Prevailing Wage Proponents Not Always Forthright

August 1, 2019

Special Guest Perspective by John Mielke

It’s a common strategy these days for partisan activists to attempt to discredit supporters of policies they don’t like without actually addressing the merits of the policies in question.

Andrew Disch of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters takes aim at Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin — a construction trade association founded on the merit shop philosophy — because we advocated strongly for the repeal of prevailing wage on public projects, an arcane and archaic system for many years.

Rising wages are great for workers. Artificially inflated wages on public projects, however, are horrible for taxpayers. There is a big difference between the two.

Four years ago, Wisconsin took the first step to reform prevailing wage, a Great Depression-era remnant. The Legislature finally removed these outdated wage requirements for publicly funded construction projects two years ago. Our members pushed for repeal because they believe in free and open competition, a far cry from the burdensome mandates of the 1930s that were in place under prevailing wage.

The writer makes it sound as if prevailing wage laws simply require construction workers on public projects be paid wages that are offered on similar job sites as if it’s just the “average wage.” That’s false. Wisconsin’s prevailing wage was either the union package or the weighted average of only the top half of wages reported from a survey of contractors. Very often, the “prevailing wages” were not actually the prevailing wages. They would not accurately reflect the market wages, which could make it especially difficult for smaller municipalities to pay inflated construction costs.

The writer scorned those of us who oppose the concept of “inflated wages” by conflating the term with “rising wages.”

“Are rising wages on Main Street somehow a bad thing?” he said.

Absolutely not. Rising wages are great for workers. Artificially inflated wages on public projects, however, are horrible for taxpayers. There is a big difference between the two.

The writer makes prevailing wage sound like a saving grace from open bidding on public projects, which he says are “awarded blindly to the lowest bidder.” It’s much more accurate to say that public projects are awarded to the lowest responsible bidder. Many municipalities have extensive pre-bid qualification processes, which require qualifying contractors to provide data and thorough responses to multiple pages of detailed questions. This protects taxpayers against what the writer calls, “carpetbagging shops” and “shoddy contractors.”

The writer attempts to discredit the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin because we have been successfully preserving and restoring free enterprise, merit-based principles in construction, including advocating for the repeal of prevailing wage laws. Interestingly, many other prominent organizations — such as the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin — all supported the repeal of prevailing wage laws in this state. They supported repeal of Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws because they knew they could get more work done using fewer tax dollars without these burdensome mandates in place. Most people would not consider open competition as an “extreme” policy as this writer does.

There are many falsehoods you will hear from construction unions who want to discredit opponents of prevailing wage. That’s because these special interest groups stand to gain financially from it, albeit at the expense of taxpayers and free-market principles. The truth is that since prevailing wage was repealed in Wisconsin, apprenticeship numbers are at a 10-year high, construction wages continue to increase faster than inflation, and virtually every construction union contract was renegotiated with a wage increase. All of these occurred without prevailing wage.

John Mielke is the president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.