The 1931 legislation designed to keep black construction workers from jobs on Depression-era public works projects continues to promote discrimination six decades later.
The U.S. can be proud of the strides made over the past several decades toward ensuring legal equality for black Americans. Especially since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Federal government has engaged in massive efforts to stamp out discrimination. Yet, since 1931, that same government has aided and abetted racial discrimination through enforcement of an expensive Jim Crow law known as the Davis-Bacon Act.
Passed at the beginning of the Depression at the instigation of the labor union movement, Davis-Bacon was designed explicitly to keep black construction workers from jobs on Depression-era public works projects. Today, the act continues to restrict the opportunities of blacks on Federal and Federally subsidized projects by favoring disproportionately white, unionized, and skilled workers over disproportionately black, non-unionized, and unskilled ones.
By the 1930s, most major unions that represented skilled construction workers completely excluded blacks from their ranks. A few others relegated them to segregated locals. Despite their general exclusion from craft unions and discrimination in vocational education and occupational licensure, construction in the South in 1930 provided blacks with more jobs than any industry except agriculture and domestic service. Because the effects of union and educational discrimination hardly were felt in unskilled construction jobs, blacks performed most of that work in the South. They also did much skilled construction work there, composing 17% of southern carpenters, for example.
At the same time, many black construction workers were migrating north. By 1930, they represented a proportion of the northern urban construction workforce that approximated the black proportion of that region's total population. As in the South, blacks held a disproportionate share of unskilled construction jobs, while discriminatory union and licensing policies resulted in a more limited presence for them in skilled construction work. As historian Mark W. Kruman points out: "By 1930, black workers had obtained a foothold in the northern construction workforce, but the low proportion of skilled construction workers who were black suggests that the foothold was a tenuous one." Davis-Bacon was soon to help destroy that foothold in both the North and South.
The story of Davis-Bacon begins in 1927 when a contractor from Alabama won a bid to build a Veterans' Bureau Hospital on Long Island, N.Y., and brought a crew of blacks from Alabama to work on the job. Appalled that blacks from the South were working on a Federal project in his district, Rep. Robert Bacon (R.-N.Y.) submitted H.R. 17069, "A Bill to Require Contractors and Subcontractors Engaged on Public Works of the United States to Comply with State Laws Relating to Hours of Labor and Wages of Employees on State Public Works," the antecedent of the Davis-Bacon Act.
The discriminatory implications of Bacon's bill were recognized immediately. On the floor of the House, Rep. William Upshaw (D.-Ga.) said: "You will not think that a southern man is more than human if he smiles over the fact of your reaction to that real problem you are confronted with in any community with a superabundance or large aggregation of Negro labor."
Over the next four years, Bacon introduced 13 more bills to establish regulation of labor on Federal public works projects. Finally, a bill submitted by Bacon and Sen. James J. Davis (R.-Pa.), with the support of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), passed in 1931. The law provided that all Federal construction contractors with contracts in excess of $5,000 must pay their employees the "prevailing wage," which, in practice, meant that of unionized labor.
The measure passed because Congressmen saw the bill as protection for local, unionized white workers' salaries in the fierce labor market of the Depression. …