Congress was determined to “fix” the WPA in 1939. Several factors contributed to this determination. One was a residue of anger at Hopkins, now removed as a target himself, over the charges that local officials had played footsie with political campaigns in several states in the 1938 elections. Conservatives retained their general distaste for the vast cadre of workers on the public payroll who seemed to favor unions and other forms of “leftist thinking,” and that distaste was heightened by the uncountered accusations aired before the Dies Committee. Before the fixing was over, the WPA would face an unsettling array of changes.
The first of these was an absolute ban on political activities by WPA employees. Public Resolution Number One, which went into effect in March 1939, made it a felony to offer a job as a political reward, to threaten to deprive anyone of a job as political punishment, or to solicit political contributions within the WPA. It was also a firing offense (though not a criminal one) for anyone on the WPA payroll to work in or manage a political campaign, or try to influence the outcome of a campaign.
Colonel Harrington, at a March 9 news conference, said the latter portion of the new law covered hundreds of the agency’s 35,000 administrative personnel. As a result, he said, “we are having to remove a number of persons who have been county chairmen, presidents of political groups, or who have occupied other positions of that character.” If they didn’t quit, he said, they would be fired. Evidence of activities that violated the criminal portions of the statute would be turned over to the Justice Department.
The ban on “pernicious political activities,” to take effect later in 1939, would be widened to include all federal employees under the Hatch Act, of which Democratic Senator Carl A. Hatch of New Mexico was the prime champion.
But these rules were minor in their impact compared with the provisions of the new relief appropriation act for the 1940 fiscal year that grudgingly allowed the WPA to continue. Contained within the legislation that cut off funding for the Federal Theatre and forced the remaining arts projects to turn to the states for sponsorship was a far more drastic change. The new relief act forced the abandonment of the prevailing wage system that had governed WPA pay rates from its start, despite attempts to change it. Prevailing wages meant trade union rates in urban industrial areas, and where those wages were the norm, a WPA worker could earn a month’s pay by putting in a little over a week’s worth of hours. Replacing this happy arrangement was a “security wage” that allowed workers to earn roughly the same monthly pay, but in many cases doubled and almost tripled their hours. Workers and their unions reacted with outrage.
Work stoppages halted WPA projects across the nation early in July when 100,000 workers, mostly skilled tradesmen, walked off the job. In New York, strikes shut down construction of two schools and the new airport at North Beach that would later be called La Guardia Field. One thousand WPA workers in Rochester quit the projects they were working on and signed their names to a petition demanding that Congress return to the prevailing wage system. Employees halted work in Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, and San Francisco. State WPA offices also reported walkouts in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Indiana, Washington, and Mississippi. Most of the job actions were peaceful, but in Minneapolis, a policeman died after a clash with striking workers.
Skilled workers in urban areas suffered most under the new rules. In New York City, on the four-week standard by which the WPA kept its pay records, carpenters who had earned $85.75 by working 48 hours now had to work 120 hours for $85.20. The same $85.20 for 120 hours of work over four weeks applied to plumbers and electricians, who had worked 42 hours for $84; bricklayers 42 hours for $79.21; structural iron workers 44 hours for $84.70; sheet metal workers 46 hours for $85.10; metal lathers 48 hours for $84; and painters 56 hours for $84.
At the middle-skill levels, workers also saw their hours more than double, but they at least received small four-week raises under the new scale. Drill runners, bricklayers’ helpers, house wreckers, concrete and cement workers, and asphalt workers, all of whom had drawn pay of between $56.01 and $64.01 for working between 48 and 64 hours, now received $66 for 120 hours on the job.
Common laborers were the largest group affected by the new wage regimen. They had worked longer hours for less pay under the old scale, so were less drastically affected. Already used to putting in 112 hours over four weeks for a $56 paycheck, now they would work 8 hours more for 80 cents less.
Professionals were affected, too. The hours of dentists, doctors, and lawyers on the WPA payroll doubled, from 60 hours to 120, while their pay dropped from $91.08 to $90. Teachers and recreation instructors fared a little better. They had worked 84 and 96 hours, respectively, for $91.06, and under the new scale would work 120 hours for $90.
The WPA took a hard line against the stoppages. Harrington told reporters on July 6 that he didn’t consider the job actions a strike, since strikes were intended to lead to negotiations, and negotiations were not going to happen. The WPA’s work would benefit from the new arrangement, he said; construction supervisors would find jobs easier to manage with all of the workers on the same schedule. And he suggested that the new wage scale would reduce cheating, since workers frequently used their extra time to hold private jobs under assumed names, a practice the WPA’s investigative unit was helpless to stop unless it received reports of violators.
Two days later, Harrington met with a delegation from the American Federation of Labor, which represented 125 unions, and told them that their protests were useless. They were to tell their workers that “the requirement of working 130 hours a month is law [120 hours over four weeks translated to 130 hours a month]; that no official of the WPA up or down the line can change it; that we offer employment under those conditions—working 130 hours a month for a security wage. The decision as to whether they accept the employment or not is in their own hands.
“Furthermore, if anyone is off his job for five consecutive working days without any reason other than that he doesn’t want to work, he will be dropped from the rolls.”
Somervell, in New York, echoed this ultimatum, and the city’s welfare commissioner said that WPA workers who refused to accept the new wage scale would be turned down for home relief. Somervell threatened to file felony charges against anyone interfering with WPA jobs, even if this meant merely throwing up a picket line.
Most of the wildcat strikes stopped within the five-day limit. Even with the usual summer uptick in private hiring, the waiting list for WPA jobs was always larger than the number who were working, and those already on the rolls were not ready to give up their steady paychecks even if it meant many more hours on the job. But in Minneapolis, the work stoppages persisted for two weeks and shut down much of the WPA construction in the city. Workers who wanted to go back to their jobs were prevented by union protesters until city and state police stepped in to protect them. But eventually, even the most persistent strikes dissolved after Roosevelt declined to back moves in Congress to restore the union wage scale, and when the Workers Alliance called a one-day strike to protest the new work rules, few workers joined in.
An even larger problem for WPA workers followed on the heels of the revised wage scale. That was a provision in the appropriations act aimed at preventing “careerism” in WPA employees. It stated that relief workers on the agency’s rolls could work no more than eighteen months in succession. Then they had to give up their jobs for at least a month and apply to be recertified for relief before returning. This provision, along with the new wage scale, would take effect September 1. Harrington estimated it would affect at least 600,000 of the 2.4 million employees then on the rolls and hamper a number of projects that would lose essential personnel. By August 31, with German tanks massed at the Polish border, WPA employment stood at 1.8 million as the eighteen-month rule temporarily stripped the rolls.
Yet another new rule landed on the WPA as the result of the new appropriations act, one more example of the Dies Committee’s effect upon American political life. It included a requirement that WPA employees now had to take a loyalty oath as the price of their jobs. At its least, this requirement allowed Harrington to scoff at the committee’s charges of Communism within the WPA’s ranks.
Asked at the same July 6 news conference if he had had to halt “Red activities,” the colonel was at first incredulous. “Do you mean that seriously?” he asked the questioner.
Assured that he did, Harrington said, “No, I have not found it necessary to halt Red activities in the WPA. There is a great safeguard now, you know,” he continued sarcastically. “They have to take an oath that they do not advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence.” He did not take the charges seriously, he said, and did not think the oath was necessary.
Nevertheless, the anti-Communist outcry had its effect on behavior within the WPA. Even the pro-Communist Workers Alliance told its members they were required to pledge their loyalty to the United States in an echo of the oath required by the relief appropriations bill. “The idea is to answer those who charge we are subversive and against the government,” said Willis R. Morgan, president of the New York chapter. He said Communists could take the pledge and still belong to the union. (By that point the union’s leadership was almost entirely in Communist hands; founder and national president David Lasser would resign within a year and denounce the Workers Alliance as a Communist front.)
Workers who declined to sign the loyalty oath were summarily dismissed. But very few, no matter how they felt about it, were willing or able to give up their paychecks on grounds of principle. In New York, only 66 of the 103,985 WPA workers in the city failed to sign, some apparently because they were sick and had not been at work. One who refused was Art Project muralist August Henkel, a Communist who had run for Congress and state office on the party ticket.
Henkel had painted aviation scenes for the terminal at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, but once he was fired and his politics had been revealed, critics looked for evidence of subversion in his murals. The Women’s International Association of Aeronautics, the Flatbush Chamber of Commerce, and the Floyd Bennett Post of the American Legion found much cause for suspicion. The Wright brothers, they said, seemed to be dressed in Russian peasant garb, one of Henkel’s planes resembled a Soviet aircraft, the star on a pictured Naval Reserve hangar was red, not the regulation white, and one of his figures looked like Josef Stalin. As far as the Stalin image was concerned, Henkel maintained that he had merely copied a picture of Franz Reichelt, a mustachioed Austrian tailor who dabbled (fatally) in parachuting, having combined an overcoat and parachute that he tested by jumping from the Eiffel Tower and falling to his death. Nevertheless, his Bennett Field murals were ripped down and destroyed in 1940.