WASHINGTON – The Bush administration will reinstate rules requiring that companies awarded federal contracts for Hurricane Katrina (search) pay prevailing wages, usually an amount close to the pay scales in local union contracts.
The White House promised to restore the 74-year-old Davis-Bacon prevailing wage protection on Nov. 8, following a meeting between chief of staff Andrew Card and a caucus of pro-labor Republicans.
Democrats and the moderate Republican group both claimed their pressure caused President Bush (search) to reconsider his open-ended suspension of Davis-Bacon starting Sept. 8 in hurricane-affected areas.
The Republican group originally sent a letter to the White House in September arguing that suspension of the wage law only leads to shoddy workmanship, reduces federal oversight and allows workers outside the region to undercut the local market.
Rep. Steven LaTourette (search), R-Ohio, who founded the pro-labor caucus with Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey earlier this year, said the Bush administration was not receptive to the initial letter. But the White House eventually acknowledged the suspension of the wage law was not saving the government money on billions of dollars in Katrina contracts, he said.
LaTourette said the Republican group suggested Nov. 8 as a reinstatement date because it was 60 days from the original suspension. He said he hoped companies wouldn't abuse the remaining days to underpay workers.
The administration contended the Davis-Bacon suspension would reduce rebuilding costs and thus benefit local residents by stretching financial resources, but unions and other critics said it would result in lower pay for workers. Unlike the three previous suspensions of Davis-Bacon since 1931, Bush left the suspension open-ended.
Democrats, like Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said that was an attempt by conservative Republicans to wipe out Davis-Bacon altogether. Miller said Democrats' legislative proposals combined with the Republican group to force the Bush administration's hand.
The Bush administration demurred. "It was always intended for it to be temporary," said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman.
Sen. Byron Dorgon (search), D-North Dakota, and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said a Democratic Policy Committee hearing they held earlier this month had an impact by highlighting abuses of the wage law suspension. In some cases, contractors were hiring undocumented workers, they said.
"The credit goes to anybody and everybody who understood this was bad public policy," Dorgon said.
Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., said the White House responded to the caucus "in part as a function of our party affiliation." LaTourette also drew a line Wednesday, urging his colleagues to vote against Miller's proposal if it comes to a vote before Nov. 8 "because we've already accomplished the goal."
Unions praised the Republican group Wednesday and said workers across the country were invested in the fate of Gulf Coast workers.
"This was a blow on working people everywhere," said Anthony Liberatore of Laborers Local 860 in Cleveland. "To lose their homes and now to lose their wages is unacceptable."
Raymond Poupore, executive director of the National Heavy & Highway Alliance, said the Republican group reached out to unions to build a case for restoring the wage protections.