JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (PAI and The St. Louis Labor Tribune) — Now that the Missouri legislature is in full swing, the extremist Republicans who control the state House are working fast and furious to move their anti-worker anti-union legislation to the General Assembly floor.
In late February, the House Workforce Development Committee focused on bills to alter the state’s prevailing wage and workers’ comp laws.
Meanwhile, unionists mobilized against a third anti-worker scheme, as pro-worker Missourians delivered more than 6,850 handwritten and individual letters to state House Speaker Tim Jones demanding he reject so-called Right to Work legislation.
All three measures are longtime business causes nationwide, aided and abetted by the secretive anti-worker American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Last year, the legislature, which is more than 2-to-1 Republican in both houses, took the first step towards weakening prevailing wage laws. It required wage surveys of construction contractors – which form the basis for prevailing wages in each local area – to be split between union and non-union wages, by trade.
Then, whichever group reports more work hours in a particular area would be the standard the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations used to set that area’s prevailing wage. That split would open the door for cut-rate contractors from other states invading Missouri, bringing lower wages with them, state construction unions say.
In February, taking advantage of a natural disaster – the monster tornado that flattened half of the small southwest Missouri city of Joplin in 2011 – the committee’s lawmakers started on the next step against prevailing wages.
State Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, pushed his bill, HB1144, to ban the Missouri Housing Development Commission from requiring prevailing wages on projects eligible for housing tax credits, if the projects are in a state-declared disaster area. Anti-worker GOP Lieut. Gov. Peter Kinder was among those testifying for HB1144.
White’s idea is similar to GOP President George W. Bush’s “waiver” of prevailing wages in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005. Joplin, like New Orleans, is still rebuilding.
White’s move, and Kinder’s aid, prompted Missouri union leaders to more strongly oppose further destruction of the prevailing wage.
Missouri AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Mike Louis argued Joplin needs more money – higher wages-poured into it, not less to begin recouping its losses.
“Contractors need to get over their attitude of ‘My employees don’t need to taste the wages and benefits of a prevailing wage.’ The entire community can benefit from wages and benefits that come from state and federal tax dollars” for reconstruction, as “prevailing wage applies to union and non-union employers and employees,” he said.
Former Democratic State Sen. Tim Green, now political director for IBEW Local 1, said if cut-rate out-of-town contractors win bids and as a result workers make less money, there will be less money available in tax revenue for schools and roads.
“The whole idea of the prevailing wage is to give the local contractor an opportunity to compete,” Green said. He also noted that labor costs account for only about 25% of a project’s total cost, with most funds going for materials. “You can’t bear the burden of higher costs (all) on labor when it is a minority of” project costs, he said.
Scott Ramshaw, head of government relations for Plumbers Local 562, painted White’s prevailing wage cut as part of the larger anti-worker imperative that has taken hold of the Missouri legislature’s GOP majority. That too mimics patterns elsewhere.
“Every time we have a bill before this committee, it’s always about (lowering) the wage of the worker. It always comes down to that,” he said.
The GOP-controlled panel also considered three measures to weaken workers’ comp. One would broaden the definition of which workers firms could classify as “independent contractors,” and thus ineligible for company funding of workers’ comp coverage. A second would add to the definition of employers any construction “person or corporation…who directs, demolishes, alters or repairs improvements.” The third would change the amounts of workers comp or death benefits in certain cases.
Meanwhile, volunteers carted the thousands of letters against Right to Work into House Speaker Jones’ office and stacked them on the floor next to an aide’s desk.
“We need to be building an economy that works for everyone, and not” engage in “political attacks” on workers “and favors to special interest donors,” said Sean Nicholson, executive director of Progress Missouri, which helped collect the letters.
ALEC is backing the Right to Work legislation, which it has also dubbed “Freedom to Work” and “Workplace Freedom” initiatives. The measure isn’t about jobs, the letter-writers said. They’re about politics and undermining workers’ rights.
Photo: Progress Missouri.