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Prevailing wage law passed after Alabama workers built Northport VA

One of the first buildings at the Northport

One of the first buildings at the Northport VA Medical Center soon after it was completed in the late 1920s. The buildings' construction by an Alabama contractor gave rise to the federal prevailing wage law, the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931. Credit: Northport VA Medical Center.

The Northport VA Medical Center gave rise to the federal law stipulating that the prevailing wage be paid on federal building projects, according to historians and federal records.

The use of an out-of-state contractor and workers to construct the local hospital in the 1920s led Rep. Robert L. Bacon (R-Old Westbury) to propose what became the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931. The act is still in force, though it has been amended through the years. The hospital was in Bacon’s district.

Speaking at a 1927 congressional hearing, Bacon said several New York State contractors were outbid for the hospital’s construction because they included the state’s prevailing wage in their bids, which the successful bidder, from Alabama, had not done.

The out-of-state contractor “brought some thousand nonunion laborers from Alabama,” Bacon said.  “They were herded onto this job, they were housed in shacks, they were paid a very low wage.”

He continued: “It seemed 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. …The least the federal government can do is comply with the local standards of wages.”

Bacon’s bill languished until it was sponsored in the Senate by John Davis (R-Pa.) a former labor secretary under three presidents, including Herbert Hoover. The bill was signed into law by Hoover in 1931.

More recently, opponents of the prevailing wage, such as columnist George F. Will, have asserted Bacon was upset because some of the workers on the Northport hospital's construction were black. But neither he nor Davis spoke of race in the period leading up to the legislation’s overwhelming adoption, according to congressional records.

“For Bacon, the issue was not race,” economists Hamid Azari-Rad and Peter Philips said in “The Economics of Prevailing Wage Laws” (Ashgate, 2005). “The issue was that both black and white workers from Alabama were being paid very much less than the wage scale prevailing in New York.”

The original hospital buildings are no longer in use and will be demolished next year, a VA spokesman said.

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