It’s no secret that President-elect Obama and his economic team are assembling the components of the much-needed economic stimulus package they will propose in late January. It’s also no secret that the proposal will include hundreds of billions of dollars in road, bridge, sewer, and other public works projects that will create tens of thousands of good paying jobs for working-class families across the United States.
Those who understand Mr. Obama’s objectives are applauding the plan. Mayors and governors like the fact that the package will accelerate the daunting and brutally expensive task of replacing and upgrading the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, including sewer systems that are more than 100 years old. And they like the fact that the workers rebuilding those aging sewers will be paying state and local taxes.
Advocates for the working class are encouraged because the plan will create jobs that can’t be shipped overseas. Fact is, a sewer system can’t be built in the Maquiladora region of Mexico, hinterlands of China, or back alleys of Bombay, jammed in a container, and shipped to Ohio. In order to replace sewers in Youngstown or Cleveland, local workers have to dig holes, rip out old pipes, drop in new ones, and then bury them. We’ll all get to see the work being done. Many of us will live next door to the people doing it.
Not surprisingly, organized labor, particularly the building trades unions, are enthralled with Obama’s package because many of the jobs created will be subject to the provisions of the Davis Bacon Act (DBA), the nation’s prevailing wage law. As a result workers will earn middle-class wages and receive health care and pension benefits, an army of idle apprentices will be able to find work, and thousands of men and women will have the opportunity to enter apprenticeship programs that will make them employable for the rest of their lives.
What may be surprising, however, is that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) the trade association for non-union contractors, and other anti-labor groups are also licking their chops over this component of the Obama plan. Not because they suddenly love unions or the concept of prevailing wage, but because in their twisted little minds they believe the Congressional wrangling over hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending will give them yet another crack at repealing Davis Bacon.
For years the Chamber and ABC have been arguing that DBA creates waste, costs jobs, and hinders the free market. In its position paper on the topic the U.S. Chamber claims that:
Repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act will spur local economic growth by making it easier for state and local governments to fund federally subsidized projects such as school construction and improvements to the transportation infrastructure.
Davis-Bacon repeal also would create an estimated 31,000 new construction jobs…
[Davis Bacon's] time has run out. In the 21st Century, especially in today’s competitive global economy, it is essential to allow the free market system to determine wages.
Today, this law represents nothing more than an American welfare program that subsidizes unionized companies.
Fortunately, responsible elected officials have turned a deaf ear to these specious arguments. Citing a long series of academic and government studies, including one issued earlier this year by the Economic Policy Institute that provides clear and convincing evidence of the benefits of DBA, they have derailed every attempt to repeal the statute whether in the form of legislation or President Bush’s callous Executive Order that exempted areas of the Southeast ravaged by Hurricane Katrina from the law.
Today, undeterred by past failures, the Chamber and ABC are undoubtedly girding themselves to resurrect their crusade against Davis Bacon. They will contend that Americans will get far more bang for their stimulus bucks if new projects are exempt from prevailing wage. They will argue rolling back the law together with increasing infrastructure spending by 10 or 15 times will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the workforce-if only the corrupt unions and their greedy members get out of the way.
Some leaders in the trades don’t believe business and their Republican allies in Congress will launch an anti-Davis Bacon campaign in connection with the stimulus package. After all, they wouldn’t want to be seen as blocking a measure that will pour billions into the economy at a critical time, would they?
Of course they would. If they’re greedy enough to use a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to attack workers, they certainly won’t hesitate to use something as mundane as an economic crisis to do the same thing.
In fact, it’s already happened. Just review the deliberations surrounding the proposed bailout of the Big Three. The focus of the discussion quickly turned from the failures of management to a vitriolic pillorying of “greedy” workers and their irresponsible union. And it ended with demands that the UAW and its members take concessions or else.
Fortunately, the trades and their members are in a much stronger position. They’re not begging for help. But they must be prepared to fight to preserve a law that has produced huge benefits for their members and for the taxpayers. They should demonstrate that prevailing wage will ensure that the stimulus package puts money in the pockets of the working-class families who need it most and will spend it quickly on food, clothing, housing, cars, college, and yes, the state and local taxes that fund essential public services.
They must also make the case that repealing Davis Bacon will be good for only one group: the non-union contractors who will maximize profits by driving down wages in the trades, doing shoddy work, and refusing to fund job training and apprenticeship programs.
In short, it comes down to this: should the stimulus package be a long-term investment in America’s working class or a boon to corporations and their profits? The answer is obvious-but only if someone is willing to stand up and make the argument. Here’s hoping the trades and their allies are up for the job.