Setting the Record Straight on the Davis-Bacon Act

Once upon a time, conservative columnists like George Will could have been counted upon to offer thoughtful, reasoned and, most importantly, well-researched analysis on public policy issues.

Sadly, that academic approach to public policy debate has seemingly been forsaken, and Mr. Will’s recent column lambasting the federal Davis-Bacon Act as an inherently racist law is a case in point.

Furthermore, his unconscionable choice to elevate Rep. Steve King (R-IA) as an arbiter of intelligence on this issue, when the combative and isolated Congressman has proven himself over and over to be stunningly offensive, morally repugnant, disingenuous and completely fact-free when it comes to the issue of prevailing wage laws, is disappointing.

As a matter of historical record, Sen. James J. Davis (R-PA), Rep. Robert L. Bacon (R-NY) and countless others supported the enactment of the Davis-Bacon Act precisely because it would give protection to all workers, regardless of race or ethnicity.

The overwhelming legislative intent of the Act was clear: all construction workers, including minorities, are to be protected from abusive industry practices.  Mandating the payment of local, “prevailing” wages on federally-funded construction projects not only stabilized local wage rates and labor standards for local wage earners and local contractors, but also prevented migratory contracting practices which treated African-American workers as exploitable indentured servants.

But rather than taking the time to understand the actual workings and characteristics of the U.S. construction industry as it exists today, along with the original intent of the Davis-Bacon Act which has evolved over the years to occupy an important role in preventing the erosion of community wage and benefit standards for minority workers, Mr. Will embraced an indolent approach that simply mimicked the talking points provided to him by the special interest groups who are leading the charge to repeal this important law.

Fake news is the currency being used by Mr. Will and others, most notably the Heritage Foundation, in their continued denigration of the federal Davis-Bacon Act.  Claiming that this law is racist is not grounded in facts.  But for years it has been presented as fact, and propagated to the media, which has the effect of legitimizing this claim.  And in the hands of unscrupulous editorialists and lobbyists, this claim has become equal to, or even better than fact.  But make no mistake – the idea that the Davis-Bacon Act is racist is fake news, a modern, easy-to-swallow substitute for the truth.

The myth of prevailing wage laws being rooted in racism was first brought forth in a 1990 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal written by Scott Alan Hodge of the Heritage Foundation.

That year, an attempt was made to repeal Massachusetts’ prevailing wage law.  Unfortunately for the repeal effort, a widely respected research entity in that state analyzed the effects of a potential repeal and concluded that there were no solid prospective taxpayer savings to be realized from repeal and that the only clear outcome of repeal would be lower wages for Massachusetts’ construction workers.

That research coincides with the extensive body of peer-reviewed research conducted in the last 15 years and which finds that repealing or weakening prevailing wage laws will not save taxpayer dollars.

Clearly, the proponents of repeal had a problem in 1990 just like they do today.  True scholarship was consistently concluding that repeal of prevailing wage laws was unlikely to result in any significant savings of taxpayer dollars.  So, they needed another angle.  Enter fake news and the contention that prevailing wage laws are a racist vestige of the Jim Crow era.

In his column, Will offers up a quote from the congressional debate over the Davis-Bacon Act, and which he surmises clearly shows the true intent of the Act:

Passage of Davis-Bacon brought out the drollery in Representative William Upshaw, a Georgia Democrat. He said he hoped his Northern colleagues in Congress would permit a Southerner to smile about ‘your reaction to that real problem you are confronted with in any community with a superabundance or large aggregation of Negro labor.”

 But, in true allegiance to fake news, Will conveniently omits this response to Upshaw from Representative Bacon, a sponsor of the bill:

…the contractor has also brought in skilled nonunion labor from the South to do this work, some of them negroes and some of them white, but all of them are being paid very much less than the wage scale prevailing in New York State.

 For the original sponsors of the Davis-Bacon Act, the issue was not race. The issue was that both black and white workers from Alabama were being exploited in conditions that amounted to indentured servitude.

What’s remarkable is that even today, under federal Davis-Bacon Act wage determinations, we often still see poverty level wages, like those in Louisiana, where Will applauded the suspension of Davis-Bacon under President George W. Bush for reconstruction efforts after Katrina.  Today, under Davis-Bacon wage determinations, a common laborer is only entitled to $8.20 an hour; a dredging operator only $7.25 an hour; and a front-end loader operator $9.93 an hour.

Repealing or weakening prevailing wage laws has been shown to increase taxpayer burdens by lowering construction worker incomes below the poverty level, a trend that has actually helped to spur the exodus of African Americans from the U.S. construction industry over the last several decades in favor of a heavy reliance upon Latino immigrants, both legal and undocumented.

It is no wonder then that the chief protagonist for the repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act today, namely the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), is also leading the charge to alter the federal H-2B visa program in order to increase the number of foreign guest workers allowed to work in the U.S. construction industry.

Since prevailing wage laws particularly affect low-income construction workers, the absence of these protections pushes the most vulnerable of our society into poverty.

Overall, if all 25 states with prevailing wage laws today weakened or outright repealed their statutes, an additional 99,000 blue-collar construction workers would see their incomes fall below the poverty level, 319,000 would lose their health insurance coverage, 124,000 would lose pension coverage, and 102,000 would be forced to rely on food stamps, thereby increasing a reliance on public assistance programs.

To continue to proliferate the false narrative that the Davis-Bacon Act is racist egregiously misstates both history and contemporary reality — and it is also premised upon the pernicious notion that the only way to hire minorities on construction projects is to pay them less.