Due before the Kansas Senate today is discussion on a bill to deny communities the right to set prevailing wage rates.
Senators should resist the urge to play Big Brother.
FOR A LONG time, Kansas was a leader in workers’ rights. In 1891, it became the first state to set a base rate of pay to local workers for public works projects. The wage laws prevented large companies from under-bidding local contractors. They also included minimum labor standards such as eight-hour workdays and benefits. The thinking behind establishing the threshold was not only to attract highly skilled laborers but also to prevent workers from being abused by industrialists who began lowering wages and demanding longer working days. While they were at it, Republicans of the day also wrote child labor laws and made getting an education compulsory.
Almost 100 years later, Kansas lawmakers repealed the law in 1987, saying it would save on construction costs — much the same argument made today. A result was Kansas construction workers saw an average 11 percent drop in their wages over several years’ time; employer contributions to benefit plans declined and apprenticeship training declined by almost 40 percent.
The expected savings in construction costs were not realized because,
a) Lawmakers thought they could expect a 50 percent savings on total construction costs. Nationwide, labor costs are typically 25 to 30 percent of total production costs. In Kansas, they average closer to 20 percent; and,
b) Productivity was reduced due to a less-skilled workforce because of the cut in apprenticeship programs. Typically, union contractors pay for training through a collective bargaining agreement. Without that coverage, workers are less likely to seek training if they have to pay for it themselves.
CURRENT LAW allows municipalities to insist a company pay prevailing wages.
Joe Reardon, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte and Kansas City, Kan., credits the pay scale rule as to how it secured $600 million in commercial development over the last several years, including the Kansas Speedway, Hollywood Casino and Village West. Wyandotte County ranked first in the metropolitan area for job growth during the past year, according to a recent story in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Paying good wages encourages economic growth, Reardon said.
The Kansas League of Municipalities, the AFL-CIO, and the City of Topeka side with the pro-growth thinking of Wyandotte County, as well as J.E. Dunn, a large construction company that uses union labor and has done many public service contracts.
Leading the fight against the measure are Susan Wagle, president of the Kansas Senate, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Crossland Construction, which typically does not use union labor, and has realized more than $200 million in government contracts over the past 10 years, according to Kansas Working Alliance, an advocacy group for Kansas workers.
What muddies the water on the legislation, or perhaps clears it, is the connection between those against the legislation and those who make the laws.
The Crossland family tree has deep roots in the Kansas Legislature.
The chairman of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors is Ivan Crossland, also president of Crossland Construction. Among Crossland’s lobbyists working the Kansas Legislature is Riley Scott, son-in-law to Wagle, Senate president.
These familial connections only serve to put a greater burden on Wagle that the legislation is designed to serve all Kansans, and not just those around her dinner table. Let’s hope she feels the weight.
Stay connected to the stories and events that make your community a special place to call home.
New subscribers only. You can cancel at any time.