11. THE JOBS THAT PAID TOO MUCH

Hopkins’s success at job making had two consequences. The first was budgetary. Having already demonstrated that he could spend $5 million in two hours, he had no trouble burning through the CWA’s $400 million in three months. In mid-January, with the coffers running low, Roosevelt at Hopkins’s request asked the Congress for $950 million more, $450 million to keep the program going through the winter and then wind it down, and $500 million for the direct relief that would be needed when the jobs disappeared.

The second consequence was psychological. Among the workers, the euphoria of finally having paychecks faded with the falling needles of the Christmas trees, and in its place rose concerns about pay and job conditions. And the 4 million jobs still left some 9 million unemployed, spurring protests among those who had failed to land on the CWA rosters. The mayor of Chelsea, Massachusetts, Lawrence F. Quigley, wrote Hopkins in January to report that the unemployed in his town continued to be the lopsided majority. While 155 Chelseans worked at CWA jobs, 2,000 remained out of work and had taken their anger to city hall, where they were apparently milling inside the building as Quigley composed his letter. It would take only a spark, he wrote, to “change them into a mob.” He also suggested that the government, having acknowledged its responsibility by creating a jobs program, now was obliged to “put every unemployed man to work.”

Lorena Hickok, writing from Georgia on her first trip into the Deep South, reported a conversation with Lincoln McConnell, the state reemployment director. A day or two before he talked to Hickok, McConnell had been in the north Georgia town of Carnesville, where 1,800 men had registered for jobs. Told that the quota was filled and no jobs were available, the men threatened to riot, burn trucks, and sack the CWA offices.

At the same time that the CWA was facing the anger of men it hadn’t been able to employ, Hopkins had to cut the pay of those it had. With money running low and Roosevelt’s request for additional funds still pending, he wanted to stretch what was left of the $400 million as far as he could. When it began, the CWA had adopted the Public Works Administration pay scale, which for unskilled labor was 40 cents an hour in the Southern Zone, 45 cents an hour in the Central Zone, which included most of the Midwest and West, and 50 cents an hour in the industrial Northern Zone. Skilled workers made from $1 to $1.20. Unskilled and skilled laborers could work only thirty hours a week, clerical workers and professionals thirty-nine.

The pay rates were based on prevailing wages in the different regions of the country but were supposed to be low enough not to compete with private jobs. Farmers in the South, however, were used to paying black and poor white farm hands as little as 5 cents an hour. Southern politicians protested that the CWA wages would lure workers from the fields and leave farmers unable to plow their fields or plant their crops. These protests also had a racial component: as little as a white farm owner might pay white laborers for hoeing corn and picking cotton, it was an unspoken rule in the old plantation belt that he would pay his black workers even less.

The loudest protester of all was the governor of Georgia, Eugene Talmadge. Talmadge was a flamboyant, suspender-snapping country lawyer who had ridden into office on the farm vote. He opposed relief in general and federal relief in particular, and considered all the people on relief as “bums and loafers.” This judgment fell heavily on his constituents, since 28 percent of Georgians received some form of assistance. City dwellers on relief were a cut below the average; he viewed them as chiselers trying to “outsmart you,” while outside the cities reliefers were merely victims of temptation, being lured by fancy wages to abandon the moral virtues of a day’s work in the hot sun. Even the lowest payments were too much, since farmers typically paid black tenants $3 a week for an entire family’s labor during the planting and harvest seasons. Talmadge even opposed the CCC, deriding the goverment for letting “a lot of young fellows run around in the woods” and paying them for it; they were bums and loafers too.

Talmadge had set out from the beginning to frustrate FERA and the system of federal relief, installing patronage hacks to do his bidding. Field representative Alan Johnstone had reported to Hopkins in September 1933 that “days and weeks of delay interrupt the organization. Appointments are held up. The Governor insists on signing every check. Wants to know the name and address of every person on staff and almost the name and address of every person on relief. Harasses the administration by continued criticism.

“In order to do in Georgia what ought to be done,” Johnstone recommended, “it is literally necessary to take the State of Georgia away from Talmadge on the question of relief and the whole relief program.”

With the advent of CWA, Talmadge had renewed his complaints and continued to undermine the program. He fired the director of the women’s division, nurse Jane Van de Vrede, on the grounds that she was not a Georgia native and therefore could not understand Georgians’ problems. And he forwarded to the White House a note that a constituent had sent him protesting the wage scale: “I wouldn’t plow nobody’s mule from sunrise to sunset for 50 cents a day when I could get $1.30 for pretending to work on a DITCH.”

Roosevelt, no fan of Talmadge, dictated a withering reply that eventually went to Talmadge over Hopkins’s signature. “I take it…'that you approve of paying farm labor 40 to 50 cents per day.” Calculating that this amounted to $60 to $75 a year for seasonal farm work, he added, “I cannot get it into my head that wages on such a scale make possible a reasonable American standard of living.”

Speaking for himself, Hopkins was more direct: “All that guy is after is headlines,” he said of Talmadge. “He never contributes a dime, yet he’s always yapping. Some people can’t stand to see others making a living wage.”

Hopkins said that since Talmadge didn’t want CWA jobs in Georgia, he would shut down the state program and use the money elsewhere. This triggered a flood of telegrams and letters from Georgia congressmen, local officials, and citizens urging him to keep the works program intact. With that ammunition, Hopkins used his power to federalize the program, dissolving the Talmadge-appointed relief board and naming a professional social work administrator, Gay Shepperson, to run the state program, reporting to him and not to Talmadge. At the same time he reinstated Van de Vrede as head of the women’s division. It was the first time, but not the last, that Hopkins would take a state work program from its politicians and run it through his own appointees.

The southern protests over CWA wages died down when, for budgetary reasons, the CWA cut workers’ hours to twenty-four a week in cities over 2,500 and to fifteen in rural areas. That cut the average weekly pay nationally from around $15 to $11.52, and below $10 in most places in the South.

Hickok wrote Hopkins from the southern Georgia town of Moultrie on January 23, 1934: “It meant cutting most of them from $9 to $7.20 and $4.50 a week and from $12 to $9.60 or $6, depending on whether they lived in Moultrie or out in the country and what kind of work they were doing.” But the consensus, she said, was that even the reduced pay was “better than being laid off.”

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