Gulf Coast residents, victims of Hurricane Katrina, will rally in Baton Rouge, La., Oct. 29 to demand a reconstruction program that provides prevailing wages, housing, health care and quality public schools, not profiteering by Halliburton and other Bush-Cheney cronies. The AFL-CIO has teamed up with the NAACP and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition to organize the event.

In a one-two punch, unions are petitioning and lobbying Congress to restore the prevailing wage law (Davis-Bacon Act) in the region. It was suspended by President Bush Sept. 8. In addition to influencing House Democrats, these and similar efforts have prompted 37 House Republicans to write a letter to the president calling on him to reverse his decision by Nov. 8. “Davis-Bacon prevailing wages will not drive up reconstruction costs in the Gulf region,” they wrote. “Rather, they will help ensure quality work and fair wages for those impacted by the storm.”

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI), sharply criticized Bush’s suspension of Davis-Bacon in the Gulf region.

He pointed out that the prevailing wage for carpenters on highway projects in Mississippi is $8.18 with no benefits, compared with $31.71 in hourly wages and $8.47 per hour in benefits for carpenters in the more highly unionized Los Angeles.

“Mississippi has the lowest construction worker wages in the nation, and driving it any lower would be a crime,” Eisenbrey told the People’s Weekly World in a phone interview. “The whole point of the Davis-Bacon Act is to prevent the undercutting of wages and benefits on federally funded projects. There is no evidence that paying workers less will result in savings. The contractors could just take bigger profits.”

On the other hand, when prevailing wages are protected by enforcement of Davis-Bacon, contractors use “highly skilled, more productive workers,” which speeds completion of construction projects, he said.

Eisenbrey was commenting on a report by EPI economist Peter Philips released Oct. 6, titled “Lessons for Post-Katrina Reconstruction — A High Road vs. Low Road.” Citing previous experiences, including the recovery after the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles, the report says, “The need to rebuild quickly is no excuse for suspending the Davis-Bacon Act or affirmative action requirements as President Bush has done. On the contrary, the Davis-Bacon Act raises the skills of workers in the construction industry which shortens the time to complete large and urgent projects.”

Eisenbrey said another point of the study was that “when you enforce the Davis-Bacon Act and workers get better wages, more money is circulating in the local economy and the recovery is quicker.”

Robert Shaffer, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, told the World, “There is a whole barrage of federal rules that have been relaxed by [Bush’s] decision. Davis-Bacon has reporting rules, for example. If employers are no longer required to report on those rules, they do what they want to do, pay what they want to pay.”

The struggle to force reversal of Bush’s unilateral suspension of Davis-Bacon is one of the central demands of the labor movement’s dramatic call for a sweeping reversal of right-wing, pro-corporate policies. “Hurricane Katrina showed us the high cost of giving tax breaks to the wealthy rather than investing in America’s infrastructure,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. “It showed us just who is treated as expendable in our society — the sick and the old. It showed us the devastation of urban poverty and its disproportionate impact on people of color.”

The AFL-CIO has posted a petition on its web site. “Extreme right-wing Republicans have tried nine times in the past decade to abolish wages protections and suspend Davis-Bacon,” the federation charges. “The Bush administration is also using the disaster to attack federal standards by lifting many affirmative action rules for reconstruction contracts and suspending regulations limiting the number of hours truckers can drive when transporting fuel.” The petition calls on Congress to restore Davis-Bacon and reject other cuts.