When the Davis-Bacon Act became law in 1931, there was a belief that government should use its buying power to enhance the welfare of working people. It was a way to ensure a good wage and that those wages would go to the local economy. That point of view is slowly losing sway as the race to the bottom continues in the construction industry.  

A law older than the Golden Gate Bridge, pictured here with members of San Francisco Local 6, was designed to ensure construction workers earned a solid wage. Today it’s under attack from anti-union forces.

Passed during the Great Depression, Davis-Bacon requires contractors working on federally funded projects of $2,000 or more to pay their workers a local prevailing wage and benefits. The prevailing rates are determined by the Labor Department using wage surveys from across the country.

“These are the people who are building the infrastructure of this country,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “Paying them a living wage not only allows them to provide for their families, it assures that we have skilled professionals constructing our roads and bridges.”

Construction workers make less today than they did almost 50 years ago, according to an article from the Economic Policy Institute posted in March. In 1970, average hourly earnings were $26.17. In 1990, pay sank to $23.91. By 2016, wages had only risen to $25.97. Part of the reason, the article said, is because of assaults on the prevailing wage.

In the 20 states that removed their Davis-Bacon laws, the EPI found that median construction wages are far lower – 21.9 percent – than states with prevailing wages.

By ensuring a livable wage is paid, Davis-Bacon reduces reliance on public assistance, increases income tax contributions and promotes local hiring. It does not, according to academic research cited by EPI, significantly increase construction costs.

Despite these benefits, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona introduced a bill to suspend prevailing wage requirements for federal highway spending in January. If passed, it could put union contractors at a serious disadvantage from competing on potentially trillions of dollars of infrastructure projects under consideration in Washington.

On Jan. 30 in the House of Representatives, Rep. Steve King of Iowa introduced a bill to fully repeal Davis-Bacon.

Some states have their own version of the prevailing wage, often known as “mini” or “little Davis-Bacon” laws. Like the federal version, they also address concerns about working conditions and displacement of the local workforce by itinerant workers and prevent a downward spiral of wages.

Mirroring federal-level attempts, 20 states have removed prevailing wage laws and several more have weakened them, said EPI. In those states, median construction wages are far lower – 21.9 percent – than states with prevailing wages.

In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers are pushing for a full repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law.

In Nevada however, a Democrat-led Assembly bill was introduced to lower the threshold when prevailing wages must be paid, reversing a Republican-backed measure that increased it, reported the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Under the current Republican version, only projects of $250,000 or more were subject to the mini Davis-Bacon law. If the Democrat version passes, the new amount would be $100,000. 

The EPI report notes that, for more than 40 years, big business interests and the Republican Party worked to drive down construction wages by attacking unions and advocating for right-to-work laws as well as the repeal of Davis-Bacon and project labor agreements.

“If state officials want to hit construction workers in the pocketbook, while folding to business interests, repealing prevailing wage laws is an effective way to do it,” said article authors Ross Eisenbrey and Teresa Kroeger.

King also introduced a national right-to-work bill in February, which would make the union-busting legislation that has been spreading across the states the official law of the land.