In recent weeks, articles and editorials criticizing the state Prevailing Wage Act have appeared across the commonwealth. Is it coincidence or the result of recent legislative action? No, actually this type of media attention on such a relatively obscure and little understood law is the result of a highly organized and well-financed public relations campaign.
The purpose of the campaign isn't so much to inform the reader as to create public opinion and political pressure so that the so called "reform" bills pass. That tactic isn't unique to this issue. Special interests that have the financial and organizational resources employ this kind of strategy all the time. What is surprising about the prevailing wage blitz is the audacious manner in which many of the most important facts have been totally ignored.
Every recent article that has appeared paints the picture of a classic business versus organized labor dispute. That's the kind of simple message media consultants love to spin, but in this case it's not true and the spin doctors know it.
Last year the House Labor and Industry Committee held three public hearings on prevailing wage. I personally testified at one of them on behalf of construction contractors who oppose the "reform" bills. That's right, contractors, employers, businesses, job creators, whatever you want to call us, but definitely not organized labor. And, they weren't all signatory contractors (those companies that employ unionized workers) either.
On one panel that presented testimony in support of the current prevailing wage law, three of the five people who testified were owners of non-union companies. They testified that the rates they pay are in line with the wage rates prescribed by the prevailing wage law.
So if the dispute isn't a classic business versus labor fight, or even a signatory contractor versus open shop contractor fight, what's it really about? It's a battle between low wage contractors and contractors who pay good wages and benefits.
The Prevailing Wage Act establishes a minimum wage for work done on publicly financed construction projects. It's necessary because virtually all of those projects are awarded on a low-bid basis. Without the law, some contractors would pay as little as possible to their workers in hopes of winning the bid. A study examining the effects of Missouri's repeal of prevailing wage found that out-of-state contractors were awarded more public works jobs after the repeal. Why? They brought cheap labor with them. Equalizing the wage rates creates a level playing field so that local contractors, who hire local workers, aren't underbid by fly by nights.
I should also note that the big savings predicted by the repeal of the Missouri law never materialized.
While eliminating the construction minimum wage might seem OK to public officials who just want the work done as cheaply as possible, in the long run, this practice harms local companies, workers and taxpayers who pay to construct these projects. Construction jobs are not temporary jobs; they are permanent jobs at temporary locations. You probably have neighbors or friends who have a career as a plumber, electrician or one of the other construction trades. Protecting good-paying local contractors from being underbid by cheap labor importers also protects those local jobs.
There are many misleading elements in the press releases touting prevailing wage "reform," more than space allows for me to address in a letter to the editor. But the most offensive part of the PR campaign is the underlying philosophy that if we just paid our middle-class workers less, our commonwealth would somehow be better off.
-- James Gaffney is presi dent of the Mechanical Con tractors Association of Eastern Pennsylvania.