Thorburn: Tackling The Wage Gap

Andy Thorburn

Economic data show that the gap between the rich and the middle class in both wages and wealth in the U.S. work force is at an all-time high, exceeding the gap of the Gilded Age, (roughly 1880 -1920), when modern capitalism created some of the first huge U.S. fortunes. The gap in the US is also among the largest in the developed world, now exceeding the gap in the UK and France, for example, countries in which a class of hereditary nobles and landed gentry have had hundreds of years to accumulate wealth.

The widening of the wage gap in recent decades raises the possibility of genuine class warfare breaking out, as working and middle class families grapple with the severe reduction in upward mobility that accompanies the rising wage gap. Class resentment based on steep and genuine income inequality can disrupt the entire social and political structure.

Fortunately there is at least one local development that we can all support that provides some relief from the relentless race to the bottom often indulged in by U.S. companies. This solution comes in the form of properly structured Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). By ensuring standard wages and uniform hiring practices, possibly including a requirement that workers complete apprenticeship programs, these agreements are designed to ensure that workers are treated fairly in relation to local standards.

Under the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, federally funded construction projects are required to pay prevailing wages to contracted or subcontracted workers. Local governments can replicate this commonsense, worker friendly idea by passing local ordinances that mirror Davis Bacon. The City of Santa Ana recently passed a PLA ordinance relating to all city funded projects, adding a stipulation that 30 percent of all the hours worked be performed by workers living in the city or by veterans.

Conservative critics of such agreements claim they interfere in the free market, reduce the productivity of the private sector, and limit economic growth, however there is no evidence to support such claims. Workers under properly structured PLAs are better trained and more efficient. Economic growth can be stimulated by more equitable treatment of essential workers, including carpenters, electricians, painters, operating engineers, iron workers, laborers, pipe fitters, cement masons, and other highly skilled and motivated workers.

Of course, PLAs, and similar agreements do “interfere” in the free market, just as minimum wage laws, workers’ compensation programs, Social Security contributions, workplace safety laws, child labor laws, and a host of other progressive rules “interfere” in the marketplace. Such interference is recognized as a necessary component of modern capitalism, precisely to ensure that runaway competition does not lead to ruinous working conditions, and the social inequity and unrest that accompany those conditions. Without these kinds of rational “interference,” our economy would be constantly subject to a “race to the bottom” characteristic of developing economies with enormous wage gaps, and the accompanying social problems.

Also, contrary to some critics, PLAs, (which can also go by other names, such a Community Work Agreements, or Prevailing Wage Agreements), do NOT mandate union workers or union involvement in the contracted work. They do establish a level playing field so that union contractors cannot be undercut by unscrupulous, or exploitive employers, who under-bid jobs by paying substandard wages without adequate benefits.

When evaluating candidates for elective office on the local, county, state or federal level, their position on Project Agreements in their various forms is a valid indication of how each candidate values the contributions of workers to our overall economic and social wellbeing. Supporting candidates who support PLAs is a small but meaningful step we can all take to begin to reduce our outrageous wage gap, and begin to provide a genuine middle class livelihood to the skilled and dedicated workers who live and work among us as neighbors, friends, and coworkers.

“Andy Thorburn is a Democratic candidate for the 39th Congressional District in Southern California. He is a former classroom teacher, an advocate for working people, and a global healthcare entrepreneur.”

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