Approximately two hundred men worked daily on the capitol building. Some were skilled stone masons, iron workers, or carpenters; others were unskilled laborers who lifted, hauled, pushed, pulled, and did anything the boss told them to do. They were the lowest paid, and had the least ability to find other work if they were laid off or quit.
On May 16, 1933, after more than ten months on the job, unskilled laborers walked out on strike. At 4:30 in the morning, picketers stood in front of the Liberty Memorial Building to prevent other workers (those not on strike) from entering the capitol construction area. Striking unskilled laborers asked for a raise in their hourly wage from thirty cents to fifty cents.
The wages of the unskilled laborers were the lowest on the construction site. Bricklayers and stone masons earned the highest wage of $1.10. Other skilled workers earned between eighty cents and one dollar per hour. Rough carpenters earned seventy cents per hour. From there the wage scale dropped to thirty cents for “Common Laborers.”
The strike idled all workers. Only foremen and watchmen or guards entered the grounds, though delivery trucks were usually allowed in. Lundoff-Bicknell supervisors and capitol commissioners suspected that communists were leading the strike. Adjutant General Herman Brocopp posted National Guard troops on the capitol grounds at night to protect against damage to the property.
The strike remained largely peaceful until violence (often referred to as the “riot”) broke out on May 24. After several workers who approached the construction site were injured and five strikers taken to jail, the site shut down for two days. By Friday, May 26, strikers and contractors were engaged in contentious negotiations. With the Memorial Day holiday coming up on the following Tuesday, May 30, both sides decided to wait until after the holiday to seek a settlement.
Then, on June 1, Governor William Langer became directly involved in the strike and settlement quickly followed. Langer declared martial law in Bismarck which allowed National Guard officers to order the strikers off the capitol grounds. The next day, June 2, leaders of the Hod Carriers Building and Common Laborers’ Union which represented the strikers sat down with contractors’ representatives to discuss a settlement with Governor Langer. By 5 p.m., the strikers were offered a contract with a wage increase to at least forty cents per hour. The strike was over, but twelve work days had been lost in the construction of the new capitol.
These documents are drawn from the Memorandum of Daily Progress given to the members of the Capitol Commission who oversaw construction. Look for headings “Labor Strike,” “Labor Situation” on these pages. In addition, look at photographs taken by Andreas Risem of the strike.
Source: SHSND Memorandum of Daily Procedures, Series 30275
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