Folks, who know me well, know I love history. History is a great teacher – and what happened earlier this week in the Indiana House of Representatives reminded me of that.
In darkest days of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt passed the Davis-Bacon Act, which created something known as the common construction wage or prevailing wage. As you may know, in most cases government must purchase products at the lowest possible cost – and that includes construction projects too. In the 1930’s some unscrupulous contractors began bidding on public projects, offering low ball bids by hiring workers off the street at low wages, rather than skilled, experienced workers at higher rates. This led to poor construction, higher instances of workplace accidents and drove down the wage scale for the private sector too.
These practices didn’t sit well with President Roosevelt. He felt that since these public works projects were being financed with taxpayer dollars, they should benefit local taxpayers. He wanted local contractors to be hired to do the work, knowing they would reinvest their profits in their communities. And, he wanted local skilled workers to be hired and paid a living wage, providing good jobs and stimulating economic growth in communities across the nation.
FDR’s plan worked on the federal level and was copied with success by states across the nation, including Indiana.
Sadly, Mike Pence and others in the Republican-dominated Statehouse are again sticking their noses where they don’t belong. Despite the vocal objections of the construction industry and local government officials, they are working to undo this law. They say that common construction wage law is outdated and should be abolished because it stifles the free market.
It’s a false argument designed to hide another politically motivated power grab.
There is only one way a repeal of the common construction wage law will actually lower costs on publicly funded construction projects and that’s by gutting the wages of workers that would build those projects. Think about it: the cost of materials won’t change, nor will the type of equipment necessary to complete the project. The only possible areas to find any savings would be what workers are paid and the training and benefits they receive.
As someone who doesn’t enjoy paying taxes, I’m all for finding savings. However, by shortchanging workers’ wages and allowing contractors to low ball public works projects by hiring unskilled, low wage workers, there is a very real risk of building unsafe roads, bridges, schools and other public facilities.
I’m cheap, but not that cheap – and neither are Hoosiers. I don’t think any of us want to invest our money in shoddy work and I don’t think we want to be a party to paying those that do the work poverty level wages either.
But that’s the direction Governor Pence is taking us. The arrogance of the Republican Party in 1995 set them on a similar course to try to repeal the common construction wage law then. It took a while, but when the public found out, over 20,000 Hoosiers marched on the State Capital. A lot has happened since the 1930’s and 1995 but one thing hasn’t changed is the need for good paying jobs.
History has proven that maintaining a common construction wage is a good thing for Hoosier businesses, communities, workers and taxpayers. It’s a system that has worked and should be allowed to continue to work. Write your State Senator and tell them to vote NO on the repeal of the common construction wage law.
About the Author: John Gregg is a former president of Vincennes University and former Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives.
Image Credit: Martin Brochhaus, flickr