Missouri GOP lawmakers looking at prevailing wage repeal again

By Tim Rowden, Editor, St. Louis Labor Tribune And Press Associates

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.–Members of a special State 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 measures, a GOP push to repeal Missouri’s prevailing wage law is moving back in the spotlight.

The state’s prevailing wage law is like the federal statute. It mandates local and state governments pay locally prevailing wages, determined county by county, on publicly funded construction. Such laws have two objectives: To guarantee workers get a decent wage for their toil and to prevent venal contractors from undercutting others by low-balling workers.

But the low-ball contractors and their political puppets, almost all of them Republicans, have waged war against prevailing wage laws for years, both in the state and nationally. Prevailing wage repeal is part of the nationwide right-wing and big business crusade to destroy both unions and workers’ living standards.

In Missouri, the Senate Interim Committee on Labor Reform recently heard testimony and reviewed data to determine if and how the legislature would repeal the law. The panel is aiming to bring it – again – before the full GOP-dominated State Senate next year.

State Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, the panel chairman and vice president of Schatz Underground, Inc., a utility construction company, wants to amend rather than repeal the law, making prevailing wage in effect only on projects over $500,000.

Workers and their allies, including contractors, testified against Schatz’s idea.

“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.”

Last 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 month, 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.

Existing prevailing wage 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. The U.S. Labor Department uses similar surveys in counties or metro areas to set prevailing wage standards for federally funded construction.

So the argument by some rural Missouri 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.

And anti-worker low-ball construction companies charge, without proving it, that the prevailing wage is really the union wage, though in rural or non-union areas it isn’t.

Non-low-ball contractors who testified told committee members 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. And the $500,000 “floor” in Schatz’s bill could freeze contractors out of many jobs, said Walter Bazan, owner of Bazan Painting Co., in St. Louis. The suggested changes could force him to lay off eight to 10 employees.

“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 current prevailing wage law. 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 shortchange workers and their families!”

Source: PAI