Senator Jeff Flake’s “Pay Cut for American Workers Act”

Tom Owens

Senator Jeff Flake’s “Pay Cut for American Workers Act”

WASHINGTON, DC — Senator Jeff Flake’s badly informed call for the repeal of the federal Davis-Bacon Act is a shining example of a politically tone-deaf maneuver backed by discredited research and misguided special interest groups.

Even the most casual of political observers would conclude that the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump was a referendum on the economic plight of America’s forgotten blue-collar workers.  As President Trump himself said on the campaign trail, “Five, 10 years from now—[it will be a] different party.  You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.”  And yet, Senator Flake is now advocating, via the introduction of legislation to repeal the federal Davis-Bacon Act, to cut the wages of American construction workers, both union and non-union.  Equally absurd is the fact that Senator Flake is calling for a wage cut at the exact moment when some areas of the U.S. construction industry are having a difficult time attracting new workers.

It seems as though at every turn there are press reports relating to construction industry labor shortages that are threatening many commercial construction starts.  And that is chiefly the result of the economics of the industry being in decline since the 1970s.

“Senator Flake must be living in an alternative universe,” said Sean McGarvey, President of North America’s Building Trades Unions.  “First off, he is completely oblivious to the political undercurrents relating to blue-collar economic anxiety that propelled Donald Trump into the White House.  And secondly, he possesses a warped sense of empathy when he believes that wages of $17.37 and $15.49 – which are the current Davis-Bacon prevailing highway construction wages for a Backhoe Operator and Laborer, respectively, in the state of Arizona – are simply too high for taxpayer-funded construction projects.”

At those wage rates, these workers would earn, respectively, roughly $35,000 and $31,000 annually.  Not exactly a king’s ransom, especially when both of those incomes are roughly 150% of the federal poverty level for a family of four.

And this holds true for the Laborer whose Davis-Bacon wage is $8.50/hour in Texas, or the Painter making $11.94/hour in Florida, or the Concrete Finisher making $15.58 in New Mexico, or the Ironworker making $14.22/hour in Arkansas.

“When people like Senator Flake suggest that savings of as much as 10% on publicly-funded construction can be realized through the repeal of prevailing wage laws,” said McGarvey, “then it must follow that construction wages will have to be reduced by as much as 50%.  The reason for this is that on public construction, 20% of labor costs are blue-collar labor costs.  So, that Backhoe Operator in Arizona would need to have his or her wages reduced to $8.70 an hour, and the Laborer would have to have his or her wages cut to $7.80 an hour in order to achieve the savings that Senator Flake touts.  And this is especially disconcerting for our nation’s military veterans, where recent research has shown that prevailing wage statutes greatly improve economic outcomes for our nation’s military veterans, and that attacks on prevailing wage, such as what is being proposed by Senator Flake, disproportionally hurt the hundreds of thousands post-9/11 veterans who are returning to the workforce, including the tens of thousands who have transitioned into careers in the construction industry thanks to our Helmets to Hardhats program.”

Senator Flake’s posture on this issue is that of another slick politician who traverses the talk show circuit spouting policy proposals that screw American workers.  In this case, the cost to taxpayers does not go down it just gets taken out of the pockets of construction workers and put into the bank accounts of the contractors and developers.  “The question that needs to be asked,” said McGarvey, “is why Senator Flake is not asking the contractors, or the architects, or the engineers, or even the company that supplied the Port-O-Johns to cut their pay in order to save taxpayer dollars?  Why is it only the workers who are being targeted?”

It is also worth noting the special interest groups that have pushed for the introduction of Senator Flake’s Davis-Bacon repeal bill, as well as Senator Flake’s previous policy proposals when it comes to immigration reform.  Further, an examination of Federal Election Commission records oftentimes reveals the motivations that drive lawmakers’ decisions when it comes to public policy proposals, and Senator Flake certainly falls into that category in this case.

In addition to seeking the elimination of Davis-Bacon Act community wage and benefit standards, contractor groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) are also at the forefront of efforts, and have previously been assisted by Senator Flake, to secure a drastic increase in the number of H2b foreign guest workers allowed to work annually in the U.S.  In fact, Senator Flake worked as a co-conspirator with Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski to not only secure such an increase in H2b visas, but to also drive down the prevailing wages that would govern that guest worker labor.

“Sanctioning the destruction of community wage and benefit standards for construction workers while simultaneously advocating for an increase in the number of foreign guest workers allowed into the U.S. is being blindingly oblivious to the working class anger that permeates throughout America today, and it sends a chilling and unmistakable message that American workers have, once again, been conned by the political establishment,” said McGarvey, “and that their economic interests shall, indeed, remain subservient to the interests of well-connected contributors, special interests, and crony capitalism.  The 2016 election should have taught lawmakers such as Senator Flake that American blue-collar workers feel as though they have gotten their first taste of victory in a very long while.  And they are now empowered and anxious to hang additional political pelts on their wall.”

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North America’s Building Trades Unions is an alliance of 14 national and international unions in the building and construction industry that collectively represent over 3 million skilled craft professionals in the United States and Canada. Each year, our unions and our signatory contractor partners invest over $1 billion in private sector money to fund and operate over 1,900 apprenticeship training and education facilities across North America that produce the safest, most highly trained and productive skilled craft workers found anywhere in the world.