The Richmond Register

February 21, 2013

‘Right-to-work,’ prevailing-wage debate for naught

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — FRANKFORT — It was perhaps a perfect illustration of the 2013 General Assembly deliberations so far.

The House Committee on Labor and Industry Thursday heard discussion on bills sponsored by Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, which would make Kentucky a “right-to-work” state and repeal the prevailing wage law for public projects.

The room was filled with union members — so filled that two overflow rooms were set up where those who couldn’t get into the meeting room could watch and listen on closed-circuit television.

But at DeCesare’s request, there was no vote on either of the bills. So in the end, all the talk was for nothing.

Committee Chairman Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, said DeCesare “asked that the bills be called for discussion only and that we not take a vote on them.”

The reason was simple.

“I didn’t have the votes,” DeCesare said afterward. He said he might not have been able to secure more than three votes on the committee.

While the so-called right-to-work concept is a popular issue among Republicans, Democrats control the House and the bills had little chance of passage there.

“I’m just happy we had a hearing,” DeCesare said.

No one would say so, but there might have been another reason — forcing Republicans to vote in line with what is generally viewed as GOP orthodoxy on both issues might be used against them when they come up for re-election in 2014, a year in which Republicans hope to take the House majority from Democrats.

Brendan Cole, of the Kentucky Right to Work Committee, told the committee some employees are “coerced” into paying union dues at work places represented by unions. Federal law does not require membership, but it does allow unions to collect dues from all employees on the theory that even non-union employees benefit from agreements with management negotiated by unions.

But supporters of right-to-work claim some companies refuse to locate in states without such laws and union dues are often used to promote political agendas with which some members disagree.

Bill Londrigan of the state AFL-CIO countered that unions may spend members’ dues only on benefit negotiations and worker grievance policies.

Quoting Martin Luther King, Londrigan said right-to-work laws “provide no right and no work” and are designed to destroy unions.

He also cited studies and economic analyses which he said show average wages in right to work states are $6,400 less than in non-right to work states, that right-to-work states on average spend less on public education and right to work states have higher levels of poverty.

DeCesare also explained two related bills: one which would repeal the state’s prevailing-wage law for public projects and an alternative which would exempt public school construction from the provisions of the law.

Under the prevailing-wage law, contractors on public projects must pay laborers the area’s “prevailing wage” based on average wages for that industry in a Kentucky Senate District.

Wilson Sears, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents and the former superintendent of Somerset Independent Schools, said he’d like to see schools exempted because the law added as much as 20 percent to the cost of a project.

He cited a study by the General Assembly’s Legislative Research Commission (LRC) staff that workers on prevailing-wage projects earn 24 percent more than on private projects. That costs school districts money that could be applied to other needed building projects, Sears said.

“For every four schools we build, we could probably get another one,” Sears said. He said another LRC study indicated that 96 percent of Kentucky superintendents believe prevailing wage adds between 15 and 20 percent to the cost of new school buildings.

But Larry Roberts, executive director of the Building Trades Association, cited a study by University of Utah Professor of Economics Dr. Peter Phillips, that there is “no measurable, statistical difference” in the costs of schools built by contractors paying prevailing wage and those which don’t.

Kentucky’s construction labor costs — even with prevailing wage — Roberts said are lower than the national average, 19.7 percent of total construction in Kentucky versus 19.8 nationally.

But then when it was all said and done, there wasn’t anything done because the bills were never put to a vote.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.