Anti-worker West Virginia lawmakers effectively scrapped the state’s prevailing wage law on July 1, following a tense legislative session which saw working family supporters standing up to a recently emboldened GOP that won control of both houses in the state Capitol last November.
Charleston Local 466 Business Manager Joe Samples, said that the law – passed in April – is going to have dire ramifications for his membership.
“For any job that’s now awarded by the state or the county, we can be sure to see compensation fall – I’m talking wages, overtime, benefits,” said Samples, who was one of many IBEW members who protested in the snow last February against the lawmakers’ measure. “This is a bad day for West Virginia families.”
State AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue referred to July 1 as “Pay Cut Day,” lambasting lawmakers who are looking to make it easier for low-wage, low-road contractors to usurp the jobs of skilled professionals.
“At a time when the focus should be on building our state’s infrastructure and supporting our local workforce, the Senate president and House speaker have chosen to play politics with the pay of West Virginia workers, resulting in confusion and disruption within the state’s construction industry,” Perdue said.
Last November, Republican legislators started off the session hoping to completely gut the prevailing wage law. “They wanted full repeal,” Samples said.
After months of negotiations between labor advocates, signatory contractors and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the statehouse came up with a sort of compromise measure: calculate a new rate of pay based on the average earnings of men and women in the industry.
The new method tasked economists from West Virginia University and Marshall University in Huntington to partner with WorkForce West Virginia, an arm of the state’s Department of Commerce, to develop a new wage scale that would take effect this summer.
But there was a catch. The GOP lawmakers pressured the groups to rely heavily on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “This is a problem for union members, because the BLS numbers don’t include benefits,” said Dave Efaw, secretary treasurer of the state’s building trades and an IBEW member. “So right there, you’re losing your health care compensation right off the top.” Another problem, Efaw said, is that the BLS numbers would offer a skewed average of all workers in industrial, commercial, and residential construction – incorporating both union and nonunion pay rates into the data.
WorkForce West Virginia’s preferred method was to issue more than 5,000 surveys to contractors and other similar businesses across the state to get a more representative sample of the pay scales, drawing criticism from GOP lawmakers.
But in some rural areas of the state, where work is scarce, WorkForce West Virginia might use the BLS figures in place of a survey, Efaw said.
The April law gave WorkForce West Virginia until June 1 to collect the data that would set the new wage, which was to go into effect July 1.
“But there was no way,” Efaw said, “just no way the group could get it done that fast – and the lawmakers knew that.”
As the researchers and working family advocates lobbied the legislature for more time, GOP lawmakers voted last month to deny an extension.
Efaw and Samples said that WorkForce West Virginia should complete the data by late September, at which point, a new wage will go into effect.
Until then, IBEW members and the industry are in a lurch. Worse, Efaw said, even if the survey results get completed and a new wage is determined, some in the statehouse are likely to press again for full repeal of prevailing wage in next year’s legislative session. That would nix all of WorkForce West Virginia’s data and recommendations.
Samples and Efaw say the legislation bears the fingerprints of the American Legislative Exchange Council – a secretive right-wing organization that writes so called “model legislation” for anti-worker lawmakers. ALEC has been instrumental in helping governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich and others pass union-busting laws like right-to-work, an end to collective bargaining and more.
ALEC has been particularly active in West Virginia, says Brookings Institute researcher Molly Jackman, where legislators introduced 10 ALEC bills in 2013 alone.
Freshman state Sen. Bob Beach posted a photo to his Facebook account of a fellow lawmaker who was browsing ALEC’s website while the body was debating prevailing wage in March.
“You’re going to love this, folks,” Beach, a Democrat, wrote. “This was on the computer of one of the members of the judiciary committee – while the meeting was in progress.”
Samples said that the ALEC-Republican alliance bodes ill for the state’s working families.
“In West Virginia, a lot of people vote Republican thinking that the GOP will not come after their paychecks,” Samples said. “But repealing prevailing wage and passing right-to-work are among their top five objectives. The Republicans are looking for a low wage, not a fair wage.”
Research from the Economic Policy Institute’s states that prevailing wage laws do not spike government contracting costs. Economist Peter Philips of the University of Utah also argues that scuttling the laws do not save taxpayer money, primarily because higher-wage construction workers exhibit better productivity and quality workmanship.
Perdue, of West Virginia’s AFL-CIO, is urging the GOP lawmakers to reconsider their approach.
“The Legislature directed WorkForce West Virginia to undertake a complex process that is vitally important to West Virginia’s construction industry, infrastructure needs and workers,” Perdue said in a press release. “The Republican legislative leadership owes it to West Virginia taxpayers to allow adequate time to complete that process.”
Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Wikimedia user David Wilson.