A New Prevailing Wage Ordinance

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The Black Roots of San Diego’s New Prevailing Wage Ordinance

Not widely known, the White House and Capitol building were constructed in large part by Negroes, some free, some not — along with immigrants who worked side by side without conflict.  http://www.whitehousehistory.org/whha_timelines/images/whha_timeline-african-american.pdf For names and wages see: http://bobarnebeck.com/slaves.html

So it comes as a surprise that 130 years later the Davis-Bacon “Prevailing Wage” Act was adopted. This is a federal super-minimum wage law (still with us) that originally was intended to keep Blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants from working on federal construction jobs.

Davis-Bacon requires the payment of prevailing wages on federally funded projects. At the behest of Congress, President Hoover who believed it would prevent wages from falling during the Great Depression signed it into law March 3, 1931.  President Roosevelt subsequently concurred.

Regardless of what two Presidents believed, Davis-Bacon was approved by Congress after a contractor using “negro labourers” from the South won a contract to build a Veterans Hospital in New York. Alabama Congressman Clayton Allgood fretted about contractors with “cheap colored labor … of the sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country.”  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704881304576094221050061598.html

A month after Davis-Bacon became federal law San Diego approved a new city charter, which included a section modeled after Davis-Bacon, Section 193 titled: “PREVAILING RATE OF WAGES TO BE PAID ON PUBLIC WORK,” April 7, 1931 (pg 72). Prevailing wages historically have meant the highest union wages.  Non-union construction workers have a tremendous advantage over unionized competitors: They often can do a better job, more efficiently, at less cost to taxpayers. Some politicians call this “unfair,” by attacking quality of work while never being able to identify non-union built buildings that are falling down around the city. Prevailing Wage laws remove this advantage.

It’s not just wages but also union work rules that cost the taxpayers. Until the 1960s union painters were prohibited from using wider than 6 inch paint brushes and could not use paint rollers or spray guns. Not being subject to such onerous restrictions gave non-union workers a clear edge.  I was best man at a friend’s wedding just out of high school when he went to work at National Steel and Shipbuilding.  A union steward told Larry to slow down he was making other workers look bad.  Larry said he was just working, not fast, not slow.  When he got off work one day all four of his tires were slashed in the parking lot.  This was not an uncommon union tactic.

Fast forward to September 1963 when the people of San Diego voted to amend the City Charter and repeal Section 193 which contained the Prevailing Wage clause.

Then, on July 30th, of this year, the City Council at the behest of the Mayor voted 5 to 4 to reinstate a “Prevailing Wage Ordinance. The sole reason for adopting the Prevailing Wage Ordinance for San Diego city projects is so labor unions will direct their generous campaign contributions to the mayor and city council majority who voted for the ordinance.  All other wonderful explanations are buffalo chips.

If San Diego were located in a foreign country this would be illegal under the “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act” (15 U.S. C. § 78dd-1, et. Seq.).  Unions give campaign contributions to council members, and council members contribute “taxpayers money” to unions, via union workers getting “prevailing wages.”

With the renewal of the Prevailing Wage Ordinance this year the city’s Independent Budget Analyst Report concludes on all city projects for FY 2014 the costs could add up to an additional $26 million. (IBA 13-26 p.10) This is the equivalent of five-hundred-twenty (520) $50,000 jobs wiped out by the city council.

While the report estimates the provision will only add 5% to total project costs it’s also acknowledges possible increases of 25% to 37% in the construction portion of total costs. Whatever the actual added cost it’s clear the majority of councilmembers instead of looking out for the taxpayers are looking how to finance their next election with labor union support. It also means $26 million will not be available for fixing the atrocious condition of city streets

Back in 2003 the council had voted to require prevailing wages to be paid on water and sewer construction projects of over $10 million.   Richard Mendes, the city utilities general manager, estimated on just one project it would add $6.9 million to the cost: the planned Miramar sewerage treatment plant. (U-T 4/23/03)

Frank Belock, city engineer, said it would add approximately $25 million to water projects over the next five years (SDDT 7/16/03).  (Now you know why your water bills have been skyrocketing, with high water bills leading to dying lawns and the uglifying of San Diego). A relative handful of union workers will get so-called Prevailing Wages and everyone else will get to pay the increased costs in higher water bills. Walter Williams, commenting on prevailing wages (Davis-Bacon) noted, “Because most black construction workers aren’t union members, the law has the effect of freezing them out of jobs.”

Not only is the city’s Prevailing Wage Ordinance a throwback to Jim Crow laws keeping Blacks, Hispanics and non-union workers from competing for jobs but when city residents are needlessly  forced to pay higher water and sewer bills they have less money for other necessities relegating them to a lower  standard of living.

Undoubtedly, the union workers who will be getting the higher so-called “Prevailing Wage” will be grateful. The workers harmed, much like the minorities under Davis-Bacon and other minimum wage laws are invisible to the council and probably don’t make campaign contributions anyway.  It’s as plain as the nose on your face; the council majority takes care of those who take care of the council and with the cost hidden within all waters bills few residents are expected to notice. How clever! In summary, based on experience since 1931, those harmed the most will be minorities and non-union workers willing to do a better job at lower cost by adopting union prohibited new technology. Regardless of intent of the law, economist Walter Williams writes, “While today’s supporters of the Davis-Bacon Act talk differently, its racially discriminatory effects are the same.”