Building Trades’ Recent Victories Are Just The Latest Chapter in a Long, Ongoing Saga

September 2014 – Our never-ending battle for a decent quality of life for workers that commenced so long ago continues on today and into the future, and as we enjoy our recent triumphs, it is worth reflecting on our greatest achievements from the past, and how our united efforts continue to win great results, then and now.

More than 80 years ago, in 1931, America was mired in the depths of the Great Depression, where desperate Building Trades workers, many with family in tow, almost starving, walked the roads and rode the rails from city to city, willing to fist-fight other workers in the race to the bottom for the few jobs that did exist, all to the benefit of the employer. We became politically organized, and with the election of Roosevelt, workers finally had a champion, with the nation on the threshold of embarking into an era of construction of immense public works projects that would not only revive the nation’s economy but span the country’s immense natural divides.

Leaders saw the need to make a great investment in a skilled, highly trained streamlined construction workforce. So Congress enacted the Davis-Bacon Act, authored by Davis and Bacon, both Republicans. This act provided that wages paid on federal public works projects are (a) to be prevailing (b) in the locality of the project (c) for similar crafts and skills (d) on comparable construction work. Republican President Herbert Hoover signed it on March 3, 1931.

Here in California, leaders quickly followed suit. In that same year of 1931, the Legislature passed and Republican Governor James Rolph signed the state’s “Public Wage Rate Act,” which would later develop into today’s Prevailing Wage Law, spelled out in the state Labor Code.

The State Building and Construction Trades Council President at that time, the great labor leader Frank C. MacDonald, was right there on the Capitol steps, spearheading the effort. This was very early in the history of the Building Trades Council, but already our trades’ unity was delivering results at the Capitol. So from then on, like the federal government, California would pay prevailing wage on state public works projects. All major California cities soon followed, and adopted prevailing wage on their municipal projects.

The new law was naturally challenged in court by the same organizations and ilk of race-to-the-bottom advocates we fight in the Legislature and courts today, but the California Supreme Court in 1932 found it clearly within the Legislature’s power to “fix in a definite amount the minimum wage for labor on public work.”

These early prevailing wage laws themselves were the culmination of a long struggle, dating well back into the 19th century, to protect the best interests of workers and the public.

Those first great public works projects built in California with a streamlined, highly skilled work force earning prevailing wage – Shasta Dam and Golden Gate Bridge were among them. These projects have paid for themselves tens of thousands of times over, and are still standing and serving us so well, all these generations later.

It is a testament to the quality of workmanship, resulting from the new prevailing wage, that went into those projects. And as promised, those laws and their resulting decent wages did spark a long era of economic growth, driving commerce as they did. Those projects, rails, roads, bridges, water systems, airports, harbors, schools, and colleges are the underlying fabric that allows our society to function and prosper today. Soon, high speed rail will join that list.

We, the Building Trades, take tens of thousands of young California high school graduates into our apprenticeship programs every year. The training that is provided gives a lifetime career creating a middle class that drives the local economies by putting the citizens of California to work. This highly skilled and streamlined work force is designed to address the ongoing need of construction projects throughout California, and the fact that as our work force ages and retires, it needs to be replaced.

This context is all worth acknowledging now because of what has happened in the last few years and weeks. By working together, the trades have elected state legislators that understand our issues. We have sponsored so many good bills for working people and for all Californians, the Legislature has enacted them, Governor Jerry Brown has signed them, and just last week, a court rejected legal challenges to some of them.

Consider these recent accomplishments: We won passage of SB 922 and SB 829 to keep local governments free to consider Project Labor Agreements for local projects. We passed SB 7 to discourage charter cities from exempting themselves from prevailing wage. We passed SB 776 to stop unscrupulous contractors from deducting money from workers’ checks, using it to fund sham compliance committees that work against workers’ interests, and using those deductions to reduce their prevailing wage obligations. We passed SB 54 to vastly improve safety for refinery workers and their surrounding communities. These are just a few items from a much longer list.

Last week, we scored resounding courtroom victories when a Superior Court judge rejected challenges to SB 922, SB 829, and SB 7, ruling that those laws are not coercive and legitimately provide incentives for local governments to adhere to desired state policies.

So here we are today. Our victories of the past are still vitally important, vibrant and bringing good results many generations later. And our recent victories will surely continue to improve California moving forward.

There are definitely more battles to come, and more great triumphs, so long as we stay focused and unified, always working together.  I am once again reminded, like life: The journey never ends and the job is never finished.