A Labor Historian’s Insight Into the Building of the Panama Canal

The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal

by Lydia M. Reid

Julie Greene, Labor Historian and author at University of Maryland, has recently synthesized the history of American expansion through the completion and operation of the Panama Canal in her excellent analysis:

The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal

It is an exceptional read and we took the liberty of reprinting the synopsis of her book below from the pages of the AFL-CIO web site entitled Lessons from the Panama Canal.  Our thanks to them.

Working men and women—and their unions—have historically been central participants as the U.S. government and its role in the world expanded. One of the most important events in that expanding role was the construction of the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914—the greatest public project of modern times, it connected the oceans and made the United States into a major world power. Can we learn some lessons from that experience?

As tens of thousands of workers from around the world migrated to join this vast labor mobilization and began working to build the Panama Canal, people watched eagerly. They wondered if the U.S. federal government could possibly succeed at such an expensive, dangerous and bewildering construction job.

Working people across the United States took a special interest in the project. They watched it, debated it and pushed the federal government to be a decent employer. Gradually many found lots to admire in the government’s work—in particular, they said, because it eliminated the waste known as profit. Miners and electrical workers declared, “In no place in the world are better conditions to be found than in the Panama Canal Zone, which is entirely under Government control.” The Machinist’s Monthly Journal noted that building the canal had required eradicating disease, rebuilding cities and railroads and developing an entire infrastructure across the Panama Canal Zone. The canal project, editors proclaimed, “shows that work prosecuted by the Government is far superior to work done under private contract.”

These workers’ reactions suggest one aspect of the Panama Canal project relevant to our world today, when the debate over health care reform increasingly turns on the issue of whether or not the government can be trusted to do a good job. One hundred years ago, Americans were debating the same issue, and the Panama Canal became Exhibit A. The Panama Canal’s completion in 1914, on time and under budget, convinced many people that the U.S. government could play a positive role in the world and that eliminating the profit motive would benefit all of society.

Yet while the canal became a popular symbol of the U.S. government’s abilities, the reality was more complex. The touted efficiency of the canal project was made possible by rather draconian policies. Chief engineer George Goethals would not recognize unions, used spies and deportation to crush attempts at labor organizing, arrested workers deemed unproductive (for vagrancy) and imprisoned them and relied upon a vast segregation system—known as the silver and gold payrolls—to divide workers and break the power of both unskilled and skilled workers.

At first glance, the segregation system seemed to favor the skilled workers, most of whom were white U.S. citizens. These so-called gold workers—machinists, steam shovel engineers, railroad workers and the like—received relatively high wages, free housing and paid vacations for their efforts. One can see why they waxed enthusiastic about government control. But most of the workforce—the silver workers who dug the big ditch—came from the West Indies and from southern Europe, and they faced much worse conditions. They lived in shacks lacking screens on the windows, failed to receive paid vacations or sick leave and were excluded from the nice cafeterias and hotels the government built. And the labor surplus government officials carefully cultivated made it impossible for them to strike or organize.

White U.S. workers accepted the segregation system for the most part, and some became enforcers of it. They argued it was appropriate that they, as U.S. citizens, should receive the special privileges denied to non-citizen workers. This situation may have seemed in their interest, but it ultimately weakened them tremendously. The government gradually began to train West Indians to do skilled work and then replaced many gold workers with their lower-paid silver counterparts. Never having worked with silver workers to build broad solidarities that could cut across differences of ethnicity, race and nationality, U.S. workers had little ability to fight the government’s strategies.

The workers who built the Panama Canal helped create the basis for U.S. power in the world as well as the infrastructure for the global economy of today. Their efforts were sometimes heroic, and they often benefited from the extensive government control that made the construction project possible. Yet as always, history is a paradoxical teacher.

Many of the strategies devised during the canal construction became standard tools across the long 20th century and into the 21st: wide-scale mobilization and segregation of labor; reliance on labor surplus and tactics that divided workers against one another in order to contain militancy; recognition of citizenship for certain (skilled, white, U.S.) workers, while important rights were denied to foreign workers; and strenuous limits on the right to collective organizing, even for the most powerful and skilled U.S. workers. Many of these strategies sound familiar to us even now.

Today, workers still dig the ditches of U.S. power abroad. The papers don’t report on their struggles too often. Many of them are U.S. citizens, many are not, but all are toiling in diverse ways. And you can bet they face, to a remarkable degree, the same sorts of challenges confronted by the machinists, steam shovel engineers, diggers and track layers who built the Panama Canal.

2 responses to “A Labor Historian’s Insight Into the Building of the Panama Canal

  1. Hello Maritza,

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  2. Hello:
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