Prevailing wage foes on track despite Snyder opposition

Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The group behind a petition to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage construction worker law claims it’s well on its way to successfully circumventing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who says he sees no point in “picking a fight with good people” in the professional trades.

Campaign finance records filed with the state this week show repeal supporters have spent more than $600,000 in their latest bid to undo the 1965 law, which requires contractors to pay union-level wages and benefits on state-financed construction projects.

The committee won pre-approval to begin circulating petitions in May and has since paid more than $500,000 to National Petition Management of Brighton to help collect at least 252,523 valid voter signatures needed to send the initiative to the GOP-led Legislature.

“It’s a safe bet we will far exceed the required number,” said Jeff Wiggins, president of the Protecting Michigan Taxpayers petition committee and state director of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan.

ABC of Michigan, a coalition of primarily non-unionized contractors, has contributed more than $635,000 to the ballot committee this election cycle as it fights a law it argues artificially raises costs for taxpayer-funded projects, including construction of schools and government buildings.

“It’s always been one of our biggest issues,” Wiggins said. “The organization was formed specifically to combat laws like prevailing wage and promote principles that embrace the free market and fair competition, whether it’s ‘right to work’ or the removal of discriminatory labor agreements.”

The repeal effort is facing opposition from organized labor, a union-friendly contractors association and Snyder, who has vowed to veto similar legislation but could be cut out of the process.

Unlike most petition drives, organizers are not expecting the prevailing wage repeal proposal to go to the ballot. Instead, they expect the Legislature to approve it within a 40-day window allowed by the Michigan Constitution, which would enact the law without a signature from the governor.

Labor groups argue repeal would hurt worker wages and are helping finance an opposition committee called Protecting Michigan Jobs. The committee has raised about $77,000 this year from groups such as the Michigan Pipe Trade Association and the Regional Council of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council is urging voters to “decline to sign” the petition. Separately, the committee spent nearly $34,000 in May on a construction skilled trades conference near the Capitol in Lansing that was attended by Republican and Democratic legislators.

Snyder maintains the repeal effort would undermine his attempts to promote careers in the skilled trades. Many labor groups and contractors opposing the petition run joint apprenticeship programs to train workers for in-demand jobs.

“I don’t see the point of sticking them in the eye or picking a fight with good people who have been good partners who have done good things that really care about bringing our state back,” Snyder said this week. “…I want to see them increase apprenticeships.”

The state prevailing wage law applies to “a fairly limited set” of projects, Snyder said, noting that federal wage rules apply to any project that involves federal funding.

But legislative leaders do not agree with Snyder. State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has long supported repealing the prevailing wage law, which he has called “an unnecessary burden on our schools and local communities.” House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, has also signaled an interest in the issue.

“We’re very confident we have the votes” in the Legislature, Wiggins said. “We just gotta get it to them.”

While repeal proponents maintain that removing artificial wage requirements would reduce costs on taxpayer-funded projects, they have relied on “misleading studies” to make their case, said Dave Waymire of Protecting Michigan Jobs.

“States that have repealed prevailing wage laws haven’t saved taxpayers a penny but they’ve driven down the wages of middle-class workers,” Waymire said. “That’s not how we make America great again.”

The committee has tried – and failed – to repeal the law before. The Board of State Canvassers rejected the group’s petitions in 2015 after opponents identified a large number of duplicate signatures.

Protecting Michigan Taxpayers sued its former petition company, Silver Bullet Group Inc. of Las Vegas. The two sides settled the case. Although terms were not disclosed, Silver Bullet paid the committee $50,000 on July 17, according to campaign finance records.

Wiggins does not expect any similar problems this time around after the committee hired the respected National Petition Management firm.

“I tell people that much like the folks at ABC, we are on budget and on schedule,” he said. “We’re happy with the progress we’re making.”