by Beth Lear
In June, Ohio House Republicans attached a systemically racist amendment to SB 4. The provision of union-backed law is known as prevailing wage. By doing so, they rewarded donors and reversed a 25-year trend of dismantling the racist policy. Only the Governor has the ability to stop it.
Prevailing wage, known as Davis-Bacon at the federal level, has long been known as one of the many methods unions used to discriminate against minorities. George Will wrote in The Washington Post in February 1995:
This (prevailing wage) law is economically irrational and morally execrable. Enacted in 1931, it was an act of domestic protectionism, designed to protect labor, especially unionized labor, in each community from competition. It was enacted in part to impede blacks competing for federally funded construction jobs, and it continues to hinder people on the lower rungs of the ladder of social mobility.
Mr. Will was right in 1995, and he’s still correct today. Prevailing wage laws are intentionally designed to force governments to inflate the costs of construction projects which limits the number of contractors who can bid.
More recently Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin), an African-American State Representative in Missouri, penned his own op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about discriminatory labor practices. In the November 2017 article he declared:
For decades, unions worked to exclude black Americans from jobs. White workers felt endangered by black Americans who were willing to work longer and harder, so labor unions used legislation to force blacks out of unions, and out of the labor market.
Dogan quoted Herbert Hill, the former labor director for the NAACP. Mr. Hill’s famous article from 1959, “Labor Unions and the Negro: The Record of Discrimination,” does not mince words. Hill stated, “the Negro worker’s historical experience with organized labor has not been a happy one.” He went on to explain trade union practices of total exclusion, segregation (Jim Crow) and other methods of excluding minorities from the construction trade.
Rep. Dogan focused on the various methods of discrimination, including the prevailing wage issue. He exposed the purpose of the original Davis-Bacon Act and the ugly racism behind it.
One such tool wielded against minorities was prevailing wage laws. In the 1930s, New York Congressman Robert Bacon, angry that black Americans were competing with white workers for jobs, introduced the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors on federally funded construction projects to pay the ‘local prevailing wage.’ This policy has been implemented in many states as well, including Missouri, to force governments to only negotiate with white-dominated unions. This policy remains as a vestige of a racist past, and it harms American workers and taxpayers to this day.
It still causes harm to taxpayers in Ohio today. Many union-backed politicians in Ohio’s major cities have this discriminatory pay-scheme woven into their construction projects. Ohio Legislators and Governors had begun removing this albatross from the necks of responsible local governments piece by piece once they earned the majority in 1993. For example, in 1997 the Ohio School Facilities Commission was created and the law creating it intentionally exempted new school projects from prevailing wage requirements. That same year, legislators created Transportation Improvement Districts or TIDs, also exempt from falsely high wage rates. The TID exemption will be eliminated if Governor DeWine leaves the amendment intact.
Here in Ohio, former Republican nominee for the Ohio Statehouse and African-American Pastor Bobby Mitchell expressed his opinion about the prevailing wage issue. “The question asked for many years has been, ‘Why does the negro not pull himself up by his own bootstraps?’ The more helpful question is why elected officials fail to see their systematically racist policies, like prevailing wage, seek to remove the entire boot, the entire minority man or woman, from even having an opportunity for advancement and serves as an egregious act.”
Mitchell continued, “I’m disheartened that Republicans would support this dangerous union-backed policy. I remain hopeful that Governor DeWine will consider the success of our surrounding states and reject the failed policy of prevailing wage from spreading its discriminatory roots here in Ohio. The playing field must be even and everyone, no matter your race or creed, given the same opportunity to succeed.”
Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio has fought prevailing wage expansion and other similar policies for decades. We have witnessed surrounding states like Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Michigan expand their economies and rectify historic wrongs by choosing to embrace pro-taxpayer, small government, diversity-expanding policies like the elimination of prevailing wage.
Our last line of defense is the Governor. As Ohio rightly looks for ways to eliminate institutionally racist policies in our laws, the Governor, with a simple stroke of a pen, could do just that.
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Beth Lear is the Vice President of Government Affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio. ABC of Ohio is a national construction industry trade association representing more than 21,000 members. Founded on the merit shop philosophy, the 69 chapters of ABC, including three Ohio chapters, help members develop people, win work and deliver that work safely, ethically and profitably for the betterment of the communities in which ABC and its members work. ABC’s membership represents all specialties within the U.S. construction industry and is comprised primarily of firms that perform work in the industrial and commercial sectors.
Photo “Construction” by Dept of Defense.