JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri’s legislature has already pushed one major labor priority across the finish line this session, and some Republicans are now setting their eye on repealing the state’s prevailing wage law.
SB 20, filed by Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, would repeal the prevailing wage and instead use the actual minimum wage as the basis for a floor number. The intent is to open the project bidding to non-union workers, bringing Missouri into the fold of 20 other states with similar laws, including Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Republicans and the organizations supporting the move, including lobbyists representing school boards and cities, believe it will lower the cost of labor for public projects.
But many oppose the legislation, saying it will hurt Missouri’s families, calling it yet another attack on unions. The St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council is one of the organizations taking a stand for the prevailing wage laws, calling the Republican attack their “most pressing threat right now.”
They represent more than a thousand contractors in Missouri and argue that the prevailing wage protects skilled workers’ rights to fair pay, meaning prospective employers can’t undercut them or drive their wages down. They also argue that it ensures roads and schools are built by skilled, qualified workers.
“Any weakening or repeal of prevailing wage risks losing jobs to out of state companies, which is bad for Missouri families, businesses and our economy,” Mark Dalton of the St. Louis Carpenters Regional Council said. “That is why local companies are up in arms about the proposed bills to repeal prevailing wage.”
In their effort to fight back, the Carpenters Regional Council has issued a new ad campaign, featuring contractors talking on the issue.
“Prevailing wage, I think, is greatly misunderstood,” Paul Brockmiller of Brockmiller Construction in Farmington said in one such ad. “I think that what the legislature are trying to take a pro-business attitude right now, but they’ve missed the point on prevailing wage.”
Prevailing wage is a minimum wage paid to thousands of construction workers who are employed on state projects.
The wages are unique to each county since the Missouri Department of Labor collects data on public projects like schools or roads and then sets the floor of how workers should be paid in that area. In St. Louis County, a carpenter would make at least $37 an hour, while a carpenter employed in Springfield might make a minimum of roughly $25 per hour.
“These guys are out there every day, hitting it hard. When it’s hot, they’re out there working, when it’s cold,” Brian Murphy of BAM Contracting, located in St. Louis, said in another video. “Why would you begrudge a guy a decent wage to be out there working hard? You need a skilled man or woman doing this kind of work. You don’t want just anybody doing work on your public building because the quality goes down.”
Dalton argues that all academic studies show no significant cost-savings by eliminating prevailing wage, and also pointed out that Kansas is working to try and fix the results in their state following their repeal of prevailing wage laws.
“Some of the arguments say that by eliminating the prevailing wage, you can save up to 30 percent of total costs on the job, and that number is just bogus,” Dalton said.
Dalton says that anywhere from 17 percent to 28 percent is what is paid for labor costs, a median of about 23 percent. He says the number of 30 percent is not backed up and have not been proven.
“If legislators in Jefferson City care about good-paying jobs for Missouri middle-class families and safely constructed public buildings, they’ll protect prevailing wage,” Dalton added.
Benjamin Peters was a reporter for The Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine and also produced the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined The Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield.