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Michigan Senate Passes Prevailing Wage Repeal Package Despite Several GOP Defectors

MI Gov Rick Snyder is not pleased with his party's advancement of prevailing wage repeal

MI Gov Rick Snyder is not pleased with his party’s advancement of prevailing wage repeal

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Late last week the Michigan State Senate passed the bills that make up the Republican party’s attempt to repeal the prevailing wage law.  The package of bills will now move to the House where it is unclear whether there are enough votes to advance the legislation.

Repeal is ostensibly opposed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who wants the skilled trades to become a more attractive option for young Michigan workers.  But there is uncertainty on that front as well as Snyder’s opposition to repeal was semi-tied to the passage of Proposal 1, a road funding measure which was voted down earlier this month.

Five Senate Republicans opposed prevailing wage repeal, voting alonside all Democrats except Virgil Smith, who was arrested on felony assault and firearms charges rendering him unable to vote on an important amendment that would have protected the prevailing wage from voter referendum. Several Republicans joined in voting for the amendment, but it still failed on a 18-19 tally.

State Sen. Tom Casperson wondered aloud how the repeal effort would be perceived:

“I would implore my colleagues to ask yourself, when you’re accused of supporting the corporations at the expense of the working man, those that are accusing us of that – are they going to be wrong?”

Following the vote, more than 75 Mackinac Bridge Workers joined members of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council to rally the House.  Mike Thibault, U.P. Business Representative for the Building and Construction Trades Council, spoke on behalf of workers at the rally:

“Michigan’s prevailing wage law has helped ensure quality construction of our state’s critical infrastructure and fair wages for the hard-working men and women who build them.  Doing away with prevailing wage will result in reduced income and health care coverage for working families. It will be a race to the bottom.”

Steve Vlahakis, whose Livonia-based Seaway Painting is repainting the Mackinac Bridge, argued that the prevailing wage creates a level playing field for contractors by ensuring that contracts go to those most qualified and efficient, not to those who can supply the cheapest labor:

“When you’re working on significant infrastructure projects like bridges and schools, you don’t want fly-by-night operations that pay whoever they can find to do the work.  You want contractors who are going to do quality work on time and on budget.”

Vlahakis added that repeal of the prevailing wage would make it harder to find skilled workers:  

“Michigan’s building and construction industry is already struggling with a labor shortage that even worries Gov. Snyder, who talked about it in his State of the State speech this year. Driving down wages through the repeal of the prevailing wage law will only add to this problem and hold the industry back.”

When the Senate’s Michigan Competitiveness committee voted 4-1 to move forward with repeal, Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) was the lone voice of dissent. 90 minutes of testimony was heard before voting, during which Master Craft Carpet Service operations manager James Judd urged lawmakers to keep prevailing wage intact:

“The best way to ensure competition in the construction industry is through the prevailing wage laws.  Michigan’s prevailing wage law prevents dishonest and often out-of-state contractors from taking our tax dollars, underbidding Michigan contractors and paying-out-of-state workers, sometimes, under the table to avoid paying taxes.”

The legislative director of the Michigan Building and Trades Council, Patrick “Shorty” Gleason, called the repeal “a slap in the face” for Michigan workers:

“To say that those in favor of repealing prevailing wage are dangerously naive about the construction trade is a major understatement,” he said. “It’s irresponsible for Michigan’s leaders to consider the creation of an environment that incentivizes less training; less safety; less health care; less retirement care; and less interest in the skilled trades as a career choice.”

Ed Haynor, board member of the Newaygo County intermediate school district, told the committee that “ the lowest bid does not necessarily mean the lowest cost.” He argued that prevailing wage laws help provide more accurate bids on projects: “Typically, you see more change orders with low-bid contractors because they on-purposely (sic) low bid to get the job, and then afterwards they’ll add back on to improve their profit margin.

Haynor added that the prevailing wage protects future generations of workers in Michigan:

“Students need more skills than a high school diploma in order to be career ready.  How do we continue to market and promote Michigan’s construction industry with students and parents if good paying construction jobs are reduced to minimum wage jobs?”

The one saving grace in the event of actual repeal is that 95 percent of the state’s road projects are paid for at least partially with federal funds, meaning the wages associated with those projects will remain protected by the Davis-Bacon act (essentially the national prevailing wage).  But the question still looms large: Will this new unified GOP attack on workers see the same end as “Right-to-Work,” which passed against Gov. Snyder’s wishes in the last days of the 2012 “lame duck” legislative session?


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