By: JAMES M. SWEENEY
November 28, 2017
James M. Sweeney is president and business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150.
Mark Glennon recently argued in a column for Crain’s that municipalities’ budget challenges can only be solved by lowering wages of workers who build our schools, transportation systems and other public infrastructure projects.
Setting aside the irony of a self-described lawyer and venture capitalist calling for middle-class construction workers to take a pay cut, let’s unpack these assertions a little.
Read more: Illinois prevailing wage mandate hurts the economy
Prevailing wage functions as a local market minimum wage on skilled construction work that is paid for by government. It ensures that things like schools, bridges and roads are built by local people who are trained to do the job right the first time, and that local tax dollars do not undercut local wage rates by attracting low-wage, unskilled workers from other parts of the country. Most prevailing wage workers complete three to five years of industry-financed, post-secondary apprenticeship training for occupations that are consistently recognized as among the nation’s most dangerous.
While construction wages and benefits represent just 22 percent of total public works costs, legions of economists have reached the consensus that prevailing wages have no impact on total project costs because they result in higher productivity, fewer safety issues and less spending on materials, fuels and equipment.
If you don’t believe in peer-reviewed facts, consider that Republican Indiana Rep. Ed Soliday said last year that Indiana’s repeal of its prevailing wage law “hasn’t saved a penny.”
What is also known is that states without prevailing wage laws have more income inequality, see more of their tax dollars shipped to firms out of state and spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on programs like Medicaid, food stamps and low-income tax credits for construction workers.
In other words, without prevailing wage laws, taxpayers lose far more than just good local jobs and quality workmanship.
For the record, unions do not set prevailing wage rates. These rates are based on surveys of what union and non-union employees are actually paid in the marketplace. For each craft in each community, the most common wage rate prevails.