LANSING - Thwarting the ongoing effort to repeal Michigan's Prevailing Wage Act of 1965 - as well as educating union members and the general public about the benefits of law - were issues that were front and center March 8-9 at the 57th Legislative Conference hosted by the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.
The 135 building trades union delegates from across Michigan who attended the conference were urged to be ambassadors for the prevailing wage law, and help spread the word about the benefits of the law for both the construction industry and the community at large.
"We're fighting back, and in how we're fighting back, the most important thing we're doing is educating the membership about the importance of prevailing wage," said Luke Canfora of the Michigan AFL-CIO, who is helping organize the effort. "Everyone in this room knows how important it is, and maybe everyone in this room has talked to their spouse or family member about how important prevailing wage is. But there are union members out there, and there is family out there, who don't know how critical prevailing wage is to their way of life right now."
The Michigan Prevailing Wage Act is based on a federal law that was adopted in the 1930s. The laws help assure that on a given taxpayer-funded construction project, wage rates that "prevail" in that project's geographic area are paid to construction workers.
The law offers a multitude of benefits. Absent a prevailing wage law, contractors bidding on public work are more easily able to win projects by reducing workers' wages. Often that means importing out-of-area workers - sometimes undocumented workers - to do local jobs. Lower pay or importing out-of-area workers means that less wages, or perhaps zero wages - are re-circulated to community merchants and restaurants, strengthening the community's tax base.
Lower-paid workers can expect to toil on less safe, and less skilled jobsites. Absent prevailing wage, construction injury rates rise, and workmanship quality suffers, studies show. The existing area's construction workforce will choose to work on jobs that pay them what they're worth, meaning publicly financed projects like schools and municipal buildings are erected with an under-skilled, under-paid workforce.
Proponents of prevailing wage repeal say Michigan could save $220 million a year in school construction costs, but real world experience doesn't bear that out. Michigan's prevailing wage law was suspended for a 30-month period in the 1990s, and several studies have shown that the state didn't save a dime in construction costs. Citing all the factors above, a Barton Malow executive called prevailing wage repeal "a disaster" for the state's construction industry during that time.
As we have reported, a statewide petition drive last summer to garner some 252,000 signatures in an effort to repeal Michigan's prevailing wage law proved to be a complete dud. The backers of the $1 million-plus effort, led by the Associated Builders and Contractors and the billionaire DeVos family of Grand Rapids, hired a company that failed miserably, handing over signature sheets where 43 percent of the names were ruled invalid, which meant the entire effort was tossed out.
The backers of the effort to repeal prevailing wage - Protect Michigan Taxpayers - pledged last year to start a second petition drive, but the effort apparently has just begun because of the seasonal-based difficulty in finding enough people to sign during the winter months.
"You can rest assured that the signatures that are turned in this year for the second petition drive will get the same scrutiny as the first," said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, to the delegates. "To combat that petition drive, the building trades have at least five informational and training sessions scheduled around the state, educating our members about prevailing wage. Unfortunately, phone banks that we have set up to urge members to contact their legislators not to support prevailing wage repeal is turning up a lot of ignorance about the law from union members and their families.
"And that ignorance illustrates what we're up against when it comes to combating the petition drive: the petitioners seem to be able to say just about anything to get people to sign. They say it's to fix the roads or increase worker training, or whatever lie that works."
Said Canfora" "We need to do everything we can to educate membership, and we need to educate our elected officials."
People who see petition circulators are urged to call the Decline to Sign hotline, (855) 517-9437, or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. Decline to Sign organizers would appreciate knowing the time and location and description of the petition gatherers. They also urge no physical contact with the circulators.
The petition circulators have a 180-day window to collect the signatures, and a mid-March start would give then until about mid-September to collect the names. If circulators are successful in obtaining 252,523 signatures which are validated by the state Board of Canvassers, the state Constitution requires the petition question to be taken up by the state Legislature, which the Republican majority in both the House and Senate would undoubtedly want to do before the end of this term on Dec. 31.
If both houses of the Legislature adopts the prevailing wage repeal question, the matter is settled. Gov. Rick Snyder is not given the option to veto the legislation. If a handful of state Republicans lawmakers in the state House (the GOP majority in the state Senate has already voted in favor of repealing prevailing wage) can be convinced to vote against repeal, then the repeal question would go onto a statewide ballot, perhaps in 2017.
Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber said he didn't think it would have been possible to win sufficient support among the GOP for sustaining prevailing wage this year, "but I do think it's possible now," he told delegates. He said the Flint water crisis, the poor staffing and care controversy at a veterans home in Grand Rapids which came to light earlier this year and the Detroit Public Schools funding crisis coming to a head are all bringing to light leadership inadequacies in the state Republican Party, and they may be feeling some heat.
"I don't give a crap if you're Democrat or Republican, we want folks that back labor up there," in the Capitol Building, Bieber said, "and whatever it takes to get a majority of lawmakers who will stand up for our issues, that's what we're going to try to do."
Volunteers from the state AFL-CIO and building trades unions are conducting phone banks and write-in campaigns, seeking help from union members to contact those GOP lawmakers to urge them to support prevailing wage
"This is going to come down to a vote in the House, and what we need to do is target these Republicans who will ultimately make the decision and pick off a group of them so that they will vote no on the ballot initiative and send it to the ballot," Canfora said. "We need to let them know that this is an issue in their district, just like anything else, and that we support prevailing wage. And we're waking them up. We've done phone banks four or five times and it's really brought this to their attention that there's support for this out there. We're trying to show them that this is a critical issue."