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We are not the problem

Ryan Pheifer is Corporate Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Pheifer Brothers Construction Company, Inc., and a former Republican candidate for the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Ryan Pheifer is corporate counsel and corporate secretary of Pheifer Brothers Construction Co. and a former Republican candidate for the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Last month, Department of Transportation Secretary Dave Ross addressed a group of construction workers and employers like me the day after Gov. Scott Walker’s budget had been released.

The candor with which Ross spoke was frankly refreshing. Although the audience certainly did not agree with the governor’s proposed transportation budget, we respected Ross’ willingness to listen to the concerns of the industry.

What was also welcome to the group was the frankness with which Ross discussed the governor’s proposed repeal of Wisconsin’s prevailing-wage laws. Ross repeatedly told the crowd that construction workers were not overpaid and “were not the problem” and even directly took on State Sen. Duey Stroebel’s fictitious “example” of flaggers in Wisconsin making $100,000 a year.

That’s right, less than 24 hours after the governor rolled out his plan for the state, which involved slashing wages for blue-collar, middle-class construction workers, his WisDOT secretary told an audience representing that very industry that they were not the problem and that construction workers are not overpaid. As you can imagine, the 100-plus people in attendance that day and I left the room scratching our heads. Now, we continue to wonder aloud why the governor is hell-bent on pursuing this destructive path for Wisconsin’s construction industry.

The governor, through his spokesperson, has defended slashing wages for middle-class construction workers by saying the purported savings will create more jobs. You can imagine our growing confusion when the governor earlier this month said having fewer manufacturing jobs would not be such a bad thing for Wisconsin, as long as the wages for the remaining jobs were increasing.

Specifically, Walker, when challenged about the loss of more than 4,000 manufacturing jobs in the 12 months leading up to last September, said, “It’s not just how many jobs — it’s are those jobs paying at a significant level?” He continued, “If we see wages go up in manufacturing, to me, that’s my ultimate goal.”

So which is it governor — higher wages or more jobs at lower wages? I can tell you what Wisconsinites want — both more jobs and higher wages. Unfortunately this budget, with its lack of sustainable transportation funding and cuts to worker wages, accomplishes neither for the blue-collar construction worker who is trying to remain in the middle class and support a family.

Walker has also said workforce development is his highest priority this legislative session. You can understand once again why the construction industry is scratching its collective head in bewilderment.

As someone who is responsible for running a construction business, I can tell you that recruiting qualified candidates is exceedingly difficult. As a life-long Republican — I even ran for political office — I can tell you from experience that waging a battle against blue-collar, middle-class workers and cutting wages are not ways to make recruitment easier for Wisconsin businesses.

Furthermore, Wisconsin’s private construction trade unions pay for 95 percent of the workforce and apprenticeship training that goes on in Wisconsin, spending about $30 million a year on training and safety in the construction industry. In states that eliminate prevailing-wage laws, apprenticeship programs have declined by as much as 42 percent because workers who are subjected to huge wage cuts become less willing and able to allocate part of their pay toward training programs.

Gov. Scott Walker holds up two bags of Haribo candy on Thursday while announcing the German-based company would be building its first North American manufacturing plant in southeast Wisconsin. Walker’s latest budget proposal slashes wages for blue-collar, middle-class construction workers and does nothing to sustain transportation funding. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

Gov. Scott Walker holds up two bags of Haribo candy on Thursday while announcing the German-based company would be building its first North American manufacturing plant in southeast Wisconsin. Walker’s latest budget proposal slashes wages for blue-collar, middle-class construction workers and does nothing to sustain transportation funding. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

Those same states are experiencing significant skilled labor shortages, leading groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors to promote public policies that would allow “guest workers” from other countries to supplant local workers. The one industry where we always thought our jobs could not be shipped overseas is now seeing workers shipped here.

Is this the future we want for Wisconsin?

In 2015, the non-partisan Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau concluded there would be no budget savings by repealing Wisconsin’s prevailing-wage laws. Likewise, Walker’s 2017-19 budget cannot and does not assign any budgetary savings to the proposed elimination of prevailing wages on state projects.

Let me repeat that — the governor’s budget does not, because it cannot, assign any savings to his proposed repeal of prevailing wages. So what does Walker’s proposal accomplish? Lower wages for Wisconsin’s construction workers, out-of-state workers taking our jobs and our money, and subpar projects that will need to be repaired or completely redone.

Wisconsin’s prevailing-wage laws set a fair minimum wage for the skilled construction tradesmen and women working on our public infrastructure. It pays for training to ensure our projects are built to quality standards. It is only fair and right to pay those workers a wage that is in line with their skill, training and expertise.

My message to the governor and my fellow Republicans — stop making blue-collar construction workers the enemy because, in case you didn’t notice, these men and women are the very ones who voted you and Republicans across the country into office this last election. Don’t be fooled into thinking that will continue if you cut their wages.

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