Fresh off a rushed approval a controversial “right to work” law that makes it harder for unions to bargain for better pay and conditions, Republicans in Wisconsin now say they have a “better than 50 percent” chance of scrapping state laws that ensure construction workers a living wage.
Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) plans to tack his bill to repeal the state’s nearly century-old “prevailing wage” law for construction workers on local and state projects onto the massive state budget that must pass some time in the next few months. Currently, the law requires contractors bidding for state and local projects to pay workers the average wage in their county for their craft — so a welder in Green Bay will always get the same wage no matter if he or she is local or brought in from another state or country.
Dan Butkiewicz, the president of Milwaukee Building Trades Council, told ThinkProgress he’s worried that could soon change.
“This is really an attack on the middle class worker,” he said. “If you allow people to come in and undercut wages, you put our local contractors at a disadvantage. Unemployment will go up. People will have less to spend on homes, so less will come in in property taxes. The whole economy will suffer because the less you make, the less you spend.”
Though unemployment has dropped in Wisconsin over the past few years, the state has trailed behind most others in job creation, falling behind the rest of the Midwest since Governor Scott Walker took office in 2010.
Backers of the proposal to repeal the prevailing wage, including Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, say the change will “increase Wisconsin’s competitiveness” and ease the “the financial burden on Wisconsin’s taxpayers” by making public works projects cheaper. They cite a study by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance that claims the prevailing wage law drove up the cost of state and local projects by a few hundred million dollars last year alone.
Critics counter that the study was funded by a coalition of non-union construction companies, who have a vested interest in being allowed to pay their workers less. Other studies have found no financial benefit and several adverse impacts from getting rid of prevailing wage protections. Butkiewicz and others have also expressed concern that the quality of the work could suffer on upcoming projects like Milwaukee’s new streetcar system.
“What you really lose, when you get rid of the prevailing wage, is a skilled, productive worker,” he said. “Our roads, bridges, and buildings should be built by the safest, best trained, qualified people, and those people need to be paid fairly for their skills. You’re not going to attract businesses to the state with substandard infrastructure.”
Dane County executive Joe Parisi, who is currently planning for a $24 million construction project this summer, told ThinkProgress he shares these concerns.
“All projects are important, but public projects in particular need quality craftsmanship, high safety standards, and assurance they’ll get done on time,” he said. “We don’t want to cut corners. We don’t want people to have to come back and redo a project. We want it done right. In order to do that, we need contractors that hire people at a reasonable wage. This is hard work, dangerous work, and they deserve a living wage. We’re not talking about an outrageous wage. It’s based on the average wages in the area.”
By the state’s calculation, a bulldozer driver in Dane County — home of the state capitol — would make about $30 an hour. An electrician in Kenosha County would make about $48 an hour.
As the budget debate moves forward in the weeks ahead, this proposal has kicked off an intense lobbying effort, with those on each side arguing their case.
The Koch Industries-backed group Americans for Prosperity is launching a campaign supporting the repeal, while labor groups are voicing opposition to the proposal.
“We’re reaching out to our legislators to try to educate them. They’re very uneducated, on both sides of the aisle, and insensitive to the working man,” Butkiewicz. “So far, they aren’t doing a good job representing those who elected them. That was apparent with ‘right-to-work.'”