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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

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

The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal - Julie Greene,  Narrated by Karen White This is a book about the construction of the Panama Canal that skims past the usual praise of American engineering and knowhow to focus in on the gritty lives and harsh conditions endured by those who performed the work. The book details the development of labor-management systems that organized, segregated, disciplined and motivated the thousands of American whites and West Indian blacks with technics that are embarrassingly racist, anti-union, and paternalistic when judged by today's standards. Of course the time period covered occurred 100 years ago (1904-1914) and not much about working conditions anywhere in the world lived up to current expectations. But the bad working conditions for the canal construction were exacerbated by its isolation, mix of nationalities, and transient population that flocked to the area for work.

Many of today's anti-federal government conservatives will probably be surprised to learn that the entire enterprise was run by the U.S. Federal Government. The only portion of the work that was contracted out was the lock gates. Everybody else working on the project were paid by the government and lived in government owned housing (unless they lived outside the 10 mile wide Canal Zone). The governance of the Zone is best described as a quasi-military "benevolent autocracy;" an arrangement more efficient than democratic. For example, an American civilian citizen arrested on felony charges in the Zone was not entitled to a trial jury (executive order made an exception for capital cases; too late in one case).

I was surprised to learn that some social liberals of the era praised the Canal Zone work environment as a model example of a worker's utopia possible within a socialistic system. Meanwhile there were Congressional hearings called to investigate charges by reports of corruption, prostitution and mismanagement. It's an example of how different people can look at the same situation and arrive at differing conclusions. I was also surprised to learn of the racial prejudice shown by some social progressives of the era. A report of Zone conditions prepared by a well known socal worker recommended many improvements for American workers while almost totally ignoring the much worse conditions of the West Indian workers and their families.

This is a long book that by the end recounts sufficient examples of domestic squabbles, social friction and physical hardships to weary the reader. It makes a convincing case that the social problems related to the canal construction exceeded the engineering problems in complexity. Of course they were both complex, and it's good to remember that the death toll from accidents and disease was 5,600; mostly West Indians, people of color (22,000 earlier under the French). All human endeavors have their unpleasant underside, and this project was a major human endeavor with correspondingly large unpleasant problems that needed to be endured or solved. It is good to be reminded of this aspect of a project most often remembered as a glorious human achievement.

When I read about the two pay scales, gold for the mostly white employees and silver for the mostly colored West Indians, I assumed it was part of the archaic past. In the Epilog the author recounts her experience of being a passenger on a cruise ship passing through the Canal. While on the trip it was pointed out to her that the modern day version of the two pay scales was alive and well on the cruse ship. The dining staff was all European while the workers tending the buffet and cleaning tasks were Filipino. The two groups received different contracts, with different working and living conditions, different amounts of leisure time, and different pay rates. The ship officers didn't need to observe U.S. labor laws because it was registered outside the U.S.A. The book ends with the following observations:

"While the canal workers toiled for empire, their labor also helped create the infrastructure for a global economy--and in the decades since then, the processes of globalization have transformed the world. Yet when we see today how race, ethnicity, gender, and class shape the international division of labor, we might think back to the construction of the Panama Canal and the ways it contributed to many present conditions. Strategies devised during the canal construction project have reached across the decades to the current day. We can see them in the increasing importance of transnational migrant labor and the rapid flow of capital around the globe, in the persistent notion that citizens deserve certain rights that are denied to aliens, and in the sentimental and idealistic ways American sometimes approach the exercise of U.S. power around the world. . . . Who are the people toiling and digging today in the ditches of U.S. power abroad? They surely have stories to tell."