Chapter 14

Socio-Economic Problems On The Space Coast

Labor Problems at the Missile Center

Socio-economic problems went hand in hand with the engineering problems encountered in sending men to the moon. The relocation of a large number of people - many of them from urban centers - to the small towns of Florida's east coast where newcomers were not always welcome, the tenfold increase in population in Brevard County within 20 years, and the construction of many buildings and the assembling of highly complicated machinery in a previously quiet corner of a nonindustrial state brought about dramatic changes in the quality of life.

Many factors complicated the relations of labor, management, and government at the Kennedy Space Center, especially during the construction years, chiefly 1963 through 1965. Disputes of various kinds held up work on the assembly building, on other phases of LC-39 construction, and in the industrial area. The major labor issues will be discussed here.

First, Florida had an open-shop law, called by its supporters a "Right to Work Law." Such laws tend to create a climate of suspicion for union workers and are accompanied by strife between union and nonunion workers. At KSC, the unions were wary of any increase in contracts with nonunion contractors or subcontractors.

Second, Florida was not an industrialized state. In central Florida, the Cape-KSC area was at once the largest industrial center and the area where labor relations most closely paralleled the practices of more industrially developed states. As a result, some labor leaders did not hesitate to use the KSC arrangements as a possible club over contractors in nearby areas. One of the building trades unions, for instance, jockeyed for advantage with an Orlando contractor by using KSC arrangements as a lever.

Third, many contractors failed to enter serious contract negotiations until workers actually went on strike. Most of these strikes were short, and the contractors could have avoided them had they settled with the union one day before the strike, instead of agreeing to union demands after a one-day walkout.

Fourth, jurisdictional disputes caused endless problems. To understand the worker's point of view in this regard, one should remember that the welfare of an entire trade often depended on the protection of certain tasks that came within its jurisdiction. If a trade lost a particular type of work, the union simply found its members unemployed. Further, precedent so influenced jurisdictional assignments that unions zealously and carefully protected their existing areas. Sometimes, however, these jurisdictional disputes went beyond common sense and outraged everyone concerned. Carpenters walked out in a dispute: ironworkers were installing aluminum door frames. Labor leaders on occasion acted in the "public-be-damned" spirit of the 19th century industrial "Robber Barons."

Fifth, certain attitudes of construction workers, such as carpenters and plumbers, differed from those held by industrial workers, such as steelworkers. The more highly centralized industrial unions tended to heed decisions made on a nationwide basis or at national headquarters. The loosely bound construction locals, on the other hand, enjoyed greater autonomy. The construction worker never felt the same loyalty to his employer that the industrial worker felt. His term of employment was relatively short and his job security came from the union hiring hall, not from the company. It did not really matter a great deal to a plumber whether he was putting pipes in a motel, an industrial plant, or a missile site. He had little emotional involvement with the work itself or with the company he worked for at the moment. When he finished a job, he looked to the union for another. The construction worker thus tended to identify himself with his craft and his union, not with his employer or even with a major purpose such as sending a man to the moon.

Many construction workers were transient by background. Accustomed to moving where the work happened to be, oftentimes they did not put down roots. Some men came in for only a few days, sometimes sleeping in their own cars, then moving on. With the increase of work at the Cape and at KSC - the only diversified construction activity in Florida at the time - so many new workers came in with permits from other locals that they swamped the local unions and made their business agents edgy. At one time, for instance, between 600 and 700 electricians worked at KSC with permits from locals outside the region. The building trades thought they saw a lack of consistent policy and felt they had to scrap for everything they could get. These factors often made dealing with construction workers more difficult than dealing with industrial workers, as several officials at Kennedy Space Center were to comment.1 Labor troubles at missile sites, especially the Cape, had grown acute even before President Kennedy issued his lunar landing challenge to the nation.

On eight days from 25 April to 5 May 1961, the permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Government Operations had held hearings in Washington. Senator John L. McClellan (D., Ark.) chaired this subcommittee, whose prestigious membership included Senators Ervin, Muskie, Jackson, Mundt, and Curtis. They took testimony from 38 individuals. The witnesses showed that work stoppages and slowdowns were commonplace at missile sites.2

The hearing brought to light many abuses including excessive overtime, exorbitant wages, low productivity of workers, improper classification of work, and inefficiency by contractors. The subcommittee criticized both labor and management. Work stoppages resulted in a total loss of 87,374 man-days at Cape Canaveral during a 4 1/2-year period in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Wildcat strikes, slowdowns, and a deliberate policy of low productivity further delayed progress. Workers gouged the taxpayer with unnecessary and exorbitant overtime costs. The international unions did nothing to discipline the locals. Some contractors, operating under a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract, did nothing to stop skyrocketing costs in excessive overtime payments. They overmanned jobs and did not properly supervise.

The subcommittee insisted that the military and civilian officials on construction sites try to rectify unsatisfactory labor conditions. It pointed out that while Congress had passed the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 to keep construction wages on government contracts consistent with the wages prevailing in a given area, some labor leaders improperly used it as a device for settling jurisdictional disputes. To conclude its findings, the subcommittee pointed out that work conditions at the missile sites improved for a time after the subcommittee began its hearings, then deteriorated.3

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