The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 17, 2017

Political shift leads to anti-worker bills raising their heads in Congress

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI) — Suddenly, a national right-to-work law isn't very far-fetched. And neither is repeal of the federal Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law.

A clutch of right wing congressional Republicans reintroduced both of those two notable anti-worker measures on Capitol Hill last month.

“The president believes in right to work,” Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, said earlier this month in response to a reporter’s question about a RTW law proposed in the New Hampshire legislature. And on the campaign trail, Trump said he "likes right to work."

In past years, RTW, whose prime sponsor is rabid anti-worker Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), went nowhere beyond GOP-run House committees, because President Obama would have vetoed either measure.

The 86-year-old Davis-Bacon Act prevents cut-rate contractors from low-balling workers’ wages on federally funded projects. And building trades unions recruited enough Republicans, along with almost all Democrats, to make certain Davis-Bacon repeal wouldn't be sustained.

The difference this year, however, is that not only did the Republican Party platform endorse both measures, but the GOP controls all of Capitol Hill and the White House, too. And few new pro-worker candidates won in last November’s election.

And in a "normal" year, Senate Democrats, even in the minority, would be able to use a filibuster threat to quell anti-labor legislation. The filibuster threat - historically employed by the minority party to stop legislation when the Senate's majority party can't get 60 votes on a piece of legislation - could potentially go by the wayside. Trump has asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to use the "nuclear option" - blow up the filibuster rule - in order to bypass a potential Democratic filibuster of his appointment of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Right to work, which workers and their allies call right-to-work-for-less, would ban unions from negotiating union shop contracts, where all workers whom a contract covers must pay union dues if they join or agency fees, covering only bargaining and contract enforcement, if they don’t. The money pays for the union’s services to workers, including non-members.

The practical impact of RTW is to make every worker a “free rider,” able to use the union’s services without paying for them – and to smash unions by financially crippling them so much that they can’t defend workers in the first place.

With the repeal of prevailing wage laws and imposition of right to work, academic studies have consistently shown that labor unions generally lose members and become weaker, worker wages generally decline, and training and safety standards are diminished.

RTW’s about to go into effect in Missouri, where new GOP Gov. Eric Greitens promised to sign it. He campaigned on a pro-RTW platform, the St. Louis Labor Tribune noted. The state House passed RTW 100-59, after the state senate approved it the week before.

Greitens’ signature on RTW, which Missouri unions are vowing to take to a state referendum, would make the Show Me State the 28th RTW state. Totally GOP-run Kentucky became the 27th earlier in January.

“Congress created the problem in the first place, and it is Congress’s responsibility to correct it,” said King, RTW’s long-time congressional sponsor. “The National Right to Work Act will succeed in doing so by simply listening to the majority of American workers by erasing the forced-dues clauses in the federal statute -- without adding a single letter to federal law.”

King’s co-sponsor, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. – infamous for yelling “You lie!” at then-President Obama during a speech – declared, offering no proof, that “at least 80 percent of Americans are opposed to forcing employees to pay dues as a condition of their employment.” South Carolina, an early RTW state, is last in the U.S. in union density.

King and a group of GOP senators, led by Jeff Flake of Arizona and Mike Lee of Utah, introduced Davis-Bacon repeal. Davis-Bacon, co-authored by Republicans in the Great Depression, prevents cut-rate contractors from underpaying their workers on federal projects.

Current Republicans charge, however – again offering no proof – that local “prevailing wages” on federally funded construction are really union wages. The median weekly wage last year for union construction workers was $1,153, compared to $719 for non-unionists.

Utah’s right winger Lee, a former contractor, had a different take. “The ‘prevailing wage’ is determined not by market forces operating in reality, but by federal bureaucrats operating in Washington, D.C.,” Lee charged. “As a result, federal contractors are charged, on average, a 22 percent premium on their labor costs above what private companies pay.”

Building Trades President Sean McGarvey labeled Davis-Bacon repeal “the Pay Cut for America’s Workers Act” and said Flake “must be living in an alternative universe.”

Flake “is completely oblivious to the political undercurrents relating to blue-collar economic anxiety that propelled Donald Trump into the White House,” McGarvey said. And Flake “possesses a warped sense of empathy when he believes wages of $17.37 and $15.49 an hour – current Davis-Bacon prevailing highway construction wages for a backhoe operator and a Laborer in Arizona – are simply too high for taxpayer-funded construction projects.”

“At those wage rates, these workers would earn, respectively, roughly $35,000 and $31,000 annually.  Not exactly a king’s ransom,” McGarvey said laconically.

He added: “When people like Sen. Flake suggest that savings of as much as 10 percent on publicly-funded construction can be realized through the repeal of prevailing wage laws, then it must follow that construction wages will have to be reduced by as much as 50 percent.  The reason for this is that on public construction, 20 percent of labor costs are blue-collar labor costs.  So, that backhoe operator in Arizona would need to have his or her wages reduced to $8.70 an hour, and the Laborer would have to have his or her wages cut to $7.80 an hour in order to achieve the savings that Senator Flake touts."