Labor History

The Davis-Bacon Act of 1931

In 1931, laws were enacted both in Washington and in Wisconsin to guarantee fair competition on federal and state construction projects. Over the years these laws, the Davis-Bacon Act and the state Prevailing Wage law, have become recognized by workers both inside and outside the construction industry, as important milestones in the history of organized labor.

It is fitting that workers, particularly those in construction, understand the important role prevailing wage laws have played over the years in protecting workers on public works projects. It is equally important to remember the conditions and circumstances under which these laws got on the books.

Today, many people believe the Davis-Bacon Act was a product of the great depression. While it is true the Davis-Bacon Act was passed two years after the stock market crash of 1929, the fact is the Act had little to do with the so-called “pump-priming” policies of that era.

By the time the Davis-Bacon Act became law, seven states had already enacted prevailing wage statutes — most notably, Kansas, which passed the first state prevailing wage law in 1891.

New York also had a prevailing wage statute on the books before the turn of the century, nearly 30 years before the first version of the Act was introduce in Congress in 1926 — in the midst of the roaring twenties.

By the middle of the 1920s, the United States government was already greatly involved in heavy construction projects ranging from flood control and dam building to expanding and housing the institutions of government.

Federal and state governments were preparing to become even more active and sought to protect themselves from falling victim to “fly-by-night” “cut throat” contractors who performed “shoddy” work with “exploited”, “low-skilled” and “imported” workforce.

Interestingly enough, those were not the words of labor, but were the words of the bill’s primary sponsors, Congressman Robert Bacon and Pennsylvania Senator James Davis, who viewed their bill not so much as a means to protect workers, but more as a way of providing some market stability in what was, and still is, an inherently unstable construction industry.

Then as now, construction is a time and materials industry. Low bid requirements on public projects allowed contractors from outside an area to bid and win work based on substandard wages and helped create the situation where contractors literally “imported” low-wage workers from around the country rather than use the local labor force.

Abuses were wide spread in the years preceding the Acts passage. Bacon, a former Banker, explained the need for the law when he detailed for his colleagues during debate on the bill how a construction firm from Alabama transported thousands of unskilled workers to a public project in New York.

“They were herded onto this job, they were housed in shacks, they were paid a very low wage, and ... it seems to me that the federal government should not engage in construction work in any state and undermine the labor conditions and the labor wages paid in that state.”

Davis, the former Secretary of Labor under Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, went on to argue that “the least the Federal Government can do is comply with the local standards of wages and labor prevailing in the locality where the building construction is to take place.”

By establishing a local wage standard that contractors had to pay workers on public projects, the authors intended to provide a level playing field on which contractors could compete for work based on wages that “prevailed” in the area, rather than rewarding the practice of slashing worker’s wages in order to win work.

Laborers of the period, because so many were recent immigrants, because they performed “unskilled” work, and because they were easily replaced, were particularly vulnerable to these practices. Recognizing the direct impact of the Act of protecting Laborers, the General Executive Board of the Laborers International Union voted to endorse the Davis-Bacon Act in 1931.

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