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A Labor Inspector During the Great Depression

Barney L. Flanagan
Historical Quarterly 54 Summer 1986

When you go to a road worker who is swinging along, whistling blithely while toting a ninety-six-pound bag of portland cement in each hand, and say to him, “Sorry, buddy, but you can’t work here,” you have to have a pretty good reason. When he tosses each bag onto a waist-high pile by the mere flip of his wrist and forearm, brushes off a pair of big strong hands, and says, “Who the hell says I can’t—” you had better have an answer ready, and it had better be good.

The American worker was never finer than he was in the dark days of the Great Depression when he asked for nothing more than parity with his fellow workers—no favors, no gravy—just parity. He showed clearly that he could take the bitter with the sweet in stride just as long as he felt that he was being treated no worse than the others. When the chips were down and the babies crying, the American worker grew rebellious only when he got the idea that he was being shown some form of unfair treatment. The big fellow who was tossing bags of cement around was typical.

My job as inspector for the Utah State Highway Commission’s hiring committee put me in touch and kept me in touch with hundreds of families who were destitute or nearly so. Homes without furniture—because the family could not keep up the payments—were common. Beds consisting of blankets—sometimes a mattress—on the floor were not uncommon, and in more than one home the old-time wooden orange crate served as chair and table.

The hiring committee was a product of the pre-New Deal effort to meet the economic crisis. In mid-1932 the Congress appropriated money for accelerated federal highway aid programs in an effort to alleviate distress in some areas at least. To keep the road contractors from filling the work crews with friends and relatives, the regulations issued from Washington provided that all hiring must be done from lists supplied the contractor by a hiring committee. The workweek was cut to thirty hours to spread the work a little further. Utah went one step beyond that and requested the road contractors to use a man for thirty hours only and then replace him with someone else. This meant that a worker would have a chance to earn a little less than fifteen dollars (thirty hours at forty eight cents an hour) and then give way to someone else. The contractors agreed to this restriction but declared that the responsibility for enforcing it must fall upon the inspector of the hiring committee. That put a double burden on me. First, I had to make sure that the men who were on a contractor’s payroll on a specific job had been chosen from the list provided by the committee. Then, I had to “wash up” a man who had his pittance of thirty hours and replace him with another from the list.

I would get the daily work record of each man on five to six highway crews—close to 200 persons considering that the contractors had a gang in the morning and another in the afternoon. My wife and I would go over these slips each evening, listing the hours worked by each man. That took considerable time each night, but the next day I would have in hand the records needed to sort out those who had worked their allotted hours. It was in this capacity that I met the man who toyed with heavy sacks.

My routine was to go through each road gang in my territory twice a day, morning and afternoon, because most contractors worked one shift five hours before lunch and another shift five hours after lunch. It was on one of my morning rounds that I met this man Smith, which, by the way, was his real name. The contractor who had put him on the job illegally faded away when he saw me coming through the gang. I told Smith, politely but firmly, that he could not work there because he was not on the list provided by the hiring committee. As he walked past me, he leaned over and said softly, “I’m goin’ to put you in the hospital for this.” Then he went over to the fire that is part of highway operations during cold weather. I continued my journey through the gang, finding four or five others who did not belong there and chasing them just as I had Smith.

I will admit that I was not at all cheerful when I got through the gang, for Smith was still standing there by the fire, apparently waiting for me to finish my chore before he started his operations on me. I figured that there was no use ducking the issue, so I went over to the fire and took my place on the side opposite him. He was silent for a minute or so and then said, “You don’t play favorites, do you?”

“I do not, “I replied. “In this job it is necessary to hew to the line.”

“I knew there were several others on the job this morning who did not belong there,” he said. “When you chased me, I thought you were picking on me for some reason. I was mad. When I saw you chase the others, I knew you were treating us all alike. That’s all I care about, but I do hope that one of these days I can get on the job for a few days.”

On a couple of occasions in the ensuing months, there were murmurs from dissidents that I should have my “block knocked off.” But Smith rose to the occasion. “I have appointed myself to do Flanagan’s fighting for him,” he said, “before you lick him, you lick me.” During two construction seasons I had no difficulty in walking right through groups of 500 to 700 workers gathered around the place where the hiring committee met. No one was after my scalp. The men had learned that there were no favorites. That’s all they asked.

For a long while I doubted the wisdom of giving a man thirty hours’ employment and then replacing him with another who would get thirty hours and be replaced by another man. But as fall went into winter, I began to see some point to it. There were not nearly enough road jobs to keep the unemployed busy. Other work programs were slow in forming. The dinky thirty hours a man got gave him a big lift psychologically. He knew he had not been forgotten. Even those who were not fortunate enough to get the meager employment felt better because they knew that some effort was being made, and this knowledge was a big help while the other work programs were being formulated and put into operation.

The creation of the hiring committee put the contractors on the spot with former employees. We helped the contractors to some extent by an agreement that said, in effect, “for every six of the men we send you, you may put on one of your own men as a sort of ‘key man.'” The ‘key men’ worked thirty hours a week but were permitted to come back week after week. But when old road workers kept pressing, the contractors often gave in and said, “O.K., go to work, but when Flanagan comes around he’ll run you off the job.”

This was rather rough on me, but it was worth it. The committee made no bones about the run-of-the-mill nature of the hiring list. Sometimes there would be a road worker listed and right next to him a ribbon clerk. Some men earned their money; some did the best they could, but their shovels got heavy long before the day was over. The contractors played along with us. They pushed the good men a little harder and were tolerant of poor ones. Once in a while a contractor would tell me about a particularly hard job he had for the next week and ask for the best man we could get. In those instances the hiring committee acceded to the wish and listed the best available.

There were few telephones in the homes of the working class. Those who had had them preferred to use their dwindling savings for food instead of convenience. That meant that among my other duties I had to scurry up help personally if the need was urgent and the contractor could not wait for the mail to bring the listed workers in. One day I witnessed a heart-warming exhibition of fortitude. I knocked at a door and a feminine voice asked me to come in because she could not come to the door. I went in and saw a bare front room. In the kitchen was a young mother giving her baby a bath. The tub was on an apple box that doubled as a table. An orange crate and an old stove completed the kitchen furniture. There were a few dishes in a wall cupboard. The young lady saw me looking around and suggested that I tour the other two rooms. Another apple box with a pillow in it was evidently the baby’s bed. The family bed was on the floor. The creditors had taken everything except her smile, her good nature, and her optimism—and her clean floors. There was not a complaint or a tear. She was happy when she heard her husband could get something or other that they wanted for the baby. That was the most destitute home I visited during those times, but I saw many almost as wanting. But I did not ever find a dirty home, nor a home in which there was dissatisfaction or complaint.

Transportation was often one of the difficulties for these thirty-hour men. Many had lost their cars along with their furniture. The jobs were from three to ten miles from towns, but the men somehow found ways of getting to the job.

One day I thought I was doing a man a favor by telling him when his shift ended, that he had completed twenty-eight hours and that he need not come back the next day. I simply did not think it would be worth coming ten miles to work two hours and get ninety-six cents. He didn’t say anything at the time. About 8 P.M. the fellow showed up in my backyard. I happened to know that he lived five miles from my home. He asked if he could not come out the next day and get the ninety-six cents to which he was entitled. He told me he had walked all the way from his home and planned on walking back. That’s how much he needed the money, and that is what he was willing to do to get it—walk ten miles and work two hours, plus find some way to get another ten miles to work and the same ten miles back.

I assured him that he could get his two hours on the job, and I gave him carfare home. Next day when his two hours were up, I washed him up just as I did anyone who had completed his time. I hated to do it, but any deviation from the hard and fast would have opened the floodgates that I rather prided myself on keeping closed. He, also, became one of my boosters and stood up to be counted once or twice when someone made what he considered unfitting remarks. I will always remember and take off my hat to the man who knew what ninety-six cents would do for his family and was willing to make a triple effort to get it. So I salute an old friend, Marti Salotti, wherever he is.

One day I had just gone through a group of men working on a road construction job and culled out half a dozen who had not been secured through the hiring committee. One fellow named Dave Rice, who had been sitting on a stack of lumber watching the proceedings, invited me to come over and sit down. He came to the point quickly. “See those two men on the far end of the longitudinal float (a hard-labor device used in smoothing new concrete in those days)—Well, they are both enginemen—work about eight months of the year and earn more than $2,000 a year each. I can’t run an engine or do anything but hard work. I work about six months a year and usually get about $90 a month. Now you have given one of those fellows my job. What right has he to have his own job in busy times and then in slack times get the only thing I know how to do?” I had no answer for Dave Rice, but I did see that he got on the hiring list and got a job for the rest of the season.

When policies were being formulated in the early days of the Employment Security Administration, the lesson Dave Rice taught me was put into effect. No skilled man was ever offered an unskilled job under my administration as long as there were unskilled men available to do it. That was not coddling the skilled man or kowtowing to the unions. It was merely applying common sense as set forth by Dave Rice.

My work during the early days of the Great Depression as labor inspector, secretary of the highway hiring committee, or whatever name the job might have had, was preliminary to a program close to my heart for many years—unemployment insurance or, in its larger meaning, employment security.