August 10, 2005

Davis-Bacon Act

In a discussion of the Davis-Bacon Act on labor wages and a John Stossel piece against it at QandO, the negative effects against unskilled and poor laborers are highlighted. What's left unsaid is that the exclusionary effect was the intent of the legislation.

The debate on the bill was full of comments about migrant workers, cheap labor, unskilled labor and so forth that were being transported from the South to perform basic duties in Northern jobs. At the time, the vast majority of such workers, especially in the South, were black. This was part of the debate as well, though usually the masked terms like 'cheap' and 'migrant' labor were used. Representative Clayton Algood came right out and said that cheap "colored" labor transported in and housed in cabins for the duration of a job were in competition with "white labor" throughout the country.

The point of Davis-Bacon was to keep black workers from dominating certain construction industry positions and from competing with white laborers. It gave unions a great deal of power both since the 'prevailing wage' was often explicitly the union wage (in areas where 30% of the relevant workforce was unionized) and because they had control over the apprenticeship process and the trained labor. As mentioned at QandO, when you're forced to pay expert wages, you're going to want to hire expert laborers. Union men were hired and had to be paid union wages, and the union membership process was often quite racist and even ethnically determined (Irish unions, Italian unions, etc.).

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