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Unions battle to keep law on prevailing wages


ANNAPOLIS -- Construction unions, anxious about threats to the state's prevailing-wage law, packed a House committee room yesterday to plead for sustaining the program that sets a type of minimum wage for state building projects.

The law, which many contractors claim artificially raises the state's costs by requiring the payment of union wages, is under fire from critics who see modifying or eliminating it as one way of helping Maryland get through its budget crisis.

The House Economic Matters Committee waded through a series of bills yesterday aimed at -- separately -- strengthening the existing law, weakening it or simply repealing it.

The law, in effect in Maryland since 1945, requires the state to survey contractors in each county to determine the "prevailing wage" being paid for each type of worker. On most state projects more than $500,000 in value, contractors are required to pay workers that prevailing wage for their area, whether or not it meets the state's need to accept the lowest bid on a project.

The law "assures the economic power of government is not used to undermine the labor standards of the local community," said James R. Ron DeJuliis, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 37.

"It enhances the quality of life by requiring a fair wage for a fair day's work" and prevents out-of-state contractors from bringing low-paid employees into the state, Mr. DeJuliis said.

Non-union contractors countered that the law ends up requiring that union, or near-union, wages be paid, even by non-union employers. That, in turn, costs the state about $20 million a year in higher wages, they said.

"The prevailing-wage law creates a preference for unionized construction workers and those who employ them," said Harvey Epstein, a lobbyist for the non-union Associated Builders & Contractors of Maryland.

In addition to repealing the law, some of the bills offered yesterday would raise the value of projects that require prevailing wages to $1 million from $500,000; allow contractors to pay overtime only after 40 hours a week, rather than after eight hours in a day; and suspend the law for some types of construction, such as secondary schools.

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