, if you take writing with such a platform and built-in audience as seriously as you should, the demands of doing it twice a week would be quite grueling. (Coates explains why he didn’t want the job in such terms here.) This creates two problems. One, even great writers strain to find something worth saying that often. Two, it creates pressure/incentives to focus on whatever the ‘story of the moment’ is, which is often some pointless journalistic obsession about which there is very little of interest to say.
My preferred model would look something like this: a stable of 30-50 regular writers, drawing from academics, journalists, and others who have something to day, but wouldn’t or couldn’t commit to a full time op-ed job. When someone uses the platform to pursue an important story over several columns (say, Herbert on Tulia) bump them up in the rotation accordingly. Lots of rotation in and out of the pool; perhaps an “emeritus” status for people who’ve retired from regular contributions but might have something worth saying once or twice a year.
The benefits seem obvious: less tendencies toward village group-think, more thoughtful contributions, less “story of the week” silliness, more people writing about something they actually know about, etc. Insofar as Nick Kristoff identified an actual problem, it would create a venue for sustained public intellectual work by important scholars who couldn’t or don’t want to commit to the level of commitment Krugman has.
Setting aside the “feature not a bug” reasons some might want to retain the current model, I can’t really conceive of the advantages of the current model over this one.
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.
- Timothy Snyder pushes back on allegations of fascist connections in the Ukrainian opposition.
- Jay Ulfelder wonders about the implications of scholarly engagement.
- Fred Kaplan argues that Obama could have done nothing to stop the occupation of Crimea.
- Dan Nexon is (justifiably) irritated by the return of the Resolve Fairy.
- Ukrainian military restraint has been remarkable, but the reserves are now mobilizing.
- Would Russia take a way out, if offered?
- Opportunities for miscalculation aplenty…
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.
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.
There’s not much to say about the mind-numbing “war is always the answer, and if that doesn’t work more war. And talking tough. And plenty of bombs” predictability of Krauthammer’s demand that Obama do…something in the Ukraine, preferably involving killing lots of people for purposes that will be made clear later. But I had to extract this gem:
What Obama doesn’t seem to understand is that American inaction creates a vacuum. His evacuation from Iraq consigned that country to Iranian hegemony…
It’s the strangest thing. At some point a little more than 10 years ago, the Iraqi state just kind of spontaneously disintegrated, creating a power vacuum that strongly advantaged Iranian interests. I blame Barack Obama! Anyway, the lesson here is the inevitable effectiveness of the application of American military force at achieving strategic and humanitarian goals alike.