CA State Building Trades Leader Robbie Hunter: Prevailing wage, project labor agreements protect living standards for construction workers

Robbie Hunter, President of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, authored a powerful op-ed in the Orange County Register in defense of strong prevailing wage standards in the construction industry, while refuting the oft-repeated and scandalous accusations that such laws are grounded in racism.


Prevailing wage, project labor agreements protect living standards for construction workers

By Robbie Hunter |

In an era of political hyperventilation, it might be a good idea for some critics to take a deep breath before they launch into their attacks on the prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements that protect the living standards of construction workers in California and across the nation.

From Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, anti-union writers in recent weeks have incorrectly branded the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act that wrote the prevailing wage into the law on taxpayer-funded construction projects as born of racism and a rip-off of public funds. The same critics also have falsely characterized project labor agreements as costly to taxpayers and unfair to nonunion construction companies.

Now, for the facts.

Two Republican congressmen, Sen. James Davis of Pennsylvania and U.S. Rep. Roger Bacon of New York, sponsored their legislation 86 years ago to establish a minimum wage on taxpayer-funded construction projects, based on local measures of central tendency in any of the covered construction trades.

The idea behind the prevailing wage is to keep unscrupulous operators from low-bidding the legitimate competition to the detriment of the local workforce. The effect has been to allow blue-collar workers — 400,000 of whom are represented by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California — to maintain their place in the American middle class.

Of the false charges that have been lodged of late about Davis-Bacon, perhaps the most repugnant is the smear that recirculates every so often that the act originated as an outgrowth of racism. The critics troll through the historic record to quote some congressmen in the debate over Davis-Bacon who supported the law based on their own warped view that it was designed to protect higher-paid white workers in the northeast represented by the authors of the law from “cheap colored labor” that would be imported to their districts from the South. The critics fail, however, to report Congressman Bacon’s reply that imported workers came in white skin as well as black.

They also fail to note the observations of U.S. Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia, later to become one of New York’s most legendary mayors, that in the Long Island hospital project that gave rise to the law, all the workers brought north by the Alabama construction firm, Algernon-Blair, were equals in suffering exploitation at the hands of the contractor.

“I saw with my own eyes the labor that (the contractor) imported there from the South and the conditions under which they were working,” LaGuardia testified from the House floor. “These unfortunate men were huddled in shacks living under the most wretched conditions and being paid wages far below the standard.”

As for the current day, more than half of the $1.32 billion paid out to workers on prevailing wage jobs in California in 2016 went to non-whites. The percentage was considerably higher on projects in the urban core, like the multiple public transportation extensions in Los Angeles.

Well into its ninth decade, the Davis-Bacon Act still makes sure that jobs get finished faster, more efficiently and at a lower cost, thanks to the increased productivity of a streamlined, higher-skilled and better-trained workforce. It saves money on social welfare costs, too.

Davis-Bacon projects, meanwhile, are built to last. Just ask the millions who have visited Hoover Dam, one of the greatest infrastructure projects in American history. Back then, the critics complained about the workers’ ungodly wages — 80 cents an hour. In retrospect, the prevailing wage that covered the construction of the dam looks like the bargain of the century.

In the same breath as Davis-Bacon, anti-union commentators also express displeasure with project labor agreements where labor and management get together to make peace on wages and working conditions before construction ever begins. These agreements are employed on public as well as private projects, such as the 73-story Wilshire Grand project finished recently in downtown Los Angeles.

Nonunion companies are more than welcome to compete for project labor agreements. Some of them, however, may not be able to meet PLA requirements for the higher-quality work that you get from the union workers who have completed four- or five-year state-approved apprenticeship programs.

Without the prevailing wage and project labor agreements, the odds will go way up that low-bid contractors will hire their workers off street corners. Then you can expect cost overruns, shoddy workmanship and delays in construction — all of which are really something to get upset about.

Robbie Hunter is president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.