Under the cover of expedience and claiming the mantel of “the greatest good,” the Bush Administration used the Katrina catastrophe to further pursue its political agenda last month by suspending key provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act. Meanwhile, a Congressional ally introduced legislation that would authorize the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to suspend any air or water quality laws that the agency believes hinder a timely and effective response to the hurricane.

First passed during the Herbert Hoover Administration, the Davis-Bacon Act requires the government to pay “prevailing wages” on all federal construction projects. The law is designed to prevent a “rush to the bottom” in federal construction contracting wherein bidders cut wages and benefits to win contracts and the government ends up in a deal with contractors who cannot supply qualified workers or ensure quality output. In the largely non-union Gulf region, the prevailing wage for laborers is only $9.26 per hour (with another $1.14 in fringe benefits), barely enough for basic survival. But, under Davis-Bacon, all federal contractors – union and non-union, alike – must, at the very least, pay this wage.

In suspending even this minimum, the Administration made no effort to impose a limit on the profits that companies may make as they lower wages. Instead, the Administration simply claimed that the prevailing wage rates “increase the cost to the Federal Government of providing Federal assistance to these areas.” Responding in a September 14 letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan – along with General Presidents Doug McCarron and Vincent J. Giblin of, respectively, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and the International Union of Operating Engineers – called the President’s reasoning “specious.”

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LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“The President’s logic defies his own principles,” says O’Sullivan. “While government investment is critical to the reconstruction effort, the real engine is the private sector – in particular, the hard work and spending of the Gulf Coast’s residents as they rebuild. If the government plans to ‘save’ money this way, it will simply shortchange the people’s capacity to buy the things they need to revive their lives and livelihood.”

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LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

Nor will it help the contractors of the region who, now, may be pressed by competition to pay their workers less in order to win contracts to offer any work at all. LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck says, “The prevailing wage in the south was low to begin with. It provides a floor for all contractors.  It’s not necessary or wise to dip lower. To get the job done with the appropriate skills may require even higher wages.  And it’s not fair to union employers, the companies with the most skilled and safety-conscious workforces and the best records of on-time, quality output. Union contractors want to provide good wages and benefits to their workers, but they need the kind of level playing field that Davis-Bacon provides.”

Apparently, the Administration will make the victims of Hurricane Katrina into victims a second time as they work to rebuild their communities. As the General Presidents wrote in the letter to Congress, “The market forces at work in the affected area have created an economic perfect storm, leaving in its wake billions of dollars in contracts and a large, desperate, generally African-American pool of labor, hungry for jobs. With the Davis-Bacon Act suspended, we ask you then, as billions of dollars in no bid, open-ended contracts flow into this region: How will you protect the workers?”

“The silence on this question is deafening,” says O’Sullivan, “and proves again what working men and women have learned through the years: when it comes to protecting their interests, they need a union.”

Further evidence on this point is the bill introduced on September 15 by Senate Environment Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R—OK). Citing “uncertainties” about air and water quality in the aftermath of Katrina, Inhofe insisted that his bill would speed recovery efforts by setting aside laws and regulations when necessary.

In contrast, Senator James M. Jeffords (I—VT), the ranking member of the committee, told reporters that EPA chief Stephen L. Johnson had testified that he did not believe environmental laws inhibited the agency’s ability to clean-up after Katrina. “Based on the administrator’s response, I am opposed to a blanket waiver for environmental laws. We should be focusing our energy on protecting the health and safety of people impacted by the hurricane, not paving the way for environmental abuse.” Environmental groups joined in Jeffords’ line of criticism.

“We’ve had plenty of battles with the EPA during this past year,” says O’Sullivan, alluding to the agency’s efforts to skirt the law in removing asbestos through the use of “wet methods” that even its own scientists opposed as untried and unsafe. In Ft. Worth (TX), those efforts were beaten back by a coalition of community groups and unions, including the Laborers. “We do not think it is wise to use Katrina as a reason to hand the agency wider discretion in deciding whether environmental laws should be enforced.”

So far, Inhofe’s bill has no counterpart in the House, so its passage remains doubtful.

[Steve Clark]