The Proud Heritage of the 'Prevailing White Wage'
By Vin Suprynowicz
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
Among the many uncataloged sins of the octopus-like government
we've managed to develop over the past eight decades is the damage
done by bureaucratic "happy-talk" to the plain meaning of English
Government raises organized euphemism to a high art. When
lawmakers and their busy scribes want to take more money from
wage-earners and hand it to big campaign contributors who happen to
be in the business of building schools, soup kitchens, or women's
shelters, they're not going to call said legislation the
"Construction Magnates' Pay-off Bill." No, no. It's the "Woman and
Child Safety Act of 1997."
Likewise, the politically naive might assume the proper way to
determine the "prevailing wage" for a given public works project
would be to place ads, offering to pay $10 per hour.
If not enough qualified workers showed up in answer to that offer,
subsequent ads might offer $12 per hour, then $14, then $16, until a
price was found at which sufficient workers of adequate skill were
willing to commit to the project.
The resulting pay scale would be the "prevailing wage" for such
labor, in that town and in that season ... not because some
Washington bureaucrat so decreed, but because it had been so
determined by actual experiment.
But no. That's not what our current "Prevailing Wage" laws are
about, at all.
The original "Prevailing Wage" law -- the federal Davis-Bacon Act
-- was dreamed up by a Long Island congressman who was shocked to
learn local construction firms had been underbid for the contract to
build a veterans hospital in his district (in the years following the
First World War) by an out-of-state contractor who then proceeded to
cut costs by bringing in (brace yourself) black workers from the
South, who were willing to work for less.
Though this may have saved the taxpayers money, and provided
honest work to a "disadvantaged" group, it sure didn't sit well with
the congressman's constituents. The ensuing congressional oratory left
no room for doubt that the new law, requiring any contractor on a
federal construction project to pay the same high wages as the local
white firms were paying, was specifically intended to block the
importation of cheap "negro" labor.
Then -- the art of euphemism already being in flower -- the
scheme to have the federal government put together the lists of the
minimum allowable wages was dubbed the "Prevailing Wage" system.
The system has survived all these years, with the federal
"prevailing wages" being jury-rigged higher and higher by a happy
collusion between those who collect the taxpayer dollars and the
so-called "regulators" they have now installed in Washington, until a
federal audit last year found contractors happily being ordered to
pay nearly $30 an hour for common steamroller operators -- nearly
twice what any such worker would expect to earn without such
States like Nevada have their own versions of the federal
Davis-Bacon Act. Cash Minor, chief financial officer for Elko County,
reports that a local contractor was recently obliged to pay $27.20 an
hour to workers on a public golf course project in Jackpot ... when
the true market rate is $15.
Jack Jeffrey, representing Southern Nevada trade unions, spoke up
last week to oppose even the most minimal watering-down of Nevada's
law, arguing that the current statute guarantees a high standard of
work, and also prevents out-of-state contractors from underbidding
The reform in question has been proposed by State Sen. Dean
Rhoads, from the rural northern enclave of Tuscarora. An extremely
modest proposal, Senate Bill 210 would exempt state or local
governments from having to pay the propped-up wages on jobs up to
$500,000 in size -- an increase from the current $100,000.
Presumably to make it more palatable, Sen. Rhoads' proposal would
apply only to counties with populations less than 100,000 -- in other
words, not in Reno or Las Vegas, where most Nevadans actually live.
One would think that allowing the cash-strapped cow counties to
put some local Joes and Janes to work at more sensible, non-rigged
wages would raise few objections. Financial officer Minor estimates
Sen. Rhoads' modest reform would have saved taxpayers in his county
from $78,000 to $118,000 last year (raising the usual question of why
the bill draft in question reads, "Fiscal Effect on Local Government:
But the labor unions apparently know a threat to their pay-off
scheme when they see one.
Sen. Rhoads' proposal is a good one, except for the size limits.
Kara Kelley, vice president for government affairs with the Las
Vegas Chamber of Commerce, testified in Carson City March 27, arguing
that the exemption should be extended to include all counties and all
It sure should.
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las
Vegas Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at
http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the
United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box
4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.