Labor Archives of Washington


Labor and the New Deal

Workers erecting steel beams
Workers erecting steel beams, Grand Coulee Dam construction site, July 26, 1938.

After the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the nation’s president in 1933, the federal government launched a series of relief and recovery efforts known as the “New Deal” to halt the country’s slide into depression and provide work for the unemployed. The New Deal agencies and their projects created thousands of jobs for workers in the Pacific Northwest, and altered both urban and rural landscapes as their work was accomplished.

An early element of the New Deal was an agency called the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which was designed to provide economic relief by employing thousands of workers in 1933-1934 to make meaningful improvements to the country’s infrastructure. The U.W.’s digital collection, Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) photographs, provides over 250 images of this work – both work done indoors in offices and retail businesses and work done outdoors on roads, parks, and public lands in and around Seattle. Another 100 images along the same lines are available in the U.W.’s collection entitled Civil Works Administration photographs – the CWA was a subdivision of the FERA, and provided similar opportunities to workers.

Another active New Deal agency in the Pacific Northwest was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed young unmarried men to do manual labor on federal lands, often in connection with the use and conservation of natural resources. The U.W.’s digital collection of photographs taken by Clark Kinsey includes about 40 photographs of CCC camps and company groups taken in the Pacific Northwest.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was another New Deal agency active in the Pacific Northwest. WPA laborers played a critical role in the construction of one of the largest public works projects of the New Deal: the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in eastern Washington state. The U.W.’s Grand Coulee Dam collection contains roughly 60 photographs of the WPA workers on the dam, which depict both their living conditions at the time and the work they were engaged in. The WPA, though, worked in many settings other than dam-building—the U.W.’s collections also offer a small number of other photographs depicting the activities of the WPA.

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