By TIM ROWDEN
Jefferson City – Members of a special Senate panel are signaling that a Republican-led effort to roll back labor protections in Missouri is far from over.
Following a legislative session that saw the GOP lawmakers and Republican Gov. Eric Greitens approve a so-called “right-to-work” law and other anti-worker reforms, a GOP push to repeal Missouri’s Prevailing Wage law is moving back in the spotlight.
The Senate Interim Committee on Labor Reform recently heard testimony and reviewed data to determine if and how the legislature would repeal the law.
Committee Chairman Senator Dave Schatz (R-Sullivan), vice president of Schatz Underground, Inc., a utility construction company, wants to amend rather than repeal the law so that Prevailing Wage would only be in effect on projects over $500,000.
“Repealing prevailing wage, or setting an unreasonably high limit, would hurt our members and hurt Missouri taxpayers,” said John Stiffler, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council. “We depend on our public officials to set standards that ensure safe, quality work on our public buildings and infrastructure. What this committee is discussing risks just the opposite.”
PART OF AN ONGOING EFFORT TO GUT WAGE PROTECTIONS
Last the spring, House Republicans approved a plan to repeal Prevailing Wage on public works projects in the state – going so far as to deny House Democrats a chance to speak on the measure – but the legislation failed to advance in the Senate after Democrats used their filibuster power to block it.
During testimony last week, supporters of gutting prevailing wage said doing away with the labor rule would save taxpayer dollars and make it less complicated to get government projects underway, but contractors and some cities’ officials disagreed.
Prevailing Wage establishes a minimum rate that must be paid to workers on state-funded construction projects in Missouri. Existing law requires contractors and subcontractors hired for taxpayer-funded public construction projects to pay a fair wage based on local standards, thereby ensuring that public sector construction jobs are bid based on equipment, materials and overall project management, rather than on the wages of the employees.
Missouri’s Prevailing Wages are set on a county-by-county basis for each type of work involved in a project based on voluntary wage surveys submitted by contractors working in each county. So, the argument by some rural lawmakers that Prevailing Wage unfairly hampers their ability to proceed on public works projects by driving up the costs really comes down to local contractors who fail to report their wages.
RESPONSIBLE CONTRACTORS OPPOSE REPEAL
Contractors who testified last week told members of the committee that they favor the law because it keeps highly skilled labor from seeking jobs in other states, and lower skilled labor from creeping into Missouri.
“We’re going to have a shortage of trained labor,” said Emily Martin, president of Fenton-based Aschinger Electric Co.
Walter Bazan, owner of Bazan Painting Co. St. Louis, said the changes being suggested could force him to lay off eight to 10 employees. He said putting a cap on the cost of projects affected by Prevailing Wage could freeze him out of certain projects.
“I’m afraid. I’m afraid of all of you,” Bazan said. “It’s going to be awfully hard to recruit these people if indeed wages will fall.”
Some local municipal officials also favor the Prevailing Wage.
In a Missouri Municipal League survey conducted in May, St. Peters Mayor Len Pagano said, “Prevailing wage brings fair bidding.”
And Herculaneum City Administrator Jim Kasten wrote, “We pay prevailing wage because it is the right thing to do! It is shameful that public officials want to short change workers and their families!”
The committee is expected to continue meeting through the summer and fall with an eye on drafting legislation to be debated next year.