Today, public works accounts for 20 percent of all construction. Wisconsin’s prevailing-wage regulation requires that contractors on public works pay their workers the same wages and benefits as those received by similarly situated private-sector construction workers in the local community in which the work is done.
Prevailing wage prevents contractors from undercutting local labor standards when bidding on local public projects. Although Wisconsin’s prevailing-wage law is long-standing, Wisconsin continues to update its prevailing wage statutes, most recently under Gov. Scott Walker in the 2011-13 budget.
Two weeks ago, an opponent of prevailing wages, John Mielke of the Associated Builders and Contractors, made a number of statements which we feel deserve a response. In his column, he stated that Wisconsin’s construction workforce is about 75 percent nonunionized. That is simply not true.
The ABC’s data include lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers and other white-collar workers who should not really be taken into consideration, mainly because prevailing wages apply only to blue-collar workers. That the ABC would not make this distinction should come as no surprise, as the majority of the group’s members are nonunion contractors.
The data also include residential builders even though prevailing wages are only very rarely applied to home construction. In fact, when we are talking about non-residential construction, it’s union contractors who do more than half the work. Those same contractors employ more than 55 percent of Wisconsin’s blue-collar construction workers.
Elsewhere, the ABC states that repealing prevailing wages won’t threaten workplace safety. Again, not true. To put it in the most basic terms, “trained” construction workers are “safe” construction workers; the more training and expertise, the safer the work environment.
Unfortunately, ABC nonunion contractors are the source of only about 5 percent of the Wisconsin construction industry’s investment in apprenticeship training. The remaining 95 percent has come from Wisconsin’s unionized workforce, which has provided $82 million in the last three years.
Where safety matters, training is essential. And where prevailing wage has been repealed, training drops to dangerously unsafe levels. When Kansas repealed its prevailing wage in 1987, construction-apprenticeship training fell by 38 percent. When Colorado repealed its prevailing wage in 1984, construction-apprenticeship training fell by 42 percent.
The ABC believes that repealing prevailing wages will not cost union workers anything because they still have the protections of collective-bargaining agreements. However, the ABC fails to point out that nonunion contractors can, and in many cases will, cut their workers’ wages by 20 percent. In fact, in states that do not have prevailing wages, blue-collar construction workers receive 18 percent less.
But safety, as important as it is, is not the only problem caused by a lack of training. Today, Wisconsin is in the midst of workforce crisis and is struggling with 70,000 jobs that are not being filled because of a shortage of trained workers. Many of these jobs are in the construction trades. The results are unsafe workplaces and a labor shortfall, which hurt Wisconsin construction businesses and our economy.
The ABC has stated that it is fearful there will not be enough skilled workers nationwide to fill these jobs. We agree.
In closing, the Wisconsin Contractor Coalition, which consists of more than 450 Wisconsin-based companies that employ thousands of Wisconsin workers, opposes the repeal of Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law. If Wisconsin wishes to continue to keep our strong reputation for building high-quality projects — and to ensure there are qualified workers to fill the many jobs that remain open — the answer does not lie in reducing blue-collar worker wages and training.