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One of the chief difficulties in municipal government under democratic institutions is the treatment of the labor problem in its various aspects. The relations between the municipal corporation and its employees engaged in manual labor are everywhere the cause of unceasing agitation and discussion; and this is particularly the case in Boston, where from the earliest times a larger proportion of the public work has been done by day labor than in the other large cities of the country. The collection of garbage, at first let out to contractors, was intrusted to a department of the City Government to be handled directly by its employees, as early as 1824; and in the same year a street-cleaning service was inaugurated upon the day-labor plan. The lighting of the public lamps, which prior to 1868 had been done by the gas companies or other contractors, was at various times between that year and 1870 handed over to the lamp department, and has since been attended to by the employees of that department. Work upon the streets was done very largely by day labor as early as 1850; sewers have been built by day labor from an early period; the laying of pipes for our water-works has almost always been done by the day; since 1865 the construction of the great basins has frequently been attempted by day labor; and a large part of the work of park constructions since 1882 has been done by the day.
The present practice is to do all the work of maintenance, repairing, jobbing, pipe-laying, and all matters the proper execution of which is a question of opinion, and therefore difficult to secure through written specifications, by day labor employed directly by the city departments, and to let all works of large construction out by contract.
The day-labor system, even if excluded entirely from works of large construction, costs the city very much more than contract work, as, owing to the higher rate of wages paid, the smaller number of hours, and the large number of holidays and half-holidays without loss of pay, the city pays about. sixty per cent. more than the market rate of wages.1 A further loss is experienced through the necessity of furnishing, so far as practicable, permanent employment. throughout the year, and also by the continued employment of men who have grown old in the service of the city.
On the other hand, a good deal of the city's work could not be done by contract without constant complaints from the citizens that it was not properly done. This applies to the collection of garbage, the cleaning of streets, the lighting of lamps, and other work of the sort, the proper execution of which is in the nature of things a matter of opinion and therefore incapable of accurate specification in a written contract. In the next place, work in the nature of jobbing of which there is a great deal in the Street Department - probably costs no more under this system than if let out by contract, for the reason that the profits of the middleman in small jobs are necessarily large. Then there is a class of work difficult of inspection, such as the laying of water-pipes, which it is for the interest of the city to have done by day labor, even if it costs more, in order that the city authorities may be certain that it is well done.
Notwithstanding all that can be said against the execution of public works by day labor, I am satisfied that it is on the whole for the advantage of the city that work of the character mentioned should be done in this way; and as to the high rate of wages, shorter hours of work, and other privileges which swell the cost, it may be said that the wages paid to the city laborers have not been increased since 1882; 2 that
1 The cost in the Street Department alone of holidays and half-holidays amounts to nearly $75,000 per annum. A city laborer (unskilled) receives about 24 cents per hour of actual work, while the contractors pay about 15 cents.
2 When they were fixed by vote of the City Council at not less than two dollars per day.
the hours of labor are regulated by statute;1 and that if the city is to employ day labor at all, it has been found practically necessary that the laborers should receive high wages, permanent employment so far as practicable, and generally a more liberal treatment than in private work. Whether city laborers work as faithfully as those employed by contractors depends on circumstances, principally on the discipline of the department and the energy of its foremen.
Passing now to the consideration of works of construction, we find wholly different conditions. Here the cost of the day-labor system is very much greater than contract work, and the results are in no respect more satisfactory."
While there are opportunities for collusion and corruption in the contract system, still these opportunities can be and, so far as my experience goes, are avoided with comparative ease. Contracts for work of this character can be so drawn as to permit of accurate inspection, and with upright and watchful heads of departments there is no reason why public work of this sort cannot be carried on fully as cheaply and quickly as private work.
I have been at some pains to secure accurate comparisons of the cost of works of large construction done by day labor and by contract, and the following instances are given by way of illustration: At Lake Cochituate, in 1887, about 50,000 cubic feet of shallow flowage work was done by day labor, at a cost of $28,837.16; while the following year about 57,000 cubic yards of similar work was done by contract for $16,202.25. Stripping 54,000 cubic yards of loam from the bottom of Basin 6 cost by day labor 71 cents per cubic yard; while the average of five sections let out by contract, involving the removal of about 400,000 cubic yards, cost about 40 cents a cubic yard. Rubble masonry was built on Basin 6 by day labor at a cost of $12.50 per cubic yard, and by contract for $7.50 per cubic yard.3 The
1 St. 1890, ch. 375, which went into effect January 1, 1891.
See report of Citizens' Association for 1890, pages 17 and 18; and report for 1891, pages 97-99.
3 On the other hand, the concrete work on the dam for Basin 6 cost the same by day labor as by contract.
work on Basin No. 5 (that now under construction, estimated to cost $2,500,000 for land and construction) is being done by contract; while the greater part of the work at Basin No. 6 was done by day labor; and the following table shows a comparsion of the results obtained: 1
The plan now being pressed by certain labor organizations (not composed of city employees) for the construction of public buildings by day labor employed directly by the
The City Engineer, from whom these figures are obtained, makes the following explanation:
In the item of 496,007 cubic yards of stripping is included one section of 90,810 cubic yards, which was very difficult. Excluding that section, the average cost of stripping 405,197 cubic yards was 351⁄2 cents per cubic yard. The city work necessarily costs more than that done by contract for the reason that the city pays in the country $2.00 for nine hours' work, gives one half-day per week during four months, all holidays, and two days for voting. The men work from eight to nine months per year. This makes the price paid for one hour of actual work about $0.24, while the contractor pays in ordinary years, in the country, $0.15 per hour.
The division of cost of building the dams is about as follows: Labor, 67 per cent.: teaming, 13 per cent.; tools, etc., 20 per cent.; and on this basis the city must pay 1.42 times as much as the contractor for the same effort. For stripping, the division of cost would be for labor, 75 per cent.; teaming, 20 per cent.; tools, etc., 5 per cent. ; and the city must pay 1.49 times as much as the contractor.
city is too preposterous for discussion. The city has no opportunity to give constant employment to the skilled labor required in building operations, and would therefore be unable to secure the best workmen; it has no plant; the administration of such work would greatly enlarge the scope of political patronage; the cost may be safely set down as two or three times that of the present system; and all the advantages to be gained from competition under our present admirable contract law would be lost.
Between the demands of the taxpayer for the execution of all public works by contract, and the demands of the labor organizations that all public works should be done by the day, I believe that the safe, reasonable, and prudent course to follow in the public interest is the system now and for some time past in operation. According to this, all work of large construction is done by contract, through competition, except, perhaps, in certain special cases of peculiar difficulty; while jobbing, maintenance, repairs, and other work of the kind, including all that cannot be accurately specified and inspected, is done by day labor employed directly by the city departments upon liberal terms, in respect to wages, hours, holidays, and length of employ
1St. 1890, ch. 418, seet. 4-6.
There is no demand by the city employees for such a change in the methods of doing city work. It would obviously operate against their interests as tending to increase the number of persons on the labor rolls of the city without increasing the opportunities for permanent employment.