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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The Davis-Bacon Act

In the 1920s, contractors found that they could pay African-American workers less than white employees, and thereby submit lower bids than contractors using white union workers. Many States passed laws that required contractors on public projects to pay workers the prevailing wage in that State as a way of reducing the prospect that contractors with underpaid workers-often out-of-State contractors importing African-Americans from the South-would secure contracts.

An Alabama contractor won a contract in 1927 from the Veterans' Bureau to construct a hospital in Long Island, New York, with his low bid aided by importation of African-American workers from the South. Congressman Robert L. Bacon, a Republican who represented Long Island from March 1923 until his death on September 12, 1938, introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to require payment of prevailing wages on Federal projects. He said of the workers on the hospital project, "They were herded onto this job, they were housed in shacks, they were paid a very low wage, and . . . it seems 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."

Bacon considered his proposal a matter of fairness. He wanted to give local contractors and labor a "fair break" in getting government contracts:

If the local contractor is successful in obtaining the bid, it means that local labor will be employed because that local contractor is going to continue in business in that community after the work is done. If an outside contractor gets the contract, and there is no discrimination against the honest contractor, it means that he will have to pay the prevailing wages, just like the local contractor.

The bill did not pass, but Congressman Bacon would introduce variations of the bill in succeeding years.

The Depression would create an atmosphere that would allow passage. In 1931, the Hoover Administration asked the Comptroller General if government contracts could include a prevailing wage provision. When the Comptroller General ruled on January 10, 1931, that such a provision would undermine the current statutory requirement for competitive bidding, the Administration worked with Congress to provide a statutory basis for mandating prevailing wage restrictions.

Congressman Bacon partnered with Senator James J. Davis, a Republican from Pennsylvania who had served as Secretary of Labor under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (1921-1930) before resigning to take his seat in the Senate. They introduced the bill that would be known ever since as the Davis-Bacon Act. Senator Davis explained that "the least the Federal Government can do is comply with the local standards of wages and labor prevailing in the locality where the building construction is to take place." He and Congressman Bacon argued that their bill was fair to workers because their wages would not have to be slashed so their contractors could compete against those willing to employ cheap labor.

The House and Senate passed the bill as introduced. President Hoover signed the Davis-Bacon Act on March 31, 1931. It required payment of prevailing wages on projects awarded by the Federal Government. As a result, it did not apply to the Federal-aid highway program, a grant program that reimbursed State highway agencies for the Federal share (50 percent) of eligible expenditures on Federal-aid contracts they awarded. (The Davis-Bacon Act did apply to Federal contracting by the Bureau of Public Roads in National Parks, National Forests, and other Federal reservations.)

As soon as the law went into effect, supporters began to complain that it lacked an effective enforcement mechanism and did not provide for determination of prevailing wages before contracts were advertised. After extensive hearings and one vetoed bill, Congress passed amendments in 1935 to address the deficiencies in the original bill. The bill lowered the minimum contract amount to $2,000 for application of the prevailing wage law and provided for the Department of Labor to issue prevailing wage determinations that would apply to future contracts. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation on April 30, 1935. [Ginsburg, Gilbert, A Practical Guide to the Davis-Bacon Act: Course Manual , Federal Publications, Inc., 1998, p 1-4]

In 1955 and 1956, the Congress debated whether to apply the Davis-Bacon Act to construction of the Interstate System. During consideration of a bill introduced by Senator Albert Gore, Sr., the Tennessee Democrat who served as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads, the Public Works Committee had voted to apply the provision to the Interstate System at the request of Senator Richard L. Neuberger. The Senator, a Democrat who represented Oregon from 1953 until his death in 1960, argued, "We don't want coolie labor building our interstate highways."

The provision was popular with unions, but unpopular with many Senators, including Senator Harry Flood Byrd, the Virginia Democrat who headed the Finance Committee and was known as a political penny pincher. He summarized his objection during the debate on the Senate floor:

[It] would cause endless confusion and would increase the cost of highway construction, conceivably to a point where Federal appropriations practically twice their current size would build no more highways than are being built today.

By voice vote, the Senate rejected the provision, but as final passage loomed in 1956, the House version applied the Davis-Bacon Act to Interstate projects. With most issues resolved, the Davis-Bacon Act was one of the few remaining subjects of controversy. Historian Mark Rose explained that although unions favored the provision, the traditional highway community tried to block it in the Senate:

Contractors and state road engineers worked hard to eliminate the amendment. As early as January 19, members of a group of engineers and contractors had declared for local determination of wages, invoking mostly cost arguments. Beginning around March 1, through early June [1956], contractors and chamber of commerce officials joined the struggle against Davis-Bacon, sending letters and petitions to members of Congress. Usually, they spoke of efficiency, of lower costs, of states' rights, all symbols, images, and commercial realities celebrated by men in contract road work. In April, administration leaders took up the anti-Davis-Bacon cause, trying to find a way to cut it without angering labor leaders.

Rose summarized the final debate on the Senate version of the bill in 1956:

Only Davis-Bacon provoked senators to real controversy. At one point, so great the confusion, so diverse the approaches, the Senate voted Davis-Bacon or a revision of it several times, achieving that many different results. [Interstate Express , p. 90-91]

The Senate finally voted to accept the Davis-Bacon Act, but with an amendment providing for an appeal and judicial review by any aggrieved party.

The Conference Committee formed to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill accepted application of the Davis-Bacon Act to the Interstate System, but rejected the appeals process in the Senate bill. The conferees were concerned that an appeal process might delay Interstate projects, and believed that cooperation in good faith between the State and Federal officials "will insure satisfactory results."

As a result, a measure intended in 1931 to prevent low-paid African-Americans from taking jobs from white union workers on Federal projects became part of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that President Eisenhower signed on June 29, 1956. (Section 12 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968 extended Davis-Bacon Act coverage to all Federal-aid highway projects.)

Updated: 10/17/2013
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