The hundreds of union members who crowded into the Middletown city hall this week to protest legislation they say will mean less money in their pockets made it clear who they thought was on their side and who wasn’t.
During the testimony of town officials including Litchfield’s First Selectman Leo Paul, Cheshire Town Manager Michael Milone, and Newtown Legislative Councilor Ryan Knapp, many of the hundreds of union members at the meeting muttered expletives and openly heckled the speakers.
What the union members should have realized was that their presence alone – the sheer number of them and that they bothered to come out on a freezing cold night – was enough to send the message they wanted to convey. When they tried to intimidate speakers into silence, it only muted that message.
The Tuesday night hearing was on legislation that would change the thresholds for when towns have to pay “prevailing wages” – higher wages and benefits that kick in on public projects that cost more than $100,000 for renovations or $400,000 for new buildings.
Prevailing wages drive up the costs of public works projects, which means fewer projects, fewer jobs, and higher property taxes.
The Tuesday night hearing about the prevailing wage bills could – and should – have been a productive conversation about the struggles of the construction industry to keep its workers employed, as well as the struggles of Connecticut’s town leaders, who are trying to keep taxes down while also getting work done.
But instead, as the town representatives spoke nervously from their notes, they faced open derision.
The reason we have rules about maintaining decorum at public hearings is because we want everyone to feel safe voicing their opinions. By and large, that norm is recognized and respected. Why is it the union members at this hearing got a pass?
The two committee chairmen – Rep. Peter Tercyak (D-New Britain) and Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield (D-New Haven) – did little to calm the eruptions, although a couple of times, when things were escalating, Winfield asked the room to quiet down. Tercyak, on the other hand, seemed to be openly enjoying the ruckus.
Winfield, who helped pass a bill on workplace bullying, seemed to have little concern for the bullying and intimidation of the speakers by the union members.
At one point, labor organizer Dave Roche, who last year bowed out of a run for Senate District 31, sounded like he was threatening anyone who was thinking about voting in favor of changing prevailing wage thresholds.
“If you keep attacking us, we’re going to attack you back,” he said, literally shaking with what he called “passion.”
The threat may have been meant rhetorically, but it certainly didn’t sound like he wanted to have a polite conversation.
Town officials have been asking for years to have prevailing wage thresholds raised – they haven’t been changed since 1991. Several of the bills would also index the thresholds to inflation.
Contractors say that a lot of the cost related to prevailing wage jobs has to do with how expensive it is to comply with government regulations and reporting requirements tied to the rate – and not because wages are drastically different between prevailing and non-prevailing wage jobs.
A legislative study done in Ohio backs that up. The state canceled the prevailing wage rate for five years on school construction jobs, and at the end found it had saved almost $500 million, or about 10 percent, on the projects. But at the same time, they found that there was little effect on workers’ wages.
That isn’t the message the unions are sending – and they certainly have a sympathetic audience right now at the statehouse.
With the Democrats controlling every major state office and both houses of the general assembly, the unions have a pretty good set-up at the capital. The Labor and Public Employees Committee is even friendlier, given that the two chairmen both have strong union ties. Sen. Winfield actually works full-time for a public sector union.
Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer, who also comes from the labor movement, was at the hearing Tuesday to lend her support to the unions. She spoke out against the prevailing wage bills.
She said the construction industry is a “bell weather” for the rest of the economy, and that when our construction workers get back to work, it is better for everyone.
That’s true, it is better when our construction workers – union and non-union – can get back to work. It is also true that the prevailing wage mandates mean fewer jobs open up.
Hopefully our state lawmakers will eventually hear that message.
Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.
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