Whitmer restores prevailing wages on state projects

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Michigan will pay higher “prevailing” wages on state construction projects, three years after Republican legislators repealed a long-standing law that required better pay.

The Democratic governor said Thursday the cancellation of the law does not preclude her from implementing a prevailing wage policy for state contracts, which requires paying the local wage and benefit rate — usually union scale. Nonunion contractors appear likely to sue.

“This is the right policy for Michigan. When we support hardworking people and make sure they can make good money and we’ve got expertise on state jobs, it benefits every single one of us,” Whitmer said during a news conference at the United Association Local 333 near Lansing.

Her move is tied to her 2019 executive directive instructing the Department of Technology, Management and Budget to consider factors such as wages and benefits paid by companies that submit bids.

The announcement drew criticism from conservative groups, along with an association of nonunion contractors that primarily funded a ballot initiative that enabled lawmakers to rescind the law in 2018 despite then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s opposition. Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan President Jimmy Greene called it a “unilateral broadside” that “is both illegal and devastating to our state’s workforce.”

Union leaders, workers and Democrats applauded Whitmer.

“Things in this world are simply not driven on price point alone. We should not pursue the race to the bottom,” said Tom Lutz, executive secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, who contended prevailing wage ensures superior value for the government.

Republicans accused the governor, who is up for reelection, of trying to “buy back” trade unions that oppose her order to shut down the Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. They support building a tunnel to encase a new underwater segment under a deal her predecessor reached with Enbridge.

“It smells of desperation,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, of Clarklake. “We know union members are migrating to Republicans because of policy not politics. … They won’t fall for this cheap stunt. These are people who work too hard to be fooled.”

Lutz urged workers to not be “fooled” by allegations that Whitmer acted to help her political allies.

“Prevailing wage is good for Michigan because it goes to working people,” he said.

Critics said the policy increases costs for taxpayers, while supporters said eliminating the law made Michigan a less attractive place for tradespeople.

The potential impact of Whitmer’s step was not immediately known, as it was unclear if those working on state building projects have been paid less since the 1965 law was repealed. At the time of the repeal, it was not expected to save much on road projects because most are at least partially funded with federal money and subject to a U.S. prevailing wage law.

Other projects partly financed with state money, such as public schools and university dorms, are not covered by Whitmer’s move because those entities — not state government — award the contracts.

One GOP lawmaker, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert, of Lowell, said Whitmer’s “theatrics” could make it harder to reach bipartisan consensus on spending billions of federal pandemic rescue funding.

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