Those jobs were not embraced enthusiastically in every case. For the 2 million workers employed on FERA projects, the WPA’s security wage scale meant a big change, especially for those in the skilled trades. They had been receiving the local prevailing hourly wage rate for their jobs and skill levels. That meant their hours were limited according to their pay; skilled workers in New York had worked anywhere from four to eight 8-hour days a month to earn a $60 paycheck. But under the WPA’s new rules, these workers were lumped into a single category that required them to work 120 hours in a month for $93.50; they made more but they worked more, too, with fewer opportunities for moonlighting. Non-professional white-collar workers such as clerks and typists took a smaller pay cut from their FERA pay rates of $55 to $60 a month, but with the new rules limiting WPA jobs to one per family, and paying workers every two weeks instead of weekly, they, too, saw reason to protest.
In August, George Meany of the Central Trades and Labor Council had called a city-wide strike of skilled WPA labor in New York. A number of jobs were under way in the city, most of them FERA carryovers, and the labor boss meant to test the administration’s will. Walkouts had already shut down several jobs, including a Lower East Side low-income housing project and an Olympic-size swimming pool at Highbridge Park in upper Manhattan—one of eleven large pools that parks commissioner Robert Moses was building throughout the city using WPA labor. And the discontent was not confined to New York: both spontaneous and planned strikes were occurring all over the country. Strike sentiment was strengthening as well among white-collar and professional workers, especially young men who were liable to be assigned to “light manual labor” such as sewer cleaning and snow removal under WPA rules.
Hopkins responded by ordering that any worker who refused a WPA job could not receive federal home relief funds. “No one has to work who does not want to,” he said. “Those declining to work will go off our rolls and what happens to them after that is not our business.” Roosevelt backed him up. This left mayors and governors facing the question of whether they should pay relief from their own treasuries to support the families of workers who refused to work.
Meany had called the New York strike for August 12, a Monday. He predicted that more than 10,000 tradesmen would pack their tools and shut down jobs across the city, but at the end of the day it appeared that Hopkins’s and Roosevelt’s “work or starve” order had broken the strike before it started. General Hugh Johnson, the city’s WPA administrator, reported that 656 workers had stayed off the job, fewer than during the spontaneous walkouts of the week before.
But as time went on, the unions persisted in pulling workers off the job and disrupting the WPA’s construction schedules. Strikers threw stones at men who kept working on the Lower East Side housing project in New York, and in Jasper, Alabama, a WPA truck driver was peppered with birdshot as he prepared to drive a truckload of workers to a job that strikers had shut down.
The widespread shutdowns slowed both work schedules and the WPA’s efforts to pull more people off the relief rolls into jobs. Hopkins first tried to rub out individual trouble spots. The WPA had three tiers of wages, ranging from Classification 1, in the industrial Northeast and Midwest and California, to Classification 3, in the South and other rural areas. Iowa was one of the in-between states that fell into Classification 2, but in mid-August Hopkins bumped Iowa up to Classification 1 on the grounds that its living expenses were just as high as its neighbors. The change, he said, was “in the normal course of events” and not a response to strikes and protests. As a result, unskilled laborers made $8 more a month and professional workers got a $15-a-month raise. By the end of August, New York workers at the low end of the scale saw their pay raised from $55 to $60.50 a month.
In September, with the pace of work still lagging and the unions still able to keep their workers off the job, the WPA compromised. It took a step back toward prevailing wages, creating an exception to the security wage in “exceptional and unusual circumstances.” In New York, this allowed skilled laborers to work 80 hours a month for their $93.50, an effective hourly rate of $1.17. It was less than the $1.50 the unions wanted, but far better than the 78 cents they would have made working for 120 hours. This, combined with the fact that the WPA was in the process of abandoning biweekly paychecks and going back to paying every week, caused Meany to call off the strike. Union locals across the country followed Meany’s lead, and the WPA was back in business.
Just as the wage issues were being resolved, the outsized personalities at the center of WPA activities in New York produced a round of political name-calling. Inevitably, the imperious Robert Moses was involved. Acting in his usual bullying style, Moses complained that while he now had 11,000 WPA workers to labor on improving city parks, Johnson had provided him no supervisors to oversee them. “As a result,” he said, “hundreds of men have been lying around in the parks, doing absolutely nothing except jeering at workers, shooting craps, drinking and generally creating a nuisance and a menace to the public.” They were “bums,” he charged, and he threatened to “clean them out.” The WPA itself was “arrogant” and “stupid.”
Many of these men were homeless boardinghouse residents. Others lacked work clothes, which prompted the city’s Emergency Relief Bureau, in charge of moving workers from home to work relief, to request a clothing appropriation from the city. The bureau had in mind workers such as Mick Frank, an unemployed garment center pleater who had a wife and six children—including triplets who made the front page of the Daily News when they were born on July 15, 1927—and who had only a threadbare suit to wear to his WPA job at Jacob Riis Park on Jamaica Bay. Such inadequate work garb and his own rancorous behavior gave Moses’s complaints a tinge of high-handedness. Johnson would have none of it. “We don’t call them riffraff. We call them unemployed,” he retorted, and Mayor La Guardia said he resented “any slander or slur on hundreds of thousands of men who, through no fault of their own, can’t wear a tuxedo when they go to work for Mr. Moses.”
But Moses, as usual, got the best of the exchange. Johnson agreed to supply almost 700 foremen, taking some from other WPA projects, in order to keep the park work going. He had previously announced that he would step down on October 15, and he said that with his self-imposed deadline only a month away, he did not want to keep debating Moses in the newspapers. By the middle of September, some 36,000 WPA workers were laboring in city parks.
But Johnson, Moses, and La Guardia were merely a sideshow to the main event in Washington. The Hopkins-Ickes feud had reached the point in mid-September where Roosevelt needed to step in. During the summer, after Ickes pleaded for a “demarcation” between the contending agencies, the president had written a short memo to Hopkins expressing the hope that the two would “work out some plan” to curtail their competition, but unsurprisingly, this had had no effect. So far, Ickes had not received a single penny from the $4.8 billion work relief fund beyond the original $250 million given to the PWA for slum clearance and housing. Applications still flowed overwhelmingly to the WPA, and when they did not, Hopkins continued to exercise his de facto veto power over the PWA applications, arguing that the program did not employ enough labor from the relief rolls. The battle between the two men was an open secret, the subject of news coverage, vigorous opinion columns, and sardonic cartoons. In the Columbus Evening Dispatch, cartoonist Raymond Oscar Evans drew Hopkins and Ickes in a kitchen, apron-clad, fighting over a mound of “PWA dough.” Hopkins is filling pie tins labeled “Jobs,” while Ickes complains, “T’ain’t fair—you come into MY kitchen and use MY DOUGH for YOUR PIES.” Ickes had indeed been complaining, issuing statements to the press that the projects Hopkins was blocking were “all good projects,” and that in the original approval process, “no individual member was given the right to veto a project.” For his part, Hopkins insisted he was far too busy to be waging turf wars. “Mr. Ickes and I have no quarrel,” he said. “I have a job to do and am going to do it.”
The president summoned the two of them, as well as Frank Walker, the third member of the so-called relief cabinet, and a few others, to Hyde Park to settle matters. Hopkins emerged from the meeting a clear winner. Ickes already had substantial projects under way from the first two years of relief appropriations, but of the $4.8 billion voted that spring he ended up with less than $500 million. Hopkins got the rest. He won on the numbers, as he had from the beginning. Even with the wage increases gained by the trade unions, it cost the Treasury an average of $82 a month to provide a WPA job versus $330 a month for a PWA job, and the WPA jobs cut the relief rolls. Roosevelt wanted men—and women—working. He had given up any immediate plans for balancing the budget, but he wanted to avoid falling deeper into the red than necessary.
Later in the month, Roosevelt offered the two hard-driving men a rest cure that both needed and had earned. Hopkins had learned in July that he had a duodenal ulcer, for which the prescription was “nothing to drink and a strict diet.” Ickes had lost his wife, Anna, in an automobile crash in New Mexico in August, and though the couple had long been estranged, the funeral and family details had been difficult and draining. The president’s plan was a cross-country trip culminating in a sea cruise. The party left Washington late on September 26, arrived in Los Angeles on October 1, and sailed aboard the USS Houston out of San Diego the next day.
The Houston was a heavy cruiser of the Northampton class, 600 feet long, sheathed in armor and bristling with guns, with a crew of more than 600. She was Roosevelt’s favorite ship. She was destined to be sunk by an overwhelming Japanese force off the island of Java early in 1942, but now she gleamed with new paint and her crew’s pride at the president’s attentions. As the commander in chief and his guests fished and played poker and blackjack, the ship took in Cocos Island, halfway between Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands, then passed through the Panama Canal on its way to the journey’s end in Charleston, South Carolina. Neither Hopkins nor Ickes was known for outdoor pursuits, and the sight of them at sea produced some amused coverage in a tongue-in-cheek special edition of the onboard newspaper, to which Hopkins was probably the main contributor: “Hopkins, as usual, was dressed in his immaculate blues, browns and whites, his fine figure making a pretty sight with the moon-drifted sea in the foreground.
“Ickes wore his conventional faded grays, Mona Lisa smile and carried his stamp collection.”
Their feud was pronounced buried at sea, with the president officiating “at the solemn ceremony which we trust will take these two babies off the front pages for all time.”
While Hopkins was away on the month-long cruise, Aubrey Williams acted as WPA adminstrator and announced, on October 22, that the logjam in the comptroller general’s office had been broken at last. McCarl approved projects valued at $1.5 billion, and Williams sent word to state WPA administrators that they had $700 million in cash to work with, putting men on the job on projects that had been bottled up. The agency’s strategy had been to get two projects approved for every one it expected to undertake, thereby providing state administrators with a choice. With the money now starting to flow freely, Williams said the WPA headquarters staff would work double shifts to reach Hopkins’s goal of putting 3.5 million of the unemployed into jobs by November.