In 1931 Congress passed the Davis Bacon Act. It states that companies bidding on public works projects must pay the prevailing wage of the area in which they are working. In other words, if your company is bidding for a federal contract to rebuild, oh, say, a flooded region, you can't pad your bid numbers with cheap labor . If the wage for construction workers in Louisiana is $25/hour, you can't pay your workers less than that. The bill was seen as a way to keep competition fair and, secondarily, to ensure a living wage for workers. You can read the history here if you don't believe me:http://www.solidarity.com/Davis-Bacon.htm
We live in a capitalistic society. The objective is making money. That's fine. I personally enjoy making money. I enjoy being married to someone who makes money. Money puts a roof over our head, good food on our table and super fantastic shoes on our feet. Money enables us to pay school tuition, doctor co-pays and give to charity. Money is just fine.
And here's another thing about money. Some people make more of it than other people. The CEO of The Spouse's company, for example, makes quite a bit more than The Spouse does. But I'm okay with that. The wage and benefits The Spouse gets are more than fair. It's all good. The ability to keep body and soul together is the objective of a just wage.
Competition between companies and bidding out contracts? All good. That sort of thing is what makes for a healthy free market system. As long as the work isn't shoddy and the workers are compensated fairly, it's all good. Laws like Davis Bacon ensure decent conditions and wages. Gotta love it.
So what in the name of gumbo has this to do with anything? I'm getting to that.
Things, if you haven't noticed, are pretty bad in the gulf coast. Bad and not getting much better. And, for what it's worth, people ranging from Michael Moore to Colin Powell to Trent Lott have agreed that the government's response has been, shall we say, lackluster. And silly optimist that I am, I keep hoping that the scourged faces of the victims and the outcry across the country over what we've seen will do something to get the attention of the people in charge. But I don't think it's going to and I'll tell you why.
With things the way they are at the moment, the President seems to have misplaced all that political capital he was on about in November. The plan, for example, to repeal the last of the estate tax on the wealthiest Americans is dead in the water (so to speak) because, well, people just think it's in bad taste to hand out a mess of tax breaks to rich people while other folks are holed up in the Astrodome. (Not, despite the First Mother's comments, what most of us would consider a step up). When a President doesn't have a lot of capital or can't get a majority to go along with him, the last resort for getting things done his way is the executive order.
On Sept. 8 the President issued an executive order rescinding the "prevailing wage" portion of Davis Bacon. Want to think about the implications of that? Take a moment.
The gulf coast must be rebuilt. There are tons of ideas about how to get that going. John Edwards, for example, is proposing an initiative akin to FDR's Works Progress Administration to engage the residents of the region in rebuilding their communities. (Too bad he's not still in the Senate. But you can see his idea here: http://oneamericacommittee.com/
What's more likely, though, is that a lot of big contractors will bid for and do the work. KBR, a subsidiary of Haliburton, already has a contract to rebuild Navy facilities in that region.
Plenty more work will follow. There are lots of companies that stand to make a ton of money on this effort. Which, as I stated before, is just fine. Except that without Davis Bacon, those companies can pay their workers whatever they want. They don't even have to use the local work force, all those people whose jobs were swept away in the hurricane.
Here's how I'm putting this together. We have a crisis. The dead are not yet recovered or counted. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are displaced. Families are separated. Our hearts and minds are overwhelmed by what we've seen. What we've seen has raised profound questions about poverty and race and values, and it is going to be a long, difficult conversation before we have some good answers. And while the people of the gulf coast grapple with upheaval and the rest of us watch and wonder, the best the President can do at the moment is make sure that when the rebuilding starts, Haliburton and their like make as much money as they can on the backs of the poor people around them. I don't personally think this is a partisan issue. Rescinding Davis Bacon, especially in light of the circumstances under which it was rescinded, is wrong. The President needs now to rescind that executive order. If you agree would you please call your representatives, Republican and Democrat, and ask them to apply pressure to that end. The people of the gulf coast are screwed enough right now without this.