Bush uses hurricane disaster to ram through low-wage work

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Organized labor is pushing national, state and local elected officials to call on President George W. Bush to restore prevailing wages for construction workers who will rebuild the Gulf Coast devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

At the urging of nearly three dozen Republican lawmakers and large contractors, Bush issued an executive order Sept. 8 suspending the Davis-Bacon Act on rebuilding projects in every county touched by Hurricane Katrina — even Miami, Fla.

And last week he suspended the Jones Act, which requires transport of petroleum, gasoline and other petroleum products on U.S.-flagged ships while operating in U.S. coastal waters.

Davis-Bacon requires that federal construction contractors pay no less than the prevailing wage for each construction occupation in the local area where the work is done. By suspending the law, the president gave contractors permission to cut the pay of construction workers below the levels that prevailed before Katrina hit the area.

Davis-Bacon wage rates vary by locality, occupation, and type of construction (heavy highway, building, or residential). For example, the Davis-Bacon hourly rate for cement masons in New Orleans was $12.88 for building construction and $12.58 for highways. In Gulfport, Miss., the Davis-Bacon rate was $11.82 an hour for building construction and only $8.33 for highways — which would leave a full-time, full-year mason with $2,000 less per year than the poverty threshold for a family of four, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Nationally, the average hourly wage for cement masons in highway construction in May 2004 was $16.87 and $16.14 in non-residential building.

For a roofer doing non-residential building construction, the Davis-Bacon wage rate in Gulfport is $11.46 an hour, plus 91 cents in fringe benefits, and $12.28 an hour in New Orleans. The national average hourly rate was $14.60 in May 2004.

For residential house painters, the Davis-Bacon rate is $6.65 in Gulfport and $11.38-$12.71, plus less than $1 in fringes, in New Orleans.

Nationally, residential painters averaged $15.98 an hour in May 2004.

The federal government is poised to spend more than $50 billion to rebuild areas destroyed by the hurricane, particularly in the city of New Orleans. Some of the first large-scale relief and recovery contracts were awarded on a no-bid basis to corporations with strong ties to the Bush Administration and the Republican Party, according to news stories in the Wall Street Journal and other media. The no-bid deals include $100 million contracts to the Fluor Corp., a major donor to the GOP, and the Shaw Group, which is a client of Joe M. Allbaugh, President Bush’s campaign manager in 2000 and the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Meanwhile, Halliburton Co. subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root Services received a $29.8 million clean-up contract, while Halliburton, formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney, is doing repair work at three Navy facilities in Mississippi under an existing contract.

A group of congressional Democrats have co-sponsored legislation to restore prevailing wages for Gulf restoration. The Fair Wages for Katrina Recovery Workers Act (S.1749) was introduced Sept. 23. The House version, H.R. 3763, already has 188 co-sponsors — including all the Democrats from Oregon and Washington.

In a letter to President Bush, Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden urged the president “to immediately provide a date certain for the termination of the proclamation suspending Davis-Bacon of no later than Nov. 8, 2005” in order to prevent legislative action.

“Davis-Bacon prevailing wages will not drive up the reconstruction costs in the Gulf region, rather they will help ensure quality work and fair wages for those impacted by the storm,” Walden wrote.

Notably, all Republicans in Washington’s congressional delegation — and Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon — have yet to support the bill.

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