The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, November 13, 2015

Our vote is best backstop against prevailing wage opponents

By Patrick Devlin, Secretary-Treasurer

They're incompetent. But they're relentless.

"Protect Michigan Taxpayers," the front group for the Associated Builders and Contractors and some deep-pocketed donors, were so confident in their petition drive to repeal the state prevailing wage law that they shut their effort down weeks before the deadline, and apparently didn't even glance at the 390,000-plus signatures that were collected and turned over to the state.

It has been widely reported that the Las Vegas company that was hired to collect the signatures was paying their people $5 per name. Many petition drives, but certainly not all, are conducted by unpaid signature-gatherers who are motivated by their own self-interest. They're civic-minded people who believe in what they're doing, and are willing to spend hours outside malls or sporting events asking for legitimate signatures.

I guess the folks collecting these prevailing wage repeal signatures this summer also believed in what they were doing, even if they were grossly misinformed about what they were doing, or simply lying. In the end, they undoubtedly believed in the $5 per name they were harvesting. By multiple accounts, many petition gatherers simply lied about the nature of the petition. They told signers it would create more money for the roads, or would reduce taxes, or it would raise more money for school construction. The fine print on the petition said otherwise - but likely, few bothered to read the 1,151 words that explained what they were signing.

Well, when you hire people to gather petition signatures, and you're not going to verify those signatures, you get what the ABC and Protect Michigan Taxpayers got. A hot mess. After eliminating the approximately 123,000 signers who were not registered to vote, our petition challengers found nearly 50,000 duplicate signatures, including 18,767 people who signed twice, 2,684 people who signed three times, and 588 people who signed four times.

Our group, Protect Michigan Jobs, together with contractor Practical Political Consulting, found the duplicate signatures. As the old saying goes, there must be a law against this sort of thing, and we have already asked for a fraud investigation from state Attorney General William Schuette or Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

The bigger question is what happens next. The Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965 is the single most important law on the state's books that affects all construction workers' wages in Michigan, both union and nonunion. When the law has been repealed, it is well documented that worker wages go down 10 percent or so, and training programs, quality and safety all suffer. Mike Stobak, a vice president for Barton Malow, said when Michigan repeals the law in the 1990s, it was "an absolute disaster" for the construction industry.

If Donald Trump was fronting the money for the absurdly incompetent petition effort here in Michigan, he would be firing people left and right. But that doesn't appear to be the case with the petition's big money backers. I would hate to be Michigan Associated Builders and Contractors CEO Chris Fisher when he made the phone call to billionaire Richard Devos, and told him something like, "uh, about that $800,000 you gave us for the petition drive...."

But these guys are relentless. Who knows what companies or billionaires are going to pay for the next effort, but Fisher has already said a new petition drive to repeal prevailing wage has been started, and it would end June 1, 2016.

This time their effort to gather signatures may be more of a challenge. Winter's coming, and potential signers will be indoors and harder to find. Legal signatures were obviously difficult to get this summer, or else the petition collectors wouldn't have resorted to cheating. Prevailing wage is a difficult concept to explain to someone walking out of a mall, especially if the petition gatherer doesn't understand the concept herself. We're going to continue with our "Decline to Sign" the petition effort, and as always, we're depending on our membership to help spread the word.

But what we really need our people to do is contact their state lawmaker, especially in the Michigan House, and especially if they're Republican. Urge them to support prevailing wage, which is a good thing for workers and the entire construction industry.

The fact that we're battling a second costly petition drive to repeal prevailing wage in Michigan is just another example of just how out-of-whack the whole big-money-in-politics thing has become, and just how important your vote is to maintaining a strong middle class.