Prevailing Wage is good for workers, contractors and taxpayers

Editor’s note: Harry Melander is president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council, a position he has held since 2009. He also has served as executive secretary of the St. Paul Building and Trades Council since 2006. Melander wrote this column for the May 2012 Union Advocate.

As Minnesotans, we expect our tax dollars to be spent wisely. When it comes to public construction projects, we value quality, safety and long-term value. The best safeguard Minnesotans have in ensuring these results is our state’s Prevailing Wage law.

Prevailing Wage requires that on state-funded construction projects, workers must be paid the “prevailing rate” for their work. By law, the “prevailing rate” matches the market rate already being paid for similar work in the community where the project is located. The prevailing rate is the most common wage that a carpenter, plumber, electrician, ironworker or any other skilled tradesperson makes in that community.

In short, our state’s Prevailing Wage law takes wages out of the competitive bidding process among contractors seeking public projects. With a uniform specification for labor costs, contractors compete for public projects on factors such as skill, productivity, innovation and management abilities – not on who can scrape together the cheapest workforce.

Prevailing Wage has served Minnesota’s workers, contractors and taxpayers well for more than 30 years. But some politicians at the Capitol are pushing a bill that would change the process used to calculate Prevailing Wage, skewing workers’ wages lower. They also want to eliminate the eight-hour workday on state highway and heavy construction projects.

Proponents argue these changes to Prevailing Wage will keep public construction costs down and save taxpayers money. But unions, contractors and independent industry experts agree that undermining Prevailing Wage to depress workers’ wages threatens worksite safety, job quality and worker training programs – and will cost the state more money in the long run.

In the construction industry, not all workers are the same. What seems like the cheapest labor on paper isn’t always the best deal in the long run. It’s the difference between being pennywise and pound-foolish.

Fortunately, Minnesota’s Prevailing Wage law recognizes the value of a highly skilled and productive workforce, ensuring that taxpayers get the most bang for their buck. By steering the state toward hiring contractors who do the project right the first time, Prevailing Wage helps prevent overruns and delays that bloat the cost of our state’s public construction projects.

That’s why Minnesota’s Building and Construction Trades unions will continue to stand against efforts to undermine Prevailing Wage at the Capitol.

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