Of Roads, Bridges, and Jobs

Sept. 30, 2022
How the Davis-Bacon Act and unions fit into the IIJA

By David Cullen

It’s not just about pumping a trillion dollars into fixing and modernizing America’s infrastructure. It’s also about creating jobs. A lot of them. That’s right in the name of the bill: The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The IIJA is a gargantuan piece of generational legislation that seems to have something for every stakeholder group engaged in driving each aspect of our vast infrastructure into a future full of economic promise, driven forward by American ingenuity. 

The act “reauthorizes federal surface transportation programs for five years and invests approximately $400 billion over that period to repair our roads and bridges and support transformational projects that will create good-paying union jobs, boost regional and the national economy, [and] make our transportation system safer and more resilient,” according to a White House statement.

More specifically, the IIJA includes $113.3 billion just in advance General Fund appropriations for various forms of infrastructure improvements, including roads and bridges, that go “above and beyond authorization and funding of trust fund programs,” points out the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Associations (AASHTO).

These unique general fund dollars are available until fully expended for certain new programs outside of the Highway Trust Fund, such as for EV infrastructure, or available for four years from initial allocation date for projects such as those under the bridge formula program, according to AASHTO.

Obviously, when those billions start flowing to get specific projects under way, a lot of skilled jobs will be created essentially immediately as well as over the next several years. But stimulating an untold number of new jobs in highway construction and supporting fields is just one fulfillment of the jobs promise held out by the IIJA’s supporters on Capitol Hill and President Joe Biden, who made passing the IIJA a key priority of his administration.

With bipartisan support, the IIJA was crafted with the concerns of American labor interests in mind. Indeed, the White House is not shy about this, evinced by its comment that the bill aims to create “good-paying union jobs.”

To be fair, worker-centric regulations and provisions that are baked into the bill also include the funding of workforce training and apprenticeship programs. In general, these are often favored by both business and labor. But with the IIJA, they are rules formulated to make labor unions stand up and cheer. 

Strictly speaking, the bill does not mandate road crews be union shops. What makes the IIJA so pro-union is summed up in one key phrase deep in the bill’s 2,702 pages of text: Davis-Bacon Act, a federal law from 1931. 

The IIJA’s Title X1 Wage Rate Requirements (Sec. 41011) requires that “All laborers and mechanics employed by contractors and subcontractors in the performance of construction, alteration, or repair work on a project assisted in whole or in part by funding made available under this division or an amendment made by this division shall be paid wages at rates not less than those prevailing on similar projects in the locality, as determined  by the Secretary of Labor in accordance with subchapter 5 IV of chapter 31 of title 40, United States Code (commonly referred to as the ‘‘Davis-Bacon Act’’). Of course, how bad or good that 87-word sentence reads will depend fairly wholly on one’s perspective. 

But wait. There’s more. Trey Fellows, senior fellow with the Institute for the American Worker (I4AW), a thinktank that leans pro-business, writes in a post that the IIJA had been “hotly debated” over its spending priorities, shovel-readiness, and impact on the federal deficit and the national debt. However, he contends that beyond paying Davis-Bacon complaint wages, “One critical part of this legislation that has escaped analysis is the significant influence given to labor unions to shape future infrastructure policy.”

According to Fellows, Davis-Bacon is the tip of a pro-union iceberg. “Littered throughout the legislation are provisions that designate seats for labor union officials on boards, advisory committees, and working groups; requirements that grant applicants collaborate with labor organizations; mandates that federal agencies and grantees consult with labor unions on infrastructure plans; funding for union training programs, and wage requirements based on union pay.”

These “seating” provisions, in Fellow’s view, will give labor organizations “influence over many aspects of infrastructure policy by having direct input on how federal agencies implement the bill. Labor unions will be able to use this influence to shape policy by issuing reports, tracking grant recipient progress, and consulting with federal officials on how to award grants and offer policy recommendations.”

Of course, unions and supporting organizations don’t view these aspects of the IIJA dimly at all. For example, making the pro case plainly is a post by Ken Green, CEO & founder of UnionTrack. The “IIJA is rightfully being hailed as a victory for working Americans and, in turn, labor unions,” he writes. “Quite simply, the legislation will put people back to work in good union jobs after a few tumultuous years that have seen millions of workers lose their jobs.”

Turning to the workforce provisions of the IIJA, he says that the bill “also allocates funding for workforce development programs in the trades where workers will be most needed. The majority of the jobs in these industries are highly skilled and workers need an opportunity to develop their skills,” making apprenticeships “one of the primary tools to encourage workers to learn trade-specific skills to get good jobs.”

It’s far too early to predict whether Davis-Bacon’s days may be numbered. But the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) is calling for “the full repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, as well as any state and local prevailing wage laws that mandate wage and benefit rates that do not reflect the current construction market.” 

ABC contends that Davis-Bacon wage requirements are administered through “an unscientific and fundamentally flawed survey process by the Department of Labor (DOL). These so-called ‘prevailing’ wages hinder economic growth, increase the federal deficit, and impose enormous burdens. Davis-Bacon stifles contractor productivity by raising project costs and imposes rigid craft work rules that ignore skill differences.”

That may be, but many roads and bridges will be repaired and built before it gets repealed… if it ever does.

David Cullen has been covering transportation issues since 1981. He has received several Jesse H. Neal Awards for Outstanding Journalism and the ASPBE Stephen Barr Award for Individual Feature Writing.

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