On the January 12 edition of "The Point," Sinclair Broadcast Group vice president Mark Hyman urged the repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act -- a 1931 law requiring that government construction contracts be awarded only to firms that pay a "prevailing wage" -- with a one-sided presentation of the views of conservatives who oppose the law.
Hyman's arguments against Davis-Bacon closely echoed the views of Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group that has led opposition to Davis-Bacon as well as other laws and regulations intended to protect workers and promote unionization. Some 98 percent of donations from the group's political action committee went to Republicans, according to Federal Election Committee data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Hyman claimed that the act's original sponsors were motivated by racism, declaring that Representative Robert Bacon, who sponsored the act, did so because he "was appalled that an Alabama contractor was building a new veterans hospital in his district [in New York], using black workers." But the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has dismissed this pseudo-historical account. A group of Democratic senators quoted from a CRS report, which has not been made public, in the "additional views" section of a Senate report on the National Highway System (Senate Rpt.104-086):
Based upon the evidence presented by the advocates of 'the racial thesis,' there seems little justification for an assertion of racial motivation on the part of the Congress. Even were some Members motivated by racism (which has not been proved), it is painting with a very broad brush to infer, from two brief quotations and a few words selected out of context, that any significant number of Members of Congress, either then or now, were inspired by a racial intent.
Defenders of Davis-Bacon argue that the law was intended to ensure that local communities reap the economic benefits of construction projects in their area by discouraging "fly-by-night" contractors who underbid local companies by paying lower than prevailing wages to workers brought in from other areas, regardless of their race.
Hyman noted that "critics ... allege that minority-owned businesses are less likely to be unionized and unable to pay the prevailing wage and are therefore shut out of federal projects," but he didn't note that prominent African-American advocacy groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congressional Black Caucus, have endorsed the law, according to congressional testimony given June 20, 1996, by Terry G. Bumpers of the Contractors Coalition For Davis-Bacon.
Hyman added that "[c]ritics claim that the construction unions are underrepresented by blacks." But Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD), a group of affiliated construction unions, disputes this, claiming that "minorities are heavily employed in the construction industry -- especially in the unionized sector, where union apprenticeship programs graduate a greater number of minorities than non-union apprenticeship programs." A separate BCTD report expands on this claim. "Records from some 36 states obtained from the Department of Labor reveals that since 1989 union apprentice programs have enrolled almost three times as many minorities and over four times as many women as non-union programs," the report found.
Finally, Hyman argued that repealing Davis-Bacon "would end what is effectively a government subsidy of union construction firms over independent firms." But the U.S. Labor Department sets the "prevailing wage" for Davis-Bacon by surveying all wages in a geographic area, not just union wages. BCTD notes: "According to the Department of Labor, a whopping 72 percent of wage determinations issued in 2000 were based upon non-union scales of labor. A union wage only prevails if the DOL wage survey process determines the local union wage to be the prevailing wage."
Apart from responses to critics of Davis-Bacon, defenders of the law argue that it ensures the growth of a high-skill, high-wage labor force. They also argue that better-paid workers tend to be better trained, better equipped, and better managed, and are therefore more able to do high-quality construction that will last longer and cost less to maintain, citing a host of studies to support this claim. BCTD argues:
But when local wage rates are artificially depressed, as advocated by critics of the Davis-Bacon Act, there is now a substantial body of evidence that indicates worker skills, experience and motivation also fall off. Contractors no longer compete on the basis of who can best train, best equip and best manage a construction crew. Instead, they compete on the basis of who can find the cheapest workers either locally or through importing labor from elsewhere. This puts the quality of construction at risk. It may also lead to substantial cost overruns.