Viewpoint: A Union Plan for Hurricane Repair: Local Hire, Prevailing Wage

People in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico need decent paying jobs while they try to put their lives back together, and the one industry that will be booming is construction. Photo: SC National Guard

After Harvey, Irma, and Maria, many thousands of homes have been lost and lives wrecked. People in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico need decent paying jobs while they try to put their lives back together, and the one industry that will be booming is construction.

The question is whether these will be good jobs for local residents. They can be good jobs only if prevailing wage laws are upheld—and local hire agreements are put in place.

By promoting work at the prevailing wage as the path to enable people in hurricane-devastated communities to recover in place, building trades unions could solve two political problems.

What Is Prevailing Wage?

The purpose of prevailing wage laws is to make sure that when government funds a construction project, it doesn't undercut local wage standards. The government does a survey of construction employers in an area, union and nonunion, and figures out the going rate for the different trades. That's the prevailing wage.

For publicly funded contracts, the contractor can be union or non-union, but it must pay that wage.

The federal prevailing wage law is called Davis-Bacon, and many states and cities have similar laws.

First, prevailing wage laws are under attack both in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures across the country—but the labor movement has not developed a simple, popular message around why these standards are important.

Unions have relied on insider politics to defend wage standards in construction, but that has proven insufficient. The lack was dramatized in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker lowered the boom despite the trades' long-standing relationships with moderate Republicans.

Corporate lobbies have opposed prevailing wage for decades, and they use any crisis—whether a budget deficit or a natural disaster—as an opportunity to argue for lower pay. The Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Builders and Contractors call prevailing wage an unearned privilege and payback for union political influence, all coming at the expense of the broader public. The labor movement lacks an easy retort.

But if we’re talking about residents of Houston or San Juan rebuilding their own communities, the rationale for prevailing wage is clear: this is what would enable workers to earn enough to stay where they live after the local economy has been wiped out.

It suddenly becomes obvious that the “savings” touted by corporate lobbyists would be simply stealing out of workers’ paychecks—not a savings to the community at all, but rather the final straw that forces them to abandon their communities.

DON'T REPEAT KATRINA

After a hurricane, people are at risk of being forced out for two reasons: they don’t have a place to live, and there’s no work. Prevailing wage sets up one of these to be the solution to the other: employ people at family-wage jobs rebuilding their home communities.

When the corporate lobbies get their way and wage standards are gutted, we see mass exodus, as happened in New Orleans 12 years ago. George W. Bush waived Davis-Bacon for the rebuilding, which drove wages so low that local people could not take those jobs. Many thousands of New Orleanians were forced into exile.

Prevailing wage decides whether people are able to recover in place or not.

TRUMP THE SAVIOR?

At the same time, the second problem confronted by building trades leadership is that, as in other unions, a big chunk of their members voted for Donald Trump. Many put their trust in Trump as a self-proclaimed champion of working people.

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Some of the trades leadership is trying to organize a critical mass of members on a more progressive platform. By far the most potent way for these members to be educated is not by lecturing them, but by engaging them in a political defense of prevailing wage, through which they can judge for themselves whether Trump is standing up for working people.

To date, the administration’s infrastructure plans focus on federal tax credits—in other words, the transfer of public assets to private owners—to incentivize firms to build public infrastructure.

Under that policy, prevailing wage would be moot, since the work would be considered a private rather than public undertaking. If Trump undercuts the prevailing wage for hurricane reconstruction, that will be a powerful object lesson for building trades members.

TAKE A RISK WITH TRAINING

To make Houston or San Juan turn out differently from New Orleans, and to teach a lesson on the value of prevailing wage, would require a bold and risky campaign by building trades unions.

In addition to promoting hurricane reconstruction at prevailing wages, the building trades should push for community benefits agreements that set jobs aside for local residents, coupled with an expansive training program that equips locals to do the work.

Such an initiative carries risks: giving local residents enough training to work right away, without getting them to union standards, risks creating a new labor pool that in the future could be used as a low-wage alternative to union members.

But there are a few examples to learn from and build on. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New York City building trades unions negotiated the first ever project labor agreement to rebuild single-family homes. They partnered with community organizations to make sure that 20 percent of the workers would be hired from low-income communities affected by the storm. Local residents were also enrolled in pre-apprenticeship programs to work on the rebuilding, with a direct path to union apprenticeships.

In San Francisco and Los Angeles, building trades unions have partnered with community organizations and won agreements that mandate 30 percent of the jobs on public works be filled with residents of low-income communities, using pre-apprenticeship training programs to equip people to do that work.

A more expansive version of this for hurricane recovery carries real risks– this is not merely a matter of how progressive the trades are. There is no faculty union, for instance, that would vote to train people without a Ph.D. to give lectures, write papers and grade students–and just hope that they end up all deciding to complete their degrees rather than serve as a workforce of lower-wage, less-credentialed competitors.

Hopefully the trades can find creative ways of incentivizing participants to complete their training and eventually become journey-level union members.

Despite the risk, the alternative is worse: trying to hold on to union wage standards and control of the work for the immediate future, but letting the enemies of prevailing wage continually eat away at those standards.

What makes this risk worthwhile is the unique opportunity to fundamentally change the way the public understands prevailing wage and radically strengthen the political support for living wage jobs in this industry.

Twenty years ago, the 1997 UPS strike changed the way millions of Americans thought about part-time work. There's a chance a campaign by the building trades could do the same for prevailing wage. I believe it’s a chance worth taking.

[Gordon Lafer is a labor educator at the University of Oregon and the author of The One-Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time.]