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Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2008

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I thank the Senator from Washington for giving me an opportunity to make a response to the Senator from South Carolina on this issue of prevailing wage that guides the wage for Federal construction.

This idea and concept goes back to the 1930s--1931. What is the prevailing wage? It is effectively the local average wage. Why was this decided, that we are going to have the average wage? Because it was decided then, with a Republican Congress, a Republican Congress and Republican President, that we do not want the Federal Government interfering with what is happening in local community wages. If they are going to be less in South Carolina than they are in Massachusetts, they ought to use the local prevailing wage.

Is this complicated? No, it is not complicated at all. All you have to do is go look on the Web and find out what the prevailing wage is in South Carolina and what it is in Boston, MA. This was the basic concept.

What has been the result of having the prevailing wage? The prevailing wage gives assurances to families. The Federal highway system was such an extraordinary national system developed and proposed by President Eisenhower. It has meant all the difference to the American economy. What the Davis-Bacon program is saying is we are going to pay the average wage to workers under the Davis-Bacon program, but those individuals who are going in those programs, by and large, almost all of them, have gone through various apprenticeship programs and are skilled workers. That is why the University of Utah study of nine southwestern and mountain States has pointed out that the cost of using Davis-Bacon was actually cheaper, less costly to the taxpayer than it would have been if they had not had prevailing wages. An analysis of Federal Highway Administration data in 2004 reached a similar conclusion--that states paying higher wages had lower highway construction costs and higher labor productivity.

We want to make sure that when we have our highways and bridges, they are going to be safe and they are going to be secure and they are going to be made by those individuals who have the skills to do the job and do it right and do it well and do it for the protection of American families, whether it is the workers who drive in to work or the children who come back in the various buses from schools all over the community. That is what we are talking about--skilled work, competent work, on-time work done by people who have training and follow a very important tradition. These people are out there working night and day; in the cold of the winter working out there at night, and in the day in the heat of the summer.

What is the average wage we are talking about in this whole debate? The median construction wage in this country is $35,000. Does that seem so outrageous, for someone who has a skill, $35,000? Are we going to try to say with all of the challenges and problems we have in our transportation system, this $35,000 is so much we want to try to reduce those wages for working men and women in this country? Is this so outrageous, with the challenges we have seen, in terms of what people are being paid in the United States of America today? Of course not.

This is a very dangerous industry. More men and women are killed in construction than in any other industry. Do you hear me? More men and women are killed in construction than in any other industry. Three times more men and women are killed in construction than the national average for other industries, and for some of those who are building bridges, it's even more dangerous. The fatality rate for structural iron and steel workers is 13 times more than the average industry. These are high-risk jobs and we are talking about paying people $35,000 a year? In terms of the important issues we are facing, it makes no sense.

We want to make sure that when the Federal taxpayer dollar is expended, it is going to get quality work, it is going to get productivity, it is going to get results, it is going to have accountability. That is what Davis-Bacon has provided over the period of years.

Mr. President, how much time do I have remaining?

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The Senator has 5 1/2 minutes.

Mr. KENNEDY. To show what the difference is in terms of prevailing wages for local workers, for ironworkers in Greene, AL, the prevailing wage is $13.67 per hour. An ironworker in Greene, AL makes $21,872 a year. For ironworkers in Denver, CO, the prevailing wage is $22.50, annually $36,000. In Des Moines, ironworkers make $20.60 an hour; $32,960 per year. The average wage in El Paso is $12.03 an hour; they make $19,248, $19,248 a year. Are we trying to say in Texas, in El Paso, we are going to try to undermine individual workers who are making $19,000? By and large most of them are skilled workers who have had apprenticeship programs. Is this the greatest challenge we are facing in our transportation system? No, it is not.

The list goes on. This chart here shows construction is one of the most dangerous industries, with over 1,100 fatalities and over 410,000 work-related injuries. This is a dangerous industry and that is why it is so important we have programs, apprenticeship programs to teach these workers their skills but also teach them safety and security.

Regarding the injuries, prevailing wage laws lower construction injuries by 10 to 20 percent. If you have prevailing wages, if they are put into place, the number of individuals who are going to be involved in injuries, death, and serious injuries is actually reduced. Why? Because these workers have skills and have better training. More injuries mean higher workers' compensation costs. Without the Federal prevailing wage, workers would suffer up to 76,000 additional injuries leading to 675,000 more lost workdays.

This hasn't been an issue that has been a partisan issue. When this was passed in 1931, author James Davis was a Republican Senator and Robert Bacon, another author, was a Republican from the House of Representatives. It was a Republican House majority that passed it. The Republican Senate passed the bill, and Republican President Herbert Hoover signed the bill into law.

It is very simple. This is necessary because of the importance of having high-skilled work being done on the bridges and roads of this country. The American taxpayer's dollar is a scarce dollar. We ought to make sure it is not going to be used by fly-by-night operations. We want to make sure those people who are going to receive it are going to have the skills and training to make sure the roads and bridges are going to be safe and secure. That is what Davis-Bacon does. It takes into consideration what the local wages are. Prevailing wages are published on the Internet. It is easy for any of the construction companies to understand it. They all understand it. We don't get complaints that they don't understand it. It is just in many instances they would rather get fly-by-night operations.

If you look at the various studies that have been done, time in and time out, about prevailing wages, whether it is from the University of Utah--not a flaming liberal kind of university--looking at the western States, when they had the prevailing wage versus not having the prevailing wage, they show that using the prevailing wage actually resulted in the savings of taxpayer resources.

I hope this amendment will not be accepted. We have a tried and true system. We are talking about people, as I mentioned earlier, whose median income is $35,000. It is not excessive. It is difficult to make a good living today, $35,000 today, when you look at the cost of health care, the cost of tuition, the cost of the gasoline, the cost of heating oil--if you live in our part of the country, $35,000 doesn't go a long way.

It does seem we want to make sure American taxpayers are going to get what their hard-earned taxes have been collected for and make sure they are going to be expended for skilled work. Davis-Bacon gives that assurance to working families.


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