The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, July 01, 2011

Trades’ bipartisan effort scores two big wins

By The Building Tradesman

(By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer)

WASHINGTON (PAI) – With a lot of grass-roots lobbying, help from pro-union contractors, and leadership from three pro-worker Republicans, the nation’s building trades unions racked up two more wins – protecting the Davis-Bacon Act and project labor agreements – in the Republican-run House on June 13.

The 204-203 vote to keep executive branch authority to consider project labor agreements (PLAs) on all federal construction projects saw 27 Republicans join 177 Democrats in backing PLAs. The 232-178 vote killing a GOP scheme to void the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires prevailing wages on federally funded construction, attracted 54 Republicans and 178 Democrats in backing prevailing wages.

Both votes came during debate on the money bill funding the Veterans Affairs Department and military construction projects nationwide, but they were reruns of two previous pro-PLA votes and three prior pro-Davis-Bacon votes.

“In each instance, strong bipartisan majorities emerged to support PLAs and prevailing wage standards. Twenty eight Republicans stood with America’s building trades unions in support of PLAs, while 54 GOP members supported Davis-Bacon,” said Building Trades Department President Mark Ayers. “All of our affiliated union presidents mobilized the troops for this effort like never before.”

The entire Democratic Congressional delegation from Michigan voted to support both PLAs and prevailing wage, except for John Dingell (D-15th District) who was absent for both votes.

On the PLA vote, only Congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R-11th District) joined Dems to support the measure, the rest of the Michigan Republican delegation voted thumbs down. Congressman Bill Huizenga (D-2nd District) was absent.

On the prevailing wage vote, Republican support only came from McCotter, Fred Upton (R-6th District) and Candace Miller (R-10th District). The rest of the GOP delegation voted to kill prevailing wage.

Even the GOP’s most-notorious spending meat-ax wielder, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., voted to keep Davis-Bacon, despite claims by other GOPers that it drives up construction costs by paying union scale. Ryan voted against PLAs, though. Another Republican who sided with unions refuted the construction cost claim by noting Davis-Bacon mandates using the “prevailing wage” and 72 percent of the Labor Department’s prevailing wage scales in local areas nationwide are nonunion.

Union legislative representatives said grass-roots lobbying, aid from three pro-union contractor associations and the leadership of Reps. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., and Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., produced the wins. And they added pressure from the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) – which was holding its conference in town – boomeranged, once lawmakers saw the facts.

“A lot of legislators are starting to see PLAs and Davis-Bacon as a good value and good for career opportunities,” said Roofers Vice President Jim Hadel, the union’s top D.C. rep. “Both help the economy by providing good jobs, with good benefits and they help minorities.”

Sheet Metal Workers Legislative and Government Affairs Director Vincent Panvini said the nation’s building trades unions mobilized their grass-roots via e-mails and contacts with construction unions’ 40,000 business agents and local union officers nationwide, as well as contacting members through union websites. The members in turn lobbied lawmakers both at home and through contacting Capitol Hill offices.

They were also helped by the construction unions’ reputation for reaching out to moderate Republicans, an effort aided by the three GOP lawmakers. LoBiondo and LaTourette chair the informal GOP Labor Caucus. Jo Ann Emerson’s “door has always been open to us,” says Hadel, even before her new marriage, to an Ironworkers counsel.

“The vote on keeping the prevailing wage,” via Davis-Bacon, “was the bigger win because most of the prevailing wage determinations are below the union rate,” Panvini added. Lawmakers pointed out during the debate that Davis-Bacon rates, while higher than those charged by cut-rate contractors using cheap labor, nonetheless save money because jobs are done right and done with high quality, thus avoiding future repairs.

The construction unions and their lawmaker allies also spent their time refuting misinformation and lies from ABC and Right-Wing Republicans, who were led by Reps. John Culberson, R-Texas, chair of the subcommittee that helps dole out VA and military construction money, and freshman Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.

Misinformation included statements that the Obama administration executive order promoting consideration of PLAs banned non-union contractors from bidding for federal construction, and that Davis-Bacon was strictly tied to union scale. They also included charges from the GOP and the contractors group that both drive up costs. Those statements aren’t true, lawmakers replied during the debate.

“A study of 10 states were nearly half of the highway and bridge work is done in the U.S. showed that when high-wage workers were paid double the wage of low-wage workers, they built 74.4 more miles of highway and 32.8 more miles of bridges for $557 million less,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.

“PLAs are a benefit to employers and unions,” added Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash. “They provide uniform wages, benefits and overtime” and save money by setting job conditions, preventing cost overruns, providing for arbitration and banning strikes and lockouts, he said.

Overall, PLAs save the government money, LaTourette added. So, he concluded, the GOP moves “aren’t about costing or saving the government money. This is union-bashing.”