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Pete Savage, Regional Council of Carpenters
Published: 08 November 2006

Our advocacy for prevailing wages on all public projects is not new, but the need to form solidarity across communities to safeguard this law is reinvigorating our debates on a vision for inclusion.
This vision includes our strong commitment to help increase participation of minority contractors on all public work. This commitment comes from one spirit - which is to ensure that our city labor market is inclusive in general, and develops in particular, along a high skill and high wage path.
It's our hope that this vision translates into a better future for our children, their families and their community - rather than dead-ends at a job where that future becomes the first victim of unjust wages.
We regret to say that critics of prevailing wage laws cannot see the possibility of this future. They are using time-worn arguments that are 150 years old. They argue that requiring prevailing wages in publicly funded jobs frustrate minority contractors' abilities to grow their businesses. This observation harkens back to the post-civil rights period, when exclusion of minorities was legal and tolerated. For our unions that was a sad stage in our history. We would not be defending prevailing wages if we believe otherwise.
From all indications, the prevailing wage issue is not the problem standing against minority contractors' full participation in public contracts. The problem today is rooted in a system of red tape and bureaucratic bottlenecks that make progress inherently difficult for most minority contractors. For instance, the issue of cash flow is exacerbated by extra documentation costs and slow payments. These are legitimate concerns that truly add to construction costs, which ultimately eliminate profits for most minority contractors when they have to borrow to make payrolls.
It is time we as a society discuss ways to increase minority contractors' competitive abilities and their capacity to grow. Rolling back prevailing wage laws is not a feasible route to get to this destination. It may allow us to cut corners today, but tomorrow we will have to pay in social costs simply because those in authority looked the other way when our working families got paid less than they deserve.
Prevailing wage laws were put in place to protect workers of all colors and creed from unscrupulous contractors. The effects of undermining prevailing wages on public projects hurt minority workers disproportionately, because, as evidence suggests, most tend to be less likely to report abuses in the system because of their past experiences with government authorities that did not go well.
To ensure everyone benefits from prevailing wages, our unions are partnering with community-based organizations like Portland Youth Builders, Housing Authority of Portland's ETAP program, Job Corps, and Oregon Trades Women. Our high school summer construction camp program put 20 inner city kids to work on construction sites last summer. About 35 percent of them were kids of color.
We spent about $2.6 million on training at our Willamette Carpenter training center last year, and we are undergoing a $2.2 million dollar upgrade to our facility in order to expand our capacity to absorb more trainees. We have 770 apprentices indentured at this time; 21.8 percent are people of color, and we plan to increase minority ratios in the future. We do all of this without any public investment. Our effort is funded through our members paying 56 cents for every hour worked.
We can do more for our families and increase chances of success for minority contractors if we bind our communities together to require uniform standards for wages, diversity ratios for workers and participation by minority- and women-owned businesses in all Portland Development Commission projects.
When we do this and when we pay prevailing wages on public work projects, we build not just bridges and buildings, we help build communities and grow the local economy.
Pete Savage is the regional manager for the Pacific Northwest Regional  Council of Carpenters.

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