Prevailing Wage: Moving Forward in California, Backward in Other States

Robbie Column July 2013 - In the 2013 legislative session, the State Building Trades is moving forward with a wide-ranging package of legislation, much of which expands and protects construction workers’ rights to earn the prevailing wage on public works projects.

California’s working people have fought together with a tenacious resolve and unity in recent election cycles to elect forward-looking individuals to our Legislature and statewide offices, and we are now working hard as ever to enact good new laws that will secure them a better standard of living. It is gratifying to know that the future is looking brighter for hard-working Californians.

But when I read news from elsewhere, I am saddened to see that in many other states, the ultra-rich big business interests are pushing workers backwards, removing hard-won worker protections and slashing their wages, lowering their quality of life and prospects for the future.

Consider the latest stinging defeat for working people in Tennessee, where the state has not only banned prevailing wage on state projects, but has now enacted a law that prohibits any local government from requiring prevailing wages on projects or requiring private employers to provide more generous health benefits, leave policies, or wages that exceed state standards. Any existing local ordinances that allow for better wages are now unenforceable. Not content with ending prevailing wage on state projects, they have now banned cities, counties, or local districts from even considering choosing to pay workers decently!

A similar law was signed recently by the Governor of Kansas. The state had already repealed its longstanding state prevailing wage law, but its newest law now “prohibits cities, counties, and local government units from using ordinances, resolutions, or law to require private employers to provide leave, benefits and higher compensation.”

Across America, even minimum wage is under threat. Eighteen states do not currently have prevailing wage laws, most repealed in the past few decades by Republican legislators and governors. In other states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, more anti-prevailing wage measures are progressing.

These attacks on working people around the country illustrate the importance of our work here in California, where we want to protect and expand prevailing wages for workers.

Here is some of what the Building Trades are doing. The hallmark bill for 2013 is Senate Bill 7, to make charter cities eligible for state funding for public works projects only if they pay prevailing wage. Charter cities may choose to exempt themselves from prevailing wage, and some do. This measure would provide a strong financial incentive for those cities to stop shortchanging working men and women with substandard wages.

Speaking of charter cities, Senate Bill 311 requires that charter city conversion elections be held in a statewide general election, where voter participation is highest, in order to protect workers from the tactic of passing conversion measures in lower turnout municipal elections. For example, in the City of Bell’s charter election, fewer than 400 people voted out of a population of 40,000 and corrupt politicians padded their paychecks to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, while driving construction workers’ wages into the ground by removing prevailing wage.

We are also protecting prevailing wage with Senate Bill 776, to prevent anti-union contractors from defining sham labor compliance committees as a fringe benefit, which can then be deducted from workers’ wages as a portion of the prevailing wage. The Associated Builders and Contractors, the anti-union group, have been using these deductions to fund themselves for their relentless drive to destroy construction unions.

We are also seeking to ramp up prevailing wage enforcement with Assembly Bill 1336, to extend the statute of limitations for recovering lost wages due to prevailing wage violations from six months to 18 months. These companies cheat workers on prevailing wage in order to provide the lowest bid, undermining honest contractors who pay workers fairly and base their bids on efficiency.

Assembly Bill 1140 would ensure that construction workers earn the prevailing wage in effect at the time they perform their work, rather than when a contract went to bid, which may be many years earlier, when the prevailing wage was significantly lower. We have found on projects that workers have gone years without a pay raise because of a loophole in state law that will be rectified by AB 1140.

Senate Bill 615 ensures prevailing wage on the construction of health care facilities financed by certain types of public bond mechanisms, while Assembly Bill 26 requires that contractors that do work in refineries carry a workforce that has been trained and graduated in state-approved construction apprenticeship programs, and requires those workers be paid the prevailing wage for construction workers in the area. Thus ensuring quality of work and the safety of the surrounding communities adjacent to these industrial facilities.

With this broad, determined package of legislation, we hope to make a real and positive difference for California construction workers. We, all of the Building Trades, and each individual local union, fought hard to defeat Proposition 32, which tried to silence our voice. We worked tirelessly to elect public officials that would listen to the concerns of everyday blue collar workers.

When we compare these worthy actions with the sad developments in many other states, we see the clear benefits of our unity and activism, and the price Californians could pay if we ever fail to be vigilant, vigorous and united in our fight for a decent quality of life.


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