The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, August 07, 2015

Prevailing wage supporters raise voices

By The Building Tradesman

'Any so-called windfall savings would be short-lived at best.'
- Herb Spence III, owner, Spence Brothers

The effort to repeal Michigan's Prevailing Wage Act of 1965 continues to move along this summer, with sightings of petition signature gatherers doing their work, the report of a regional petition drive "kickoff," by the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the release of a spate of anti-repeal opinion pieces urging the public not to sign the petition.

Said one of those pieces: "The argument these repeal proponents make - and one that has long been rejected by reams of peer reviewed research and leaders of both political parties - is that cutting the wages of the skilled professionals who build our public infrastructure saves money. Problem is, it doesn’t. And there is absolutely no consistent evidence to suggest otherwise."

That was the thrust of a July 29 letter to The Detroit News by Kevin Duncan, a professor of economics in the Hasan School of Business at Colorado State University–Pueblo and Senior Economist at BCD Economics, LLC., and Alex Lantsberg a researcher with Smart Cities Prevail and a member of the American Institute for City Planning.

A study they conducted and released June 29 found that prevailing wage repeal in Michigan would eliminate more than 11,000 jobs, reduce economic output in the state by $1.7 billion, eliminate $28 million in local and state tax revenue and send about $700 million in construction investments every year outside of Michigan's borders.

Duncan, Lantsberg and a bevy of other academic researchers don't like prevailing wage repeal, and neither do some construction industry leaders. Barton Malow Vice President Michael Stobak called Michigan's temporary repeal of the Michigan prevailing wage law in the 1990s. "an absolute disaster" for his company and the industry. "Quantity, productivity and attention to safety remained at an all-time low for us," Stobak told a building trades audience in March.

Herb Spence III, the owner of general contractor Spence Brothers, told MLive on July 28 that he thinks removing the law would hurt Michigan's construction industry and the state's economy in general.

"Any so-called windfall savings would be short-lived at best," Spence said. "It will not only cause delays on some important projects, but the law of supply and demand will mean the costs are going to increase in the near future for public and private construction."

Both Stobak and Spence said prevailing wage is not a union vs. nonunion issue. "Hard-working skilled trades people deserve a fair wage," Spence told MLive. "If they can't find it, they're going to leave the state or our industry."

But industry and academic opinion carry little sway with the ideologues in the anti-union ABC and their conservative friends in the state Legislature. The ABC is one of the backers of the prevailing wage repeal petition, and they're backed by some $1 million put up by the same deep pockets that funded the successful right-to-work effort in Michigan in 2012.

The ABC-Greater Michigan Chapter office in Midland hosted the kickoff of a "regional petition drive" with a press conference on July 23, reported. “We’re here today to say that government construction work should be based on the best quality job at the best quality price on behalf of taxpayers,” said AGC-Michigan President Chris Fisher. But OurMidland reported he was countered at the event by 18-year construction worker Sam Houston of Isabella County, who said he has worked both union and nonunion. He said of the repeal effort: "I think as we look at the entire picture of equality, here in the state of Michigan, I think workers will lose the benefits that workers earn for the hours they put in.”

Backers of the petition drive - led by a group called "Protecting Michigan Taxpayers" - have hired signature collectors to fan out across the state and say just about anything to get people to sign, and we've been reporting a few run-ins with them.

"The paid circulators are using deceptive practices to get people to sign," said one poster to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's Facebook page. "They are telling people that the petition drive is to keep jobs in Michigan. When I asked them if this was about repealing the prevailing wage she said she thought they had said something about that. We then looked all through her info and nowhere did it mention prevailing wage. The literature only contained a website to find out the actual wording of the petition. On the signature pages was only a brief description that was not complete."

Wrote another: "I was just approached by a guy who asked me to sign his petition that would force our lawmakers to accept the lowest bid on construction jobs. When I asked him if this petition was about eliminating the prevailing wage law, he looked at me, and cautiously said 'yes.' I told him no, I wouldn't sign, and walked away!"

If the petition drive garners 252,523 signatures by November, prevailing wage repeal would go before the state Legislature for a vote. If the Legislature somehow fails to get enough votes for repeal, the issue goes before the voters in a statewide referendum in November 2016.