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April 2018

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
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Numbers Tell the Story:
Indiana's Repeal of Prevailing Wage Is a Disaster

Vice President Mike Pence was governor of Indiana in 2015 when the state's GOP-dominated Legislature passed a repeal of the state's prevailing wage laws, arguing the measure would save taxpayers money without cutting workers' salaries.

But a new analysis proves he was wrong, just as the IBEW and other advocates for working families warned he would be.

The study, from the non-partisan Midwest Economic Policy Institute, found that skilled Indiana construction workers saw their wages fall by an average of 8.3 percent since the law was passed. Lower-skilled construction workers saw their wages fall 15.1 percent. The study looked at the wages of all workers, not just union members.

That was no surprise to IBEW members who tried to convince the Legislature the move was aimed to please far-right corporate interests and Pence's campaign donors, not Indiana's citizens — and especially not its working families.

"Those were the things we tried to get across to the legislators when they were doing this," said Evansville, Ind., Local 16 Business Manager Paul Green. "They weren't going to listen because, quite frankly, the reasons for it weren't to save money."

Neighboring Illinois, Michigan and Ohio — which have prevailing wage laws — saw their wages grow a combined 2.8 percent over the same period, according to the report.

"The early data from Indiana is unambiguous and confirms what most peer-reviewed economists have been saying for decades," Kevin Duncan, a professor of economics at Colorado State University-Pueblo and one of the report's authors, told the Times of Northwest Indiana.

"Repeal of prevailing wage laws does not save taxpayer dollars, but it shrinks middle-class paychecks, hurts the economy and causes problems ranging from lower productivity to higher turnover for the construction industry."

Prevailing wage laws, called common wage in Indiana, guarantee pay rates and conditions of employment on public works projects and help them come in on time and under budget. Wage rates are based on an average pay for construction workers in that area and do not inflate costs.

They also help contractors avoid hiring out-of-state, low-skilled workers who are paid less and more easily exploited. That helps keep more tax money in the local jurisdictions and improves the lives of working families.

"It's just a big smokescreen," said Indianapolis Local 481 Business Manager Steve Menser. "It was all political. They just wanted to carve out one more thing that would hurt unions."

Pence claimed that repealing the common wage was putting taxpayers first and easing the burden on local governments, but the reality hasn't matched his rhetoric. The study reported the cost of 335 school projects in 14 northwest Indiana counties actually increased after the law's passage.

Menser is a member of a school board in suburban Indianapolis where a school is now being remodeled by a nonunion contractor.

"We didn't have any union contractors bid that project," he said. "I think a lot of our contractors are looking at the smaller school jobs and don't see themselves being competitive, so why waste time on the bidding?"

"Everything we predicted is true," Menser said, pointing to figures that showed construction workers' productivity in Indiana grew 5.3 percent less than in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.

"The productivity is low and turnover is high."

Things aren't expected to change much in the near future in Indiana, where the GOP still has a supermajority in the statehouse. But the debate over prevailing wage laws continue in Michigan, Ohio and several other states, and labor activists will point to Indiana's failures as a warning.

Arkansas and Kentucky repealed their prevailing wage laws last year and West Virginia did so in 2016, bringing the total number of states without them to 22.

"Much of the focus has been on right-to-work laws, but the news from Indiana shows the eradication of prevailing wage laws has been just as destructive to our Brotherhood," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "It hits our members in the pocketbook and drains local communities of needed tax revenue. We must continue to remind politicians why such laws exist and how they benefit all workers."

A copy of the institute's report can be found at


Work continues on the I-69 extension near Bloomington, Ind., in 2017. Changes to Indiana's common wage laws led by former governor and current Vice President Mike Pence have harmed workers on public works projects and their families.

Photo provided under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by ITB495.

Wireman-Turned-Candidate Puts
Working People First in Oregon

Mike Ellison learned more about politics as a teenager than most people do in a lifetime.

An IBEW journeyman wireman running for the Oregon House, Ellison spent his junior year of high school as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives.

One lesson that stuck with him is the contrast between lawmakers who put duty first and those determined to keep their seat at any cost.

That distinction is at the heart of his campaign.

"The first thing I talk about is my belief in servant leadership," Ellison said. "It's the idea that you assume public office out of a desire to serve, not for a position of power.

"I don't feel like this is something I'm going to want to do for a long time. I want to make as much positive change as I can and then re-enter normal life, rather than be motivated to keep winning elections at the expense of the people we're supposed to serve."

Ellison means every word, said union brother Kail Zuschlag, an organizer at Salem Local 280.

"With all the crazy politics, no matter which way you lean, everyone talks about how great it would be if a 'real person' would step up and make a difference," Zuschlag said. "Mike is that person. He knows how to work, he comes from blue collar roots, he's tied to the community and understands the lives of the people here.

"Mike can't 'relate' to us. He is one of us. He is so genuine in his motivations for bettering Oregon."

Local 280, Portland Local 48, the Oregon Education Association, and the state's Building Trades Council are among Ellison's early endorsers in his run for House District 19.

The district includes part of Salem and extends south and east. It has been in GOP hands for 22 years, but incumbent Denyc Boles is relatively unknown, just appointed in January.

From affordable housing to quality, lower-cost health care, investing in public education and fighting for good jobs — "a living wage for a fair day's work" — Ellison said his views are framed by what he sees "through the lens of income inequality."

"Americans are being taken advantage of by an economy that's rigged to direct money to the very top," he said. "The new wealth is not being shared with the people generating it."

Raised in a blue-collar, single-parent home, Ellison rose from material handler to journeyman electrician over 20 years with Local 280. He wants voters to understand that unions are key to a healthy economy and thriving middle class, as the IBEW has been for him.

"I will be the strongest advocate unions have in the state legislature," he said. "The best defense against our rigged economy is organized labor standing together and demanding the wages and benefits we deserve."

With his IBEW training, Ellison has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and graduated last June with a master's in renewable energy engineering from the Oregon Institute of Technology.

Looking back, Ellison wishes he'd pushed himself harder when he was younger. "College had always felt like unfinished business to me," he said. "I always had potential, but I didn't get a degree back when I should have."

A high school teacher saw his promise early on, recommending him in 1994 to Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio for the U.S. House page program, which today exists only in the Senate.

After a whirlwind of essays and interviews, Ellison headed to Washington for the fall term of his junior year. His adventure was extended when Republicans swept the midterm elections and took control of Congress. "They didn't have time to fill all the page spots, so a handful of us got to stay the entire year," he said.

Ellison got the life equivalent of a political science degree, shuttling messages on the House floor, racing documents to members' offices and bearing witness to such historical moments as Nelson Mandela addressing a joint meeting of Congress and President Bill Clinton delivering the State of the Union.

Bitten by the political bug, he took pride in staying on top of the news and gradually became politically active. Today he is a precinct chair for the Democratic Party in Marion County, Ore., and, in 2016, was a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the party's state convention. That was the year people began encouraging him to run for office.

"No way is my wife going to let me do this," he told them, laughing at the memory. He was already a busy father of three boys, now 14, 12 and 4, and a full-time project manager/estimator at Northside Electric. But Maggie Ellison, a UFCW member, had a change of heart.

"I called it getting my first major endorsement — the only endorsement that mattered at that point," he said.

His bosses at Northside Electric also gave their blessing, offering to work around the schedule he'd have as a part-time legislator. It meant that much more to Ellison because he and the owner don't always see eye to eye politically. "He was all for it, told me to do whatever it took to make it work," he said.

Whether he ran or not, Ellison was eager to see more "STEM" candidates on the ballot — people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical backgrounds.

In pursuing his degree in renewable energy, he saw the value of being a tradesman who could make a dollar-and-cents case for acting on climate change, rather than argue the more divisive issues of the climate debate.

"I wanted to get to a point where, if someone wants to deny the science, the economics would still make sense," he said.

Building bridges like that is one of Ellison's gifts, Zuschlag said. "In Oregon, sometimes the blue-collar positions and the green positions don't align. Mike has the smarts to navigate those political situations and be successful."

As Zuschlag wrote in a December organizing report, "Left or right, blue or red, purple, or whatever you identify with, I think we can all agree that having a fellow IBEW member with the character and drive of Mike Ellison in a position to help shape our state is an incredible opportunity."


Journeyman wireman Mike Ellison of Salem, Ore., Local 280 is running for the Oregon legislature on a platform laser-focused on the interests of working people and their families.