An anti-union group has gathered 380,000 signatures for an initiative to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law.

Anti-union activists in the Great Lake State moved one step closer to repealing the law that guarantees construction workers a solid, livable wage.

Prevailing wage, which has been on the books since 1965, covers workers on state-funded construction projects and allows union contractors to better compete with their nonunion counterparts.

“A prevailing wage attracts higher-skilled workers and keeps those high wages in the pockets of local people who will spend it at their local businesses,” said Detroit Local 58 Business Manager Brian Richard.

Prevailing rates are generally based on a survey of reported paid wages – which includes union rates negotiated through collective bargaining agreements – but in Michigan, the law requires that the prevailing wage be equal to union pay scale. The provision helps to weed out unsavory contractors who hire easily-exploited and underpaid out-of-state, low-skilled workers to undercut their union competition.

But Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, a group funded in part by the anti-union Michigan chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, submitted 380,000 signatures in November for an initiative that aims to bring the repeal option before the state Legislature, a Republican-controlled body that is already considering three different bills to repeal the law.

What makes the signature gathering option more dangerous is that, according to the Michigan Constitution, an initiative like the one brought by Protecting Michigan Taxpayers goes to the state House and Senate where legislators can choose to vote on it without fear of a veto by the governor. Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, opposes repealing the prevailing wage.

“Snyder gave a statement on energy policy from one of our training centers,” said international representative and former Local 58 business manager Michael Richard. “He’s been talking about what we do and gave a solid commitment to veto – which is why the Republicans are gathering signatures. It’s their only option right now.” 

If the legislature rejects or ignores it though, the issue then goes on the ballot in 2018.  

Detroit Local 58 member Kevin Mack calls members about the attempt to repeal the prevailing wage.
Photo credit: Jeannette Bradshaw

IBEW members and retirees have been doing member-to-member calls and writing letters that will be delivered to legislators in Lansing, the state capital. Some also followed the signature gatherers around to refute their false claims. The anti-union gatherers would tell people that the repeal was a jobs bill, that it will protect inner city youth or that it will help with school funding, said Local 58 recording secretary and registrar Jeannette Bradshaw.

“There’s no law saying they have to tell the truth,” Bradshaw said.

Michael Richard said the IBEW has given tours of its centers to legislators, showing them what’s in jeopardy if the repeal effort succeeds.

“What resonates with Republicans is that unions don’t take state or federal funding; we’re self-funded. That really hits home,” he said.

In 1994, Michigan repealed the prevailing wage on school projects, only to see costs rise alongside worker abuse. Three years later, the law was reinstated.

According to an Economic Policy Institute report released earlier this year, 20 states have scrapped prevailing wage laws and several more have weakened them. In states without the law, median wages are almost 22 percent lower than in those with a prevailing wage.  

"There are no good things that will happen to our industry with the repeal of prevailing wage, except maybe to the bottom-line profits of the ABC contractors who are pushing this repeal effort," said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council in a post on the council’s website.  

The ABC is a well-funded group with a long history of fighting protections like the prevailing wage, project labor agreements and other efforts to raise wages and standards. State records indicate the Michigan chapter has spent about $1.2 million so far on the repeal effort, according to the council’s post.

The initiative seems to have sparked new legislation regarding ballot initiatives. There are bills in both chambers to make it a misdemeanor to misrepresent a petition when gathering signatures. Bradshaw says both have been referred to their respective committees but have not yet been taken up.