"The state's prevailing wage law is too important to the entire construction industry, both union and nonunion, for us to let it be rescinded by a special interest group with deep-pocketed donors who don't have the industry's best interests at heart," said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. "It's going to take a concerted effort across the state, but we're determined to retain this law, which is vital to the state's construction industry."
There is some hope, but not much, that this year's petition drive to repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965 will come up short of the 252,523 signatures necessary for it to be placed before a vote of the state Legislature, likely in January. The sponsors of the petition, the Associated Builders and Contractors, and their front group, Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, this year employed a reputable firm based in Brighton to collect the signatures, unlike their disastrous hiring of Silver Bullet, a Nevada-based company that was sued in a failed 2015 petition effort.
The Michigan Prevailing Wage law is vital to the pocketbooks of Michigan's construction industry. "Unsurprisingly," says the labor backed Economic Policy Institute, "median construction wages are far lower (21.9 percent) in the 20 states that have no prevailing wage law than in the states that still do protect prevailing wages. Even after taking into account cost-of-living differences, median wages are almost 7 percent lower in states where there is no prevailing wage law. If state officials want to hit construction workers in the pocketbook, while folding to business interests, repealing prevailing wage laws is an effective way to do it."
Michael Stobak, a vice president for the state's largest general contractor, Barton Malow, said it was "an absolute disaster" when the Michigan's prevailing wage law was repealed for 30 months (and then reinstated) by a court order in the mid-1990s. He said there were "drastic reductions" in the experience levels of trades who could adequately man projects, and reductions in worker productivity. Bidding public work became all about the bottom line, and numerous qualified contractors left the industry, he said. The workforce became less stable, because workers moved around seeking higher paychecks elsewhere.
Assuming the success of the Protect Michigan Taxpayers petition effort, and the state House and Senate both adopt the petition language in January, the repeal of the state's prevailing wage law is a done deal. Enter the counter petition drive to reinstate the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act, which will be costly and difficult. (Protect Michigan Taxpayers said in court documents that it paid $1.35 million to Silver Bullet for the 2015 petition drive, plus at least an additional $500,000 spent in connection with the campaign).
The same number of signatures, 252,523, will have to be collected during a 180-day period that will begin and end in the early part of the year - cold-weather months when potential petition-signers aren't as accessible. If a sufficient number signatures are validated by the state, the plan is to place the reinstatement of the prevailing wage law on the Nov. 6, 2018 statewide ballot.
The most recent statewide poll on the state's prevailing wage law, in 2015 by The Detroit News, indicated the law had a significant margin of support. More than 59 percent of likely voters said they support maintaining Michigan's prevailing wage, a more than 2-1 advantage over the 25 percent of voters who want the law scrapped. Prevailing wage even had a small margin of support among self-identified Republicans.
"We know this petition effort is going to be expensive, and it's going to be challenging," Devlin said. "But we can't let the people who want to lead our industry down the low road for our industry win this fight. Our people can't afford a pay cut, and our industry shouldn't be subjected to the turmoil that would happen if prevailing wage is repealed."