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September 15, 2005

Is Davis-Bacon Racist?

Professing a newfound horror at employment discrimination, conservatives like RedState.org and Cato Institute are reviving the hoary argument that Davis-Bacon is racist. Instead of giving my own response to their argument, let me quote Bayard Rustin, the great civil rights organizer, in his response to Nixon's suspension of Davis-Bacon a generation ago. (Don't know who Rustin is, shame, shame, and read here and here.)

Here was Bayard Rustin's scathing view of the gambit of Republicans of trying to pit the interests of unions against African Americans in his famous Harpers article, The Blacks and the Unions, a piece that also raked over liberals who bought into their arguments:

The truth about the situation of the Negro today is that there are powerful forces, composed largely of the corporate elite and Southern conservatives, which will resist any change in the economic or racial structure of this country that might cut into their resources or challenge their status; and such is precisely what any program genuinely geared to improve his lot must do...
Of all the misconceptions about the labor movement that have been so lovingly dwelt on in the liberal press, perhaps none is put forth more often and is further from the truth than that the unions are of and for white people...the percentage of blacks in the unions is a good deal higher than the percentage of blacks in the total population...

[T]he President's approach to the problem of inflation in construction costs cannot succeed since he has made the typical businessman's error of identifying wages as the major inflationary factor...The concern with increasing the supply while reducing the cost of labor is what motivated the Nixon administration's most recent act in the construction field-the suspension of the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act...land and financing, not labor, have been the major causes of inflation in construction. Nevertheless, the President continues his crusade against "wage inflation."

The suspension of the Act will not directly affect the wages of unionized workers who are protected by their contract. It will, however, enable contractors to cut the wages of nonunion workers, and this, in turn, should encourage the employment of these workers instead of the higher paid unionists. Thus, there will be fewer jobs for organized workers (there is already an 11 per cent unemployment rate in the construction industry), and the bargaining power of the unions will be weakened. Since many of the unorganized workers are nonwhite, it might be argued that this is a boon to their fortunes since they will be more likely to find work. Aside from the fact that they will be working for lower wages, the question is again raised whether it is in the interests of blacks to let themselves be used by employers to hurt unions. I do not think that it is. Their interests lie in becoming part of the trade union movement...

The blacks have a choice. They can fight to strengthen the trade union movement by wiping out the vestiges of segregation that remain in it, or they can, knowingly or unknowingly, offer themselves as pawns in the conservatives' game of bust-the-unions.

Rustin was not blind to the continued discrimination in parts of the building trade union sector. But he saw the attack on the unions by the rightwing as obviously opportunistic given their lack of action in other areas of non-union discrimination:
Racial discrimination exists in the building trades. It is unjustifiable by any moral standard, and as to the objective of rooting it out there can be no disagreement among people of good will...

Why, in fact, would a President who has developed a "Southern strategy," who has cut back on school integration efforts, tried to undermine the black franchise by watering down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, nominated to the Supreme Court men like Haynsworth and Carswell, cut back on funds for vital social programs, and proposed a noxious crime bill for Washington, DC, which is nothing less than a blatant appeal to white fear-why indeed would such a President take up the cause of integration in the building trades?..

The advantages to the Republicans from this kind of strategy should be obvious. Nixon supports his friends among the corporate elite and hurts his enemies in the unions. He also gains a convenient cover for his anti-Negro policies in the South, and, above all, he weakens his political opposition by aggravating the differences between its two strongest and most progressive forces-the labor movement and the civil rights movement.

With small modification, this whole piece could be reprinted to highlight how a Bush administration, oblivious to continued racism in a range of industries, suddenly uses Katrina and the supposed discriminatory impact of Davis-Bacon to launch an assault on decent wages in the construction industry down South.

But the bottom-line of Rustin's piece remains. The problems of black poverty will not be solved by dividing work into a larger number of ever lower-paid jobs, but through a commitment to full employment of all workers at decent wages that can be a ladder to the middle class.

If Katrina opens up a building boom of jobs at decent levels, its Reconstruction can be the basis of building a new expanded middle class of black workers in the South, with the wages and training to continue in the building trades and associated high-skill services for the future.

Or it can be the conversion of the building sector into a permanent sweatshop sector that ends up being not a ladder, but a trap-door to permanent poverty wages for all in the sector.

With an estimated $200 billions to be spent on reconstruction, the choice between those two options is stark. Bayard Rustin was clear on the cynical purposes of the rightwing GOP in promoting the latter approach.

One wonders if liberals will be vigilant enough to make fighting for the first option the centerpiece of their fight in the Katrina aftermath.

Posted by Nathan at September 15, 2005 08:39 AM