By Andy Meisner
Oakland County Treasurer
Prevailing wage is a smart investment that promotes public safety by making sure that highly-skilled, drug-tested, safety-certified workers staff construction sites, and promotes economic development by paying construction workers a fair wage that they reinvest in the local economy.
Despite Gov. Rick Snyder’s apparent efforts to promote the construction industry as a great career opportunity for Michigan’s young people and unemployed, Republicans in Lansing are waging a misguided war on prevailing wage that hurts these recruitment efforts and hurts the public with potentially inferior construction quality that puts us all at risk.
With regard to public safety, there are cases throughout the country where a prevailing wage was not paid to supposedly “save money,” and the results were tragic. Florida has no prevailing wage law, making it easier for contractors to hire untrained and undocumented workers for their public works projects. The contractor for the Aucilla River Bridge hired untrained high school students, one of whom was killed by a falling beam. The boy who was killed was 19 years old and it was his first week on the job. The contractor never instructed his workers about the dangers of working near cranes, nor did he hire qualified riggers to transport the beams. Prevailing wage could have prevented this tragedy.
Alabama also has no prevailing wage law, making school construction sites more dangerous for workers and children. During construction of Crossville Elementary School one man was killed and two others were injured when a scaffold collapsed and all three men fell almost 30 feet to the ground. The general contractor had a history of safety violations, particularly with fall protection.
Georgia also has no prevailing wage law, making it difficult for the state to find skilled workers for public projects. A workplace accident left a construction worker at the new Chamblee Charter High School just outside of Atlanta dead when the worker fell off the roof of the new building. The renovations at Chamblee Charter High School were almost $10 million over budget and set back or halted construction on 49 other school construction projects. Construction was completed almost a year late, with students in trailers for almost nine months.
Welding, rigging, scaffolding, crane operation, and safety are just some of the skills taught in union apprenticeship programs here in Michigan and around the country, which is why men and women going through these programs have earned the right to be paid a prevailing wage. We don't want a single man or woman to enter a job site without the training necessary to keep them safe and productive on a jobsite, and to keep all of us who use those public buildings in the future safe as well.
Eliminating prevailing wage in Michigan undercuts an industry that is critical to Michigan’s public safety and economic development. Without Michigan’s prevailing wage law, training programs like those funded by trades unions to promote public safety and worker safety would cease to exist, and contractors using lesser-trained workers would be able to underbid for public projects with allegedly lower labor costs, thereby underbidding contractors paying middle class wages.
But those contractors who underbid with cheap labor may not be hiring a skilled, safety-trained, drug-tested workforce. They'll be more likely to hire workers who are undocumented, untrained, and unsafe. They'll be paying less for cheap labor, pocketing more profits, and sticking the public with buildings that are not as safe.
This is no way to invest our tax dollars, which is why Snyder and the Legislature should reject misguided attempts to eliminate prevailing wage. In 2016 and beyond, the people of Michigan should also be wary of ballot initiatives attempting to eliminate prevailing wage.
(Meisner is also vice chairman of the Oakland County Building Authority and former chairman of the Michigan Land Bank Authority).