Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DAVIS-BACON, ROUND 3....The Davis-Bacon "prevailing wage" debate continues! You're excited, aren't you?

Matt Yglesias argues that regardless of the merits of Davis-Bacon, scrapping it would hurt unions and in the long run strong unions are a key component of the liberal coalition as well as the only effective counterweight we have to the power of big business.

Mickey Kaus makes a number of arguments in reply. This seemed like the most persuasive one to me:

The real problem with laws like Davis-Bacon isn't that they make a few government buildings, highways, and levees, etc., a bit more expensive. It's that in combination with similar laws that apply to services, and with the civil service laws, and with misguided court decisions that impose special procedural obligations on government (e.g. before workers can be fired or public housing tenants evicted) they make the private sector more efficient than government at virtually anything both of them do. The result is a pervasive public cynicism about government efficacy that has done more to undermine the case against government action than union lobbying can ever do to support it.

This might be a convincing argument, but I wonder if it misses the point? I've long felt that public hostility to unions, and especially to public sector unions, is based not so much on their demands for higher pay as on their demands for byzantine and highly restrictive work rules. Most people aren't unwilling to pay teachers decently, for example, but they also think that teachers should be held accountable to a boss (just like they themselves are) and that it should be possible to fire bad teachers without five years of hearings and red tape.

Mickey appears to feel the same way, at least judging by the amount of space he devotes to work rules vs. pay levels in his argument. But Davis-Bacon applies solely to wage levels, doesn't it? Sure, construction unions have negotiated lots of work rules in their national contracts, but Davis-Bacon doesn't say anything about what those rules are or even whether employers have to deal with unions in the first place. It's just a list of required wage levels throughout the country. (For example, here are the "wage determinations" for Louisiana. The rate for a common laborer in Orleans Parish is $9.55.)

Now, Mickey also seems to think that unions are fundamentally a bad thing on economic grounds, and there we'll just have to disagree. But if the primary neoliberal argument against unionism especially public sector unionism is that it encourages archaic red tape and coddles lazy workers, then Davis-Bacon looks pretty good, doesn't it? After all, it's focused like a laser on just one thing: paying decent wages. What's wrong with that?

UPDATE: Apparently Democrats are pretty united in trying to overturn Bush's emergency suspension of Davis-Bacon. The Carpetbagger has the details.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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