1937: SR 3 Construction, Unions and Unskilled Labor

Author’s note: Before I begin, this is a discussion about labor and labor unions, and an instance where the two didn’t get along. This is simply reporting that instance. I am not taking a side either way. It is a period in transportation history that has happened, and hence, should be covered in Indiana Transportation History. My hope is that it doesn’t turn into a discussion of the pros and cons of unions. I want to use my journalism training to objectively look at the subject.

For decades, the law in Indiana required local people to help with maintaining the roads on which the lived. This was continued during the Toll Road era of travel, where local residents helped maintain the road, then paid for the right to use it. By the time the Indiana State Highway Commission was created, the labor requirement had been dropped…but farmers and local residents were still helping with road work. That began to change in Southern Indiana in 1937.

1936 Indiana Official Highway Map showing
the then current SR 3 and the pending
new SR 3 between North Vernon and Westport.

Farmers and unskilled laborers were accustomed to getting temporary jobs on road projects at that time. According to the Indianapolis Star of 18 September 1937, this caused major conflict between those unskilled workers and union labor organizers active at the construction sites. Union organizers were requiring a $15 union initiation fee to get a job on these road construction jobs. (One could pay in payments, but $5 had to be paid before a worker would be allowed on the worksite.) This was causing some temporary workers to rebel.

What didn’t help matters is the fact that there was a major state road under construction that had the possibility of being closed for the third winter season in a row, “due to constant strikes or shut downs.” State law at that time required that unskilled laborers could only work in the county in which they lived. Most of the workers realized that paying both a $15 fee (or, as they called it, “buying a job”) and union dues would be useless once the current construction project was completed, since they couldn’t go to the next job in the next county.

1937 Indiana Official Highway Map of SR 3
construction. The old SR 3 is no longer shown
on the map…but the new route is still under
construction.

And while this discontent was continuing, a 14 mile section of State Road 3 north from North Vernon was in a holding pattern…upsetting those that depended on that road.

The union organizers required not only the $15 initiation fee, but $2 a month for union dues. The concern of the unskilled workers is that was a lot of money, especially to those that were on public relief or hired by the Works Progress Administration. “It is a virtual bar to those” in that situation.

Another concern among the workers was the shortened work hours. Most workers, at the time, worked 48 hours a week. But union limits shortened work days to five or six hours. This was at a time when the state bid sheets specified unskilled laborers make less than $1 an hour. Also, the United States was still in the midst of the Great Depression. Work, and therefore money, were hard to come by.

“Workers say the big labor turnover on the job is caused by the desire of the union to get a larger number of men to pay initiation fees. Some of the workers who paid all or a part of their initiation fee have been discharged.”

On the other side, there were no provisions in either State or Federal projects when it came to unionization. But state regulations were in place when it came to the work hours and wages to be paid. The Indiana Highway Constructors, the state organization of road contractors, entered into an agreement with the Hod Carrier’s Union for employee representation. The Hod Carrier’s Union mainly dealt with building trades in America’s largest cities. The agreement provided that the contractor work with Union workers first. If none are available, then non-union workers can be used. Once on the job, union stewards would encourage the unorganized to join the union.

The agreement also a scale of wages in southern Indiana of 50 cents per hour, meaning when construction was going full bore, the best that workers could hope for was $18 to $20 a week.

There were other things not helping get workers a temporary job. To get a temporary road job, the worker must be registered and given a number by the state employment service. This was a leftover from when the state had a bigger unemployment problem earlier in the Depression era.

Things would change quite a bit after the end of the Great Depression. Regulations would be changed, and there was to be more separation between local labor and road construction contractors. But this particular incident could have led to local residents taking the road construction into their own hands to get that section of State Road 3 opened for use after two years.

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