President Donald Trump shocked organized labor by saying he would soon have an announcement to make about a law that guarantees wage levels for workers on most federally funded construction projects. And since then, the White House has declined to reveal his position publicly.
But behind closed doors, the Trump team appears to be scrambling in recent days to calm nerves among the very unions whose workers helped power the president’s Election Day victory.
After a meeting with White House staff on Monday, Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, said he was confident the president was misquoted or misspoke when he told The New York Times he would make an announcement about the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act.
“The president has been consistent for going on two years now that one of his main goals is to increase the economic opportunity and raise wages for Americans and it would go against his stated goals to do away with a law that just maintains a level paying field, let alone raises people wages,” McGarvey told McClatchy.
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The White House declined to comment.
Signed by President Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression, the Davis-Bacon Act requires contractors hired by the federal government for public works and building projects to pay certain classes of laborers and mechanics at prevailing wage rates. The Department of Labor calculates the rates by county, based on data it collects on similar projects in the area.
Conservatives in Trump’s own Republican Party would be delighted if the president announced plans to repeal or replace the law. They say it artificially drives up costs for taxpayers and gives a competitive advantage to unions.
Unions are anxious to protect Davis-Bacon, and ensure its wage protections are enshrined in Trump’s promised trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. Any move by the president that threatens the law could jeopardize their support for a Trump infrastructure bill, and thwart its prospects for winning votes from congressional Democrats, the unions’ traditional allies.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said labor protections — such as Davis-Bacon’s wage guarantees — are essential for Democratic support of any infrastructure package in the Senate.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats successfully have blocked Republican amendments to deny Davis-Bacon protections several times in the recent years. Most recently, in July 2016, an amendment by conservative Iowa Rep. Steve King to repeal Davis-Bacon failed 188-238, including 54 no votes from Republicans.
If Trump leaves the law alone, the unions could play a key role in helping the White House build a bipartisan coalition to pass infrastructure legislation.
Some union officials had hoped Trump would clarify where he stood in a speech he delivered last week before thousands of members of North America’s Building Trades Unions in Washington, D.C.
He did not.
“I thought it was painfully obvious that the president did not mention Davis-Bacon or prevailing wage during his speech,” said Terry Akins, business manager at IBEW Local 124 in Kansas City.
“For me,” Akins said, “that was ominous.”
Marion Davis, who represents the teamsters’ construction division, said he had been listening for Trump to pledge he would uphold prevailing wages and the Davis-Bacon Act.
“Everybody in there would have loved to hear that,” Davis said.
The next day, Trump only exacerbated the unions’ unease when he told The New York Times that he would make an announcement about the law in two weeks’ time. He did not give any details.
“It’s going to be good,” he promised.
North America’s Building Trades Unions, the umbrella organization for construction workers that hosted Trump’s speech, has made it clear that they don’t want to see Davis-Bacon revised or eliminated, said spokesman Tom Owens.
Many rank-and-file members of the building trades supported Trump in November, although unions’ leaders endorsed his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. The group’s leadership — including McGarvey — first met with Trump at the White House three days after his inauguration. They raised Davis-Bacon in that meeting, but the president was noncommittal.
“We’ve expressed to the White House, both the president and his staff, that there’s large bipartisan support in Congress” for Davis-Bacon, Owens said. “We impressed upon them, Look, it’s law right now. There’s bipartisan support for it. We don’t see any reason why it should be tinkered with ... There’s more important issues to worry about ”
Trump relied on union voters to pull off his victory in November. Exit polls showed Clinton beat Trump among union households by just 8 percent. It was the smallest margin for a Democratic presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale in 1984.
Still, there’s some evidence that Trump could be influenced by conservative arguments against Davis-Bacon.
Trump’s labor adviser, James Sherk, wrote articles calling for the law’s repeal in his previous job as a Heritage Foundation fellow.
Sherk argued that the wages set by the Department of Labor “bear no resemblance to prevailing market wages” and sometimes can be more than double as much.
“Repealing the (Davis-Bacon Act) restrictions would allow the government to build more infrastructure and create 155,000 more construction-related jobs at the same cost to taxpayers,” Sherk wrote in 2012.
King, the Republican congressman from Iowa who has sponsored legislation to repeal Davis-Bacon, said he thinks Trump might be able to use the law to entice conservatives like him to agree to direct federal spending as part of his infrastructure plan.
“If you said to conservatives, ‘We get rid of Davis-Bacon and we have to pay for some infrastructure,’ that might be a very smart way to lead with this,” King said. “I do not anticipate that he would do that, to hang it out as a carrot to conservatives. I’m open to having that discussion.”
Labor advocates warn that contractors who hire low-cost or less-skilled labor might not save the taxpayer money in the long run because projects done badly would have to be redone, or workers could suffer more injuries on the job.
Davis-Bacon was passed in 1931 because “less-skilled workers were doing shoddy work if there’s no price floor to maintain quality,” said Akins, the local union leader from Kansas City.
“You’re going to spend the money on good wages for people who are working on public jobs, or you’re going to spend it on social safety nets for the workers who don’t have pensions, who are injured on the jobs,” he said.
Many of the union voters who put Trump in office would have second thoughts if he were to repeal or revise the Davis-Bacon Act, Akins said.
“There are a lot of blue-collar people who voted him in based on single issues like the wall, firearms, etc,” he said. “They’re learning more.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Davis-Bacon Act was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt. It was signed by President Herbert Hoover.
Diane Stafford reported from Kansas City, Mo.