Bush Uses Hurricane to Blindside Poor

Guest Commentary

Volume CV, No. 10October, 2005

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney

With the federal government poised to spend more than $50 billion to rebuild areas destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, the AFL-CIO is calling on Congress to reverse President George W. Bush’s Sept. 8 executive order that would allow contractors to pay substandard wages to construction workers in the affected areas.

Bush’s order repeals the high-quality work standards set by Davis-Bacon, which covers taxpayer-financed reconstruction in the areas affected by Katrina. The Davis-Bacon Act, enacted in 1931, requires federal contractors on federally funded construction contracts to pay workers at least the prevailing wages in the area where the work is conducted. In a notice to Congress, Bush said the hurricane had caused “a national emergency” that permits him to take such action in ravaged areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

“Suspending Davis-Bacon protections for financially distressed workers in the Gulf states amounts to legalized looting of these workers who will be cleaning up toxic sites and struggling to rebuild their communities while favored contractors rake in huge profits from FEMA reconstruction contracts,” says Edward Sullivan, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department.

Laborers President Terence O’Sullivan says Bush’s action dashes the hope and opportunity of everyday working people, “those who have built this great nation and those who work to rebuild in the aftermath of disaster.”

Congressional Republicans and their Big Business allies have made several attempts to ban prevailing wages on federal contracts, but strong opposition from unions and Democratic lawmakers has kept the law intact. Emergency power to waive Davis-Bacon has rarely been used, for instance, President Nixon suspended Davis-Bacon for 28 days after consulting with labor and President Reagan never suspended it.

“President Bush should immediately realize the colossal mistake he has made in signing this order and rescind it and ensure that America puts its people back to work in the wake of Katrina at wages that will get them and their families back on their feet,” says Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).

“I regret the president’s decision,” says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “One of the things the American people are very concerned about is shabby work and that certainly is true about the families whose houses are going to be rebuilt and buildings that are going to be restored.”

At a time when Hurricane Katrina exposed the gaping hole of economic inequality and the shortcomings of our nation’s infrastructure, it is unbelievable and outrageous that the White House would lift the time-tested standard for insuring quality work and decent living standards for taxpayer-financed reconstruction.

Employers are all too eager to exploit workers. This is no time to make that easier. What a double tragedy it would be to allow the destruction of Hurricane Katrina to depress living standards even further.

Taking advantage of a national tragedy to get rid of a protection for workers the corporate backers of the White House have long wanted to remove is nothing less than profiteering.

Congress must reverse this short-sighted action.

John Sweeney is the president of the AFL-CIO; this article appeared on the AFL-CIO Web site.