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La. IBEW Members Booted Off Project for Nonunion Labor, Davis-Bacon Suspension Blamed

October 13, 2005

For a disaster-torn community, this job looked like a gift from the heavens that had rained down death and destruction two weeks before.   Hurricane Katrina washed away the homes and former lives of many New Orleans-area IBEW members, but here was a chance to start again.

A steady 20-month project promising 12 hours a day, seven days a week at a southern Louisiana air force base -- complete with housing and three squares a day – was ideal for 75 electricians from the worst-off parts of Louisiana: St. Bernard’s Parish, the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and Lake Charles.    

Answering the first big call to come in post-Katrina, the electricians from New Orleans Local 130, Baton Rouge Local 995 and Lake Charles Local 861 reported to work wiring temporary tents at the Alvin Callendar Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse on September 12 for signatory contractor Knight Enterprises.   Three weeks later, they were off the job, discarded for out-of-state nonunion electricians following President Bush’s Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law suspension.

“This is a story about pure and naked greed, about exploiting lower-skilled, nonunion workers while slapping union workers across the face after the nation’s biggest natural disaster in a generation wiped out their lives,” IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill said.  

Local 130 Business Manager Robert “Tiger” Hammond said the IBEW members were to have finished wiring the temporary tent city, then wire and supply the electrical service to the base’s new barracks over the next year and a half.

President Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, under which employers must pay prevailing wage rates on federally financed construction projects, to "permit the employment of thousands of additional individuals."    The suspension has been a boon to large companies awarded no-bid contracts, which have bussed in migrants from California and elsewhere by promoting jobs on Spanish-language television.

Knight, a small minority-owned company in New Orleans, was kicked off the job before it let the IBEW workers go.   Owner Al Knight blamed the Davis-Bacon suspension for losing the contract to Alabama-based BE&K, which had a deal with Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton.   The job wiring the tent city was 60 percent completed when the Local 130 members were told that BE&K workers would be taking over.     

Knight’s workers had been paid the prevailing wage rate of $22 an hour.   Hammond said the BE&K workers, most of whom were from Texas and did not speak English, were making $14 an hour without benefits.  

“We have people who don’t have a house left, they don’t have anything left,” Hammond said.   “These are the people who were sent off this job.   This was an ideal job for them because it would house them and feed them and give them a decent living wage.”

The move did not escape the notice of Capitol Hill, where Knight’s plight and that of the IBEW members stirred outrage.   Hammond said he has been in touch with Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.).   Members of both parties are demanding the reinstatement of Davis-Bacon in the Gulf.

“As if the people of the Gulf Coast haven’t suffered enough, the Bush administration has implemented polices that are allowing contractors to pay sub-par wages and import workers from other parts of the country,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D- Calif., at a hearing of the House Small Business Committee.   Sanchez is a IBEW member of IBEW Local 441, Santa Ana.  “This is morally reprehensible.”

The workers have also gotten the attention of the national press.   Hammond appeared on CNN last week and the story has been picked up in varies newspapers including the Washington Post.   “I can tell you this for sure,” Knight told the Post.   “If Davis-Bacon wage rates were left alone, then you’d have local Louisiana people working on local projects and we would be working today.”