In 1931, a Republican senator, James Davis of Pennsylvania, and a Republican congressman, Robert Bacon of New York, came together to author legislation requiring local prevailing wages on public works projects. The bill, known as Davis-Bacon, which was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover, also a Republican, aimed to fight back against the worst practices of the construction industry and ensure fair wages for those who build our nation.
Davis-Bacon has been an undeniable success—lifting millions of working people into the middle class, strengthening public-private partnerships and guaranteeing that America’s infrastructure is built by the best-trained, highest-skilled workers in the world.
Yet today, corporate CEOs, Republicans in Congress and right-wing think tanks are attacking Davis-Bacon and the very idea of a prevailing wage. These attacks reached an absurd low in a recent piece by conservative columnist George Will who perpetuated the myth that Davis-Bacon is racist.
“As a matter of historical record, Sen. James J. Davis (R-PA), Rep. Robert L. Bacon (R-NY) and countless others supported the enactment of the Davis-Bacon Act precisely because it would give protection to all workers, regardless of race or ethnicity,” rebutted Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, on the Huffington Post.
“The overwhelming legislative intent of the Act was clear: all construction workers, including minorities, are to be protected from abusive industry practices,” he continued. “Mandating the payment of local, ‘prevailing’ wages on federally-funded construction projects not only stabilized local wage rates and labor standards for local wage earners and local contractors, but also prevented migratory contracting practices which treated African-American workers as exploitable indentured servants.”
The discussion surrounding Davis-Bacon and race is a red herring. The real opposition to this law is being perpetrated by corporate-backed politicians—including bona fide racists like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)—who oppose anything that gives more money and power to working people. For decades, these same bad actors have written the economic rules to benefit the wealthiest few at our expense. King and nine Republican co-sponsors have introduced legislation to repeal Davis-Bacon, a number far smaller than the roughly 50 House Republicans who are on record supporting the law. King and his followers simply cannot fathom compensating America‘s working people fairly for the fruits of their labor. Meanwhile, after promising an announcement on Davis-Bacon in mid-April, President Donald Trump has remained silent on the issue.
So the question facing our elected officials is this: Will you continue to come together—Republicans and Democrats—to protect Davis-Bacon and expand prevailing wage laws nationwide? Or will you join those chipping away at the freedom of working men and women to earn a living wage?
We are watching.