CHAPTER XVI

LABOR

San Francisco's Exposition, in 1915, celebrating the formal opening of the Panama Canal, will be the most truly international Exposition held in this country or any other.

Not only is the object of the Exposition international in interest, but there is not a nation under the sun, possibly, which has not contributed some of its citizens to the construction force of the canal.  Panama always has been cosmopolitan, a world transit route.  The actual promise of building a canal, made when the Americans took charge, centered the eyes of the adventurous spirits of all races in the direction of the Isthmus.

Every nation which participates in the Exposition will feel a pride that the canal, in some measure, large or small, owes its being to the efforts of its own subjects.  The list of nationalities, or geographical designations, represented among the employees of the commission, or the Panama Railroad, gives an idea of international appeal the canal exerts.

These eighty-six varieties of canal employees afford an opportunity to brush up on geography.  In the census of the Canal Zone, taken in February, 1912, forty nationalities are listed, while in the following list, geographical subdivisions are noted to emphasize the variegated labor supply at Panama:

Africa
Algeria
Antigua
Arabia
Argentina
Australia
Austria
Barbados
Belgium
Bolivia
Brazil
Bulgaria
Bahama Islands
Bermuda Islands
Bohemia
British Honduras
Canada
Chile
China
Colombia
Costa Rica
Cuba
Curacao
Demerara
Dominica
East Indies
Ecuador
Egypt
England
Fiji Islands
Finland
Fortune Islands
France
French Guiana
Germany
Greece
Grenada
Guadeloupe
Guinea
Guiana
Guatemala
Hindustan
Honduras
Holland
Hungary
Iceland
India
Ireland
Italy
Jamaica
Japan
Liberia
Martinique
Mexico
Montserrat
Nassau
Nevis
Nicaragua
Norway
Panama
Peru
Puerto Rico
Portugal
Philippines
Romania
Russia
San Salvador
Santo Domingo
St. Croix
St. Kitts
St Lucia
St. Martins
St. Thomas
St. Vincent
Scotland
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
Syria
Trinidad
Turkey
Turks Island
Uruguay
Venezuela
West Indies

At the beginning of the American occupation, in 1904, there were 746 men employed on the canal.  According to the Quartermaster's department the highest force of record since then was on March 30, 1910, when the pay-rolls showed 38,676 employees.  This record nearly was reached on January 10, 1912, when there were 38,505 employees on the rolls.  The census report as of February 1, 1912, estimated the number of employees as 42,174, for the Commission and the Panama Railroad, which would be the record force in the history of the project, and not likely to be equaled again with the canal nearing completion.

In the following tables the maximum force for each year under the Americans is given, from figures reported by the Quartermaster and the Sanitary department.  The discrepancy in favor of the Sanitary department is accounted for by the fact that from five to ten thousand workers always have been in the Canal Zone in excess of the number actually employed, and had to be cared for the same as the regularly employed men.   The third column shows the number of Americans in the Canal Zone for the same period.

Year

Quartermaster

Sanitary Dept.

Americans

1904
1905
1906
1907
1908
1909
1910
1911
1912

3,500
10,500
23,901
31,967
33,170
33,405
38,676
37,271
38,505

6,213
16,512
26,547
39,238
43,891
47,167
50,802
48,876
48,000

700
1,500
3,264
5,000
5,126
5,300
5,573
6,163
6,008

The percentage of Americans in the total working force usually has been one sixth or one seventh.  Their work is of a supervisory character, or skilled labor, such as mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, masons, electricians, etc.  They also are the steam shovel, locomotive and marine engineers, railroad conductors, time inspectors, firemen, policemen, all branches of civil administration, office forces, sanitary and hospital officers, foremen, civil engineers, and the like.  In 1912 there were 4,064 wives and children of American employees.

Laborers did not come to the Canal Zone in sufficient numbers during the early years, necessitating recruiting offices in Europe, the West Indies, and the United States.   A total of 43,000 men were imported under contract with the Commission, from 1904 to 1910, and it was though the labor problem had been solved, but in July, August, and September, 1911, it became necessary to import 1,300 laborers to fill up the ranks depleted by the migration of employees to other Central and South American fields.

Spain furnished the largest number of European laborers to the canal until the government of that country, in 1908, forbid further emigration to Panama.  The Spaniards also proved to be the most satisfactory common labor employed by the Commission.   Out of a total of 11,797 European laborers imported in 1910, 8,222 were Spaniards, and the others came principally from Italy, France, and Armenia.

The colored labor predominates in the Canal Zone and was obtained in the islands of the West Indies.  Barbados furnished the largest number, 19,448; Martinique, 5,542; Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Kitts, Curacao, Fortune Islands, etc., 4,677—a grand total of 29,667.  Costa Rica, Colombia,and Panama furnished 1,493; unclassified, 2,163.  The largest immigration for one year was in 1907, when 14,942 laborers were imported, while in 1906, 12,609 arrived.

Chief Engineer Stevens in his first annual report estimated the native labor to be about 33 per cent as efficient as common American labor.   However, this standard has been raised under the perfection of the organization in later years, though nothing like the capacity for hard and effective work, shown in labor under private management in the United States, has been developed.  Mr. Stevens asked for bids for supplying 2,500 Chinese coolies to the Canal Zone, in 1906, with a provision for 15,000 if needed, but this move never resulted in importing any Chinese under contract.  Conditions as to pay, quarters, and treatment received such favorable advertising that, in 1910, more than 2,000 Europeans voluntarily came to the Canal Zone to seek employment.

The color line has been drawn in the Canal Zone by dividing the employees into "gold" and "silver" men.  In the first category are the Americans, and in the second the common and unskilled laborers.   Wages are paid in silver to the laborers and salaries to the Americans are paid in gold.  This distinction is not a hard and fast one and the idea was adopted as the best means for the Government to draw the color line—a practice it would not attempt under the Constitution in the United States.  Second-class coaches are provided on the trains, special windows in the post offices, special clerks in the commissary, and separate eating places for the silver employees.

Stability has not been a feature of the American working force at Panama.  In 1911, the gold force changed to the extent of 60 per cent, and the average stay on the Isthmus, of mechanics, has been only one year. The reason for this is found partly in the fact that many workers come simply to see the big job and make expenses while on the trip and partly in the lack of diversions after work hours.   There are saloons in the Canal Zone, and the clubhouses afford billiards, pool, bowling, gymnasium, reading room, and a weekly moving picture show, but the simple life rules supreme, palling on those who have a taste for the gay white lights.  Panama and Colon do not afford much greater entertainment if they were easily accessible to the inland canal employees.  This lack of relaxation and recreation facilities is the only drawback to the otherwise ideal working conditions in the Canal Zone.  Eat, sleep, and work is the monotonous round of the canal employee and the most of them save money.

Tourists in the Canal Zone commonly do not see the great shops at Gorgona and Empire, where repairs for the machinery and equipment used in building the canal are made, and where original iron and steel construction is done.   The Gorgona shops cover about 22 acres and have seven miles of tracks.  Much small iron work, such as making bolts, machinery parts and pattern work, is done more cheaply than in the United States, when freight to the Isthmus is considered.  Owing to the long distance from the base of supplies these shops early were equipped to do any work the canal plant might require.  All equipment on the canal receives rough handling in the desire to make records in excavation, dumping or concrete laying, with the consequence that the shops usually are crowded with broken down dump cars, locomotives, steam shovels, and other apparatus.  Gorgona is the Pittsburgh of the Canal Zone.   The town and shops will have to be abandoned before the opening of the canal as the waters of Gatun Lake will surround it, and cover the present shop site.

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Many labor-saving devices have been born of necessity in the Canal Zone.  The honor for inventing the greatest of these belongs to W. G. Bierd, formerly general manager of the Panama Railroad, and the man who most largely was responsible for bringing that archaic system from chaos to order, under Chief Engineer Stevens.  He originated a Track Shifter which does the work of 500 men in one day and requires only nine men to operate it.  This locomotive machine has a crane which raises the tracks, ties and all, clear of the ground, then swings it to the side for three feet or more, according to the elasticity of the rails.  Thus the hand method, of pulling out spikes, removing the ties to the desired place and relaying the rails, is abolished.  If we figure that one track shifter has worked an average of 300 days in the last six years, it has done work which by the old hand method would have required more than 1,000,000 men to do in one day, or 500 mean working each day during the six years.   The track shifter in that six years required 16,200 men, on the basis of nine men a day, for its operation.  There were three track shifters when Col. Goethals took charge in 1907 and there were ten in 1912.  At 10 cents an hour, 500 men a day would cost $400.  In a year, this would be $120,000 and in six years $720,000, but that estimate of the cost by the hand method is too low, and when the number in use is considered, making allowances for hours not at work, the track shifter has saved the government several million dollars.  Mr. Bierd received nothing from the Commission for his invention.  A Spaniard who devised a simple method of dumping steel cars received $50 a month royalty.

Strikes have never been successful in the Canal Zone.   In 1904 President Roosevelt gave the Commission the power to expel anybody from the Canal Zone who, in its discretion, was not necessary to the work of building the canal, or was objectionable for any reason.  No such power resides in any American State government, but the Supreme Court held that the Canal zone was not under the Constitution and was subject to the regulation of a military reservation.  The President took the wise view that the Americans were there for the express purpose of building a canal and nobody should be allowed to remain whose conduct or presence might clog the wheels of construction.  This power also has been used to expel undesirable women as well as men.

On November 22, 1910, the boilermakers in the Gorgona and Empire shops struck for higher pay, and for the same vacation allowance given to employees on a monthly pay basis.  They were receiving 65 cents an hour, or about 40 percent more than similar work in the United States earned, and in addition had quarters free.   Their demand for 75 cents an hour was refused but two weeks' vacation with pay and extra time without pay was granted.  Although the strike crippled the shops for a few weeks, Col. Goethals saw to it that they left on the first steamers out for the United States and the Washington recruiting office soon supplied their places.  The steam-shovel men, in a restive mood, met the same treatment and the locomotive engineers, who threatened a walk-out thought better when they had the alternative of returning forthwith to the United States, or going to work, presented to them.

This peremptory manner of handling employees is justified only by the peculiar conditions at Panama.  In truth there never has been any excuse for strikes or dissatisfaction with working conditions, after the first two years.   The canal employees are the most pampered set of workers in the world.  An eight-hour day with a two-hour intermission at noon, first-class board cheaper than in the United States, free quarters, free medical service on full pay, nine holidays on pay, reduced railroad rates, wages and salaries from 30 to 80 percent higher than in the United States, an annual vacation of forty-two days on full pay for gold employees, and the necessaries of life for sale at lower prices in the government commissary than in the United States.

Yet, with conditions of employment on this utopian basis, there has been considerable complaining.  These complaints reached the limit of absurdity, in 1912, when a petition was presented to Col. Goethals asking that employees be paid for all the sick leave they did not use during the year.  In other words, as an employee could be sick for thirty days on pay in one year, if he was sick only five days they asked that the twenty-five days not used, during which he was being for his work, should receive an additional compensation of full pay for that time.  It was a plain invitation to the government to pay employees not to get sick.  Col. Goethals said the Commission could not even consider such a proposition.

It is a noticeable fact to one who spends several months month the canal employees that many look upon themselves much in the light of war veterans who should be pensioned or receive special consideration from the government.   Certain older employees are the worst offenders in this way.  They think the government owes them some sort of a position at equally good pay for the remainder of their lives.  The proposal to reduce salaries, for the permanent operating force, to a point 25 per cent above the standard in the United States is scouted by them as preposterous.  Many of those who went through the hardships of the first two years, although they stayed with the job because it looked good as a business proposition, now assume that such service entitles them to be ranked as national heroes who henceforth are to be the wards of Uncle Sam's bounty.  When they finish at Panama they expect to be shifted to positions in the government service elsewhere, at the same pay, which would be impossible, unless they were made bureau chiefs or salaries should receive a perpendicular treatment unknown to the civil service in the United States.  The older employees are thinning out, however, as may be noted by the statement that in May, 1912, there were only 63 employees who had come in 1904.

No one realizes how generous the government has been to its employees at Panama more than the employee who leaves the service to return to work in the United States.  Over and over again such employees have returned to the Canal Zone to take work at wages or salaries less than they were receiving when they quit.   One foreman drawing $250 a month in Panama decided he could do as well at home.   In a year he returned to the Canal Zone and gladly took a position at 65 cents an hours, or about $132 a month.  The cost of living, and standard of pay, in the United States made him repent his action.

In many departments the government work at Panama is not as exacting in its standard of efficiency as under private industry in the United States.   This especially is true of the transportation department where young fellows are drawing $190 a month, as dirt train conductors, who could not earn $65 a month as cub brakemen on a high-grade American railroad.  The high pay in the Canal Zone not only draws employees back to the job, but the pace of American industrial life is so much swifter than the easy-going canal organization, that this, too, makes them think of the flesh-pots of Egypt.  The steam-shovel men, who are after records, come nearer to the mark of efficiency in the United States than perhaps any other class of employees.   Efficiency here is used in the sense not only of capability but of productivity, for necessarily the canal organization is capable in its engineering and administrative departments, but has most of the ear-marks of a government job—the-take-your-time-and-don't-overwork characteristic.

Any employee on a monthly salary basis may take eighty-one days off at full pay in every year.  He has a vacation of forty-two days on pay, a sick leave of thirty days on pay, and nine holidays on pay, a total of eighty-one days that the government voluntarily deprives itself of the employee's services.  The sick leave, too, is pretty generally used up by the employees, who have little trouble in persuading a district physician they need a rest at Taboga sanitarium or Ancon hospital.   It is apparent that the government has invested some of its millions in a way no private contractor could follow, except into bankruptcy.  If an employee does not take his vacation one year, he can accumulate it for the next year, and so get 84 days at full pay, and his trip to the United States will cost him only $20 or $30 a one-way passage.

Pay days until October 1, 1907, were semimonthly.   Since then monthly pay days have been the custom, the pay car starting out on the 12th and finishing in three days for the entire Canal Zone.  The Disbursing Office, at Empire, is a great bank handling nearly $3,000,000 a month.  A Chinaman and a Hindu are the expert money counters in this office.  Payments for wages have increased from $600,000 monthly, in 1905, to nearly $2,000,000 a month as a maximum in 1910-1911-1912.

Silver employees, or common laborers, earn 5, 7, 10, 13, 16, 20, and 25 cents an hour, with a few exceptions at 32 and 44 cents an hour, and a minimum monthly silver rate of $75.

Gold employees, which includes all the Americans, are paid from a minimum of $75 monthly to a maximum of $600 monthly, not including in this classification heads of departments.  Col. Goethals, as Chairman and Chief Engineer and President of the Panama Railroad Company, receives $21,000 annually; other members of the Commission, $14,000 annually; clerks, from $75 to $250 monthly; draftsmen, $100 to $250; engineers, assistant, special and designing, $225 to $600; foreman, $75 to $275; inspectors, $75 to $250; marine masters, $140 to $225; master mechanic, $225 to $275; physicians, $150 to $300; district quartermasters, $150 to $225; hotel steward, $60 to $175; storekeepers, $60 to $225; superintendents, $175 to $583.33; supervisors, $200 to $250; teachers, $60 to $110; trainmaster, $200 to $275; policemen, $80 to $107.50; master car builder, $225; fire department privates, $100; traveling engineer, $250; accountants, $175 to $250; musical director, $166.67; mates, $100 to $175; postmasters, $50 to $137.50.

Wages on an hourly basis are in part as follows:   apprentice, 10 to 25 cents; blacksmith, 32 to 70 cents; boilermakers, 32 to 70 cents; bricklayers, 65 cents; car inspector and repairer, 32 to 65 cents; carpenter, 32 to 65 cents; ship caulker, 65 cents; coach cabinetmaker, 65 cents; coppersmith, 32 to 65 cents; ironworker, 44 to 70 cents; lineman, 32 to 65 cents; machinist, 32 to 70 cents; molder, 32 to 70 cents; painter, 32 to 65 cents; pipefitter, 32 to 65 cents; planing mill hand, 32 to 56 cents; plumber, 32 to 75 cents; tinsmith, 32 to 65 cents; wireman, 32 to 65 cents; shipwright, 44 to 65 cents; locomotive engineers earn from $125 to $210 monthly; steam-shovel engineer from $210 to $240; steam engineer, $75 to $200.  The hourly rates quoted run as high as 62 per cent greater than the pay for similar work in the United States Navy yards, or private industries.

The canal was estimated to cost $375,000,000.  Out of that amount, the part which had gone into wages and salaries to June 30, 1912, was approximately $120,000,000.  By the time the canal is finished, and opened for permanent use, in 1914, this item will reach the startling total of $150,000,000   From 20 to 25 percent of it has gone into salaries of officers and supervisory employees, and from 75 to 80 per cent into wages to skilled and unskilled labor.

The Commission has the work of repatriation of imported employees already under way.  While nearly 45,000 workers were imported under contract that provided for their return home when the canal was done, the Commission will not have anything like this number to repatriate as thousands have left voluntarily to new fields of labor or quit the service under conditions that forfeit their right of return at the Commission's expense.  It will not be difficult to get sufficient common labor for the permanent canal.

As the conglomeration of races presents names impossible of uniformly correct spelling, every employee has a numbered brass check for identification, which he must show to get his pay.