Public Works Projects Before Prevailing Wage: We Must Never Go Back

Robbie Column

November 2013 - Any discussion of the merits of paying prevailing wage on public works projects should start with a look at the way things were done before there was prevailing wage; and should then ask if things have gotten better.

A hundred years ago, America's infrastructure was falling apart. Roads just a few years old were crumbling. Recently built bridges quickly fell down. Dams built hastily across rivers to store water soon breached and flooded the towns and people living below them.

When a governmental entity - federal, state, county or city - decided to build something, it would put the word out to the good-old-boy network to find the guy who would build it for the lowest cost and the biggest profit. Durability and quality workmanship didn't figure in the discussion.  Just build it and build it cheap.

That meant using the lowest-paid untrained workers and the cheapest materials. Nepotism ruled the day. Cousin Joe would be paid to provide the watered-down concrete. Uncle Fred the substandard or missing rebar. They would import unskilled workers from out of the area to keep wages abysmally low. Those shabbily built projects were doomed to quick failure, but the short-term profits were real and immense. So America's public works track record, from 1900 into the 1920s, was a disaster.

But with the dawn of the era of truly immense public works projects designed to not only span the great natural divides across America, but also to pull the country out of the Great Depression, projects such as the Golden Great Bridge and the colossal Colorado River Project that would be Hoover Dam, leaders saw the need to do things differently.

It became apparent to wise leaders of all political persuasions that, for projects of this magnitude, a much greater investment in a skilled, highly-trained, streamlined workforce would be absolutely necessary. These leaders recognized the need to provide a professional contracting system, to establish and to commit to pay workers the average wage for their skills in their region, thereby maintaining a constant professional pool of workers. So resulted the Davis-Bacon Act, named after its sponsors, Republican Senator James Davis of Pennsylvania, and Republican Congressman Robert Bacon of New York. It simply provided that wages paid on public works projects are  (a) to be prevailing (b) in the locality of the project (c) for similar crafts and skills (d) on comparable construction work. The Davis–Bacon act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Herbert Hoover on March 3, 1931.The state of California passed its own prevailing wage law the same year.

Those workers on Hoover Dam, making the then-prevailing wage of 80 cents per hour - which naysayers of the era complained was too high - completed that enormous project ahead of schedule and within their budget. Eighty years later, Hoover Dam, bearing the name of the Republican President whose signature made prevailing wage the law of the land - continues to serve us well today.

So have the thousands of other dams and bridges and roads built with prevailing wage in the decades since. The improvement in quality and longevity of our public infrastructure since we have used prevailing wage is overwhelming. Common sense tells us we should promote and expand the use of prevailing wage; and the California Building Trades Council continues to successfully advance that legislative course in our state.

As a result, young men and women graduating from high school throughout California, who are not destined for college, either because of family circumstance or their individual aptitude, have a pathway to apprenticeship programs with four to five years training, to achieve a lifetime career in construction, if they work hard, earning an average of around $50,000 a year. These are the young people who will replace the aging construction workforce in California, not only driving our economy, but upgrading and replacing our existing infrastructure.

But the naysayers are still out there, fighting us every step of the way. They pine for those long ago days early in the last century, when it was standard practice to maximize short-term profits at every opportunity by cutting corners, shortchanging workers, and sacrificing quality and durability, just to quickly line their own pockets at the cost of taxpayers.

Make no mistake, anti-union lobbying groups like Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and all their associated front organizations would happily take us back to the days of new roads quickly crumbling away, substandard bridges falling down, and cheap dams routinely breaching away. All to enrich themselves in the extreme short term at the public's expense.

In short, they still despise our prevailing wage laws for the many benefits they've brought to society. They long desperately for a return to the old days before prevailing wage, and they'll never stop trying to force all of us to go backwards with them.


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