July 2012

Reinforcing DOL Enforcement of our Classification

"What enforcement?" "Besides, it helps the non-union worker get our wage, meanwhile they skim that to come in low …" This is some of the talk you might hear in the rebar industry when discussing prevailing wage.

There's an element of truth in such claims.  Out of all ironworkers, the union rodbuster ranks have felt the attacks on the very integrity of the trade.

But on DOL enforcement: consider some facts. Last year, the Wage & Hour Division's budget (just part of the total DOL outlay) was an estimated $244 million. That's an increase of almost $20 million in one year, with greatly restored staffing for investigations, reversing decades of neglect.

And the end result? The number of incoming Wage and Hour Division, Department of Labor complaints concerning Davis-Bacon violators has quadrupled since 2008.

This doubles the number of completed cases and increasing enforcement hours by six times since '08.  New debarments that prevent sham contractors from bidding on public work quadrupled when you compare 2008 to 2011, according to DOL statistics.  How does this square with "there is no enforcement"?  This turnaround is a clear response to the GAO's critical report in 2009 that rightly showed how the DOL was dropping the ball on enforcement.

But are we doing all we can to make sure a good slice of these enforcement cases are for the ironworker? The rebar sector has been relatively quiet compared to what I hear in calls from locals focused on the structural side and other trades. The downside of throwing up your hands about a system we've supported for decades is that others will be happy to fill the void.

Successful structural ironworker cases against non-union cheaters have been underway in such labor-strongholds like Louisiana and Alabama. That's a testimony to the DOL doubling-down on this issue on their own, and when presented with key information from our locals and contractors working with this office. I re-invite rebar contractors and locals to start here. Together, our strategy will unify our call for a crackdown on rebar wage violations.

As for the Davis-Bacon Act itself, let's not forget it was not (as some argue) designed to protect labor unions, but to broadly support local contractors vs. fly-by-night operators from low-wage regions. It was a trade-off that stabilized labor relations away from industrial strife on public works. It's had bi-partisan support for over 80 years. While a true Wild West free market would cause many to flock our way for higher wages and benefits, you might also say "be careful what you wish for" as certainly many areas of the nation have seen wage setting as a net positive.

It's hard to deny the quiet assault on Davis-Bacon since the Reagan Administration came up a machinery that serves as a rate classification and wage shredder, with many a wage sheet having no reinforcing ironworker (or other trades). (Projects without the rodman listed still do have to pay a rate via the conformance procedure.)

The way the Davis-Bacon law has been administered even under friendly administrations has not reversed the trend of posting rock-bottom rates. Some have taken to calling it "the balkanization of the trades" on prevailing wage determinations, with every trade carved to down a task or two. All of this we continue to fight head on.

In the last decade, we saw our leadership take painful, but necessary steps to bring back the then-declining union reinforcing contractor base. Then, we worked with our brothers and sisters in labor to fight for a new president and an administration not shy about supporting labor unions, OSHA or the re-energized WHD as it tries to restore Davis-Bacon enforcement. But, as Frank Sinatra might have sung, "I want to be a part of it." If rebar wage violators run rampant, let's start talking projects, violations and specifics. Call me. Let's re-double our efforts to show we won't stand for lax standards and believe a level playing field is a worthy public policy.