(UPDATE: Last week, House Republicans officially passed a repeal of Missouri’s prevailing wage law that affects public construction projects. We'll have more on this development in the March 22 print edition.)
By TIM ROWDEN
Jefferson City – The Republican-controlled Missouri House narrowly endorsed a plan in recent weeks to open the door to low-wage, low-quality contractors on public works projects by voting to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law.
In the latest move to lower workers’ wages and cripple unions, the House gave preliminary approval on an 86-63 vote to throw out the guidelines that set how much workers earn on public construction projects.
House Bill 1729, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Justus (R-Branson) would require bidders on public works projects like schools, roads and county jails to pay employees state or federal minimum wage, whichever is higher instead of the county’s published prevailing wage.
In effect, the bill calls for entrusting the safety of our infrastructure and children’s schools to the lowest bidder, resulting in lower quality, lower pay, lower safety standards and less health care for workers. A similar bill is being considered in the Senate.
WILL PUSH WAGES DOWN
Prevailing wage laws are designed to ensure 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 current law requires construction workers to be paid state-set minimum wages on taxpayer-funded projects, county by county, based on voluntary annual wage reports submitted by contractors. The law requires all workers, union or nonunion, to be paid the same wages on public works projects, including roads, bridges, schools and other public buildings.
Supporters of prevailing wage –– including the Mechanical Contractors Associations of Eastern Missouri, the St. Louis Chapter National Electrical Contractors Association and the Missouri AFL-CIO –– rightly say eliminating it will mean lower pay for Missouri workers and fewer highly skilled workers working on public works projects.
Right-wing opponents in the Missouri House say doing away with prevailing wage, paying workers less and throwing quality to the wind will save taxpayer dollars and make it less complicated to get government projects underway.
Rep. Doug Beck (D-Affton), a member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562, said Missouri’s prevailing wage law should be reformed, not eliminated.
“This law right here will push the wages down in this state if you are a construction worker,” Beck said. “I’ve seen it happen.”
ASSAULT ON WORKERS
The state’s prevailing wage law has been a longtime target of some, but not all, Republican lawmakers who control both chambers of the Missouri Legislature.
“It’s an assault on workers, period,” said Rep. Bob Burns (D-Affton), a retired member of Teamsters Local 600.
The House approved a similar proposal last year, but it died in the Senate.
Republicans who voted against prevailing wage repeal, and in support of workers, included Reps. Chris Dinkins of Annapolis, Kevin Engler of Farmington, Becky Ruth of Festus and Chrissy Sommer of St. Charles.
HAIL MARY FOR WOMEN
Debate on the bill in the House included a Hail Mary attempt by Rep. Brandon Ellington (D-Kansas City) to, if not fully preserve prevailing wage, at least protect equal pay for female workers. The amendment was defeated.