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Prevailing-Wage Curb for Storm Work Ends

October 27, 2005|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Pressured by members of both parties, President Bush agreed Wednesday to lift an order that had allowed federal contractors on Hurricane Katrina reconstruction projects to pay workers less than the local prevailing wage.

His decision elated Democrats, labor unions and moderate House Republicans in districts where organized labor is active.

The prevailing wage is usually close to the wage level set in local union contracts. Critics had said that waiving the prevailing-wage requirement allowed employers to pay "poverty wages."

The White House did not announce the action. Instead, Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, revealed Bush's decision to several House Republicans during a meeting at the executive mansion, and the lawmakers happily disclosed the news afterward on Capitol Hill.

As the devastation caused by Katrina became clear, Bush on Sept. 8 suspended the wage standards laid out in the Davis-Bacon Act for areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Some allies praised the move, saying the law, if not suspended, would have inflated costs and presented roadblocks to rebuilding. Some conservatives had long sought to repeal the wage standard.

But Democrats, labor unions and some House Republicans strenuously resisted the move. Led by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), an effort was building in the House for an early November vote on reinstating the wage standard.

Bush's initial action had also posed problems for a number of House Republicans. Thirty-seven of them objected to Bush in writing and also spoke to Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman and to Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff.

Three who signed the letter to Bush -- Reps. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) -- went to the White House on Wednesday and received the news of Bush's decision from Card.

"We thought it was bad policy and bad politics, and I guess they accepted our argument," King said afterward. "There's no need to antagonize organized labor."

The White House said Bush was not reversing himself by lifting his order. "We always said it was a temporary waiver," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "This is similar to the precedent set by Hurricane Andrew, which was also a temporary waiver."

In a prepared statement, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao described the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act as part of "an administration-wide effort to remove as many barriers as possible to aid the recovery efforts in the impacted areas."

She gave no reason for lifting the suspension.

"It was fundamentally wrong for the Bush administration to hit workers when they were down by slashing wages, exacerbating the very poverty that the hurricanes exposed," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. "Reinstating community wage standards will bring stability to the contacting process." The reinstatement of the wage rules will take effect Nov. 8.

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