The Infrastructure Spending-‘Good Jobs’ Connection Is Under Attack

Isaiah J. Poole

A legislative committee this week sent to the Michigan Senate a law that would eliminate prevailing wage laws on state construction contracts. The law is designed to push down wages paid to workers on the projects.

The fact that the law does not have the support of the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, is not deterring the leaders of the GOP majority in the state legislature. “I don’t think taxpayers should have to pay more for their buildings than private industry does,” said state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, quoted in The Detroit News.

Similar legislative efforts have been launched in more than a dozen states, according to The New York Times, including Wisconsin (whose governor, Scott Walker, is considering running for president), Missouri and Illinois.

These laws are driven by the principle that it costs taxpayers too much to pave roads or build schools because the workers who do the work are getting paid too much – and that it is in the public interest that the workers get paid as little as possible. The American Legislative Exchange Council says as much in its model “Prevailing Wage Repeal Act” that it has been shopping around state legislatures for years: “Prevailing wage laws raise the wages and benefits for the few” – the people you see working on construction crews for public projects – “at the expense of taxpayers” (as if those workers aren’t also fellow citizens and taxpayers).

Just as there is a fight over how much we should be investing as a nation in infrastructure and where that money should be coming from, there is also an intensifying fight over whether the jobs that our infrastructure spending creates should be “good jobs” with fair wages and benefits or low-road jobs that don’t enable workers to adequately support themselves and their families.

That fight right now is having limited impact because these state laws, even when passed, only cover projects fully funded with state dollars. Federally funded projects – including the transportation capital projects that were the focus of this week’s “Infrastructure Week” – are covered by the Davis-Bacon Act. That is a Depression-era law designed to ensure that workers hired on federally funded contracts get a wage that is at least equal to the “prevailing wage” of the area where the work is being done. It prevents contractors from using a strategy of rock-bottom wages and nonexistent benefits to take contract opportunities away from higher-road employers. In other words, it checks the race to the bottom.

Not surprisingly, that law is also under increasing attack.

When the House took up the Veteran Administration and military construction appropriations bill on April 30, an amendment was offered by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that would have eliminated Davis-Bacon requirements on construction projects done for the VA or the military. The amendment was listed as a “key vote” by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of a number of right-wing organizations pushing for business deregulation and weakening unions. The amendment was defeated, 186-235, but only because 52 Republicans joined a unanimous bloc of Democrats in opposition. An overwhelming majority of Republicans, 186, were in favor. That included 21 of the 34 Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the committee with oversight over what the country spends on roads, bridges, public transportation, rail, water and aviation.

In the last session of Congress, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a bill that would have repealed the Davis-Bacon Act. The bill did not gain any traction, but, notably, it was co-sponsored by two senators who are now Republican presidential candidates, Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

A coalition of grassroots activists have been pushing in the opposite direction, declaring that federal government contractors be required to abide by a set of “good jobs model employer” standards that would not only include fair wages but would also include providing such benefits as health care and paid sick leave, and respecting the right to collective bargaining.

The main focus of this “good jobs” movement has been goods and services contractors who hire low-wage workers for jobs ranging from janitorial to food service. But the goal is to have all federal contracting dollars covered by the principle that jobs paid for with taxpayer dollars should be living wage jobs that lift people out of poverty, offer them financial security and give them a voice in the workplace. These activists have been pushing states and cities to enact similar laws or executive orders.

The vision is not that federal contract workers have it better than everyone else, but that federal contracts set a standard that private sector employers will feel compelled to match. That is the vision that conservative lawmakers and their corporate benefactors don’t want you to see. They would rather keep working-class voters, struggling with their own stagnant wages, fearful of the workers who are being depicted as getting more than they deserve on the taxpayer dime. Meanwhile, the states that claim they need to eliminate prevailing wage laws in order to spend more on infrastructure are the ones that have given lavish tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy.

This calls for vigilance. We have to continue to insist that our government contract dollars be the fuel for lifting wages of working people, not driving them down. We need to insist that these dollars encourage employers to offer basic benefits like sick leave. Our contracting dollars should help empower workers, so that they have a say in safety and other workplace policies. As we continue the battle to ensure we’re making adequate investments in our transportation network and other aspects of our infrastructure, we can’t take for granted the fight to ensure that these infrastructure investments create good jobs, or overlook the opportunities to raise work and pay standards for everyone.

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