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Guest Commentary / Prevailing Wages

Quality workers are worth paying for

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By Ed Armstrong
Regarding the April 28 article, “Boeing looks to save $100 million annually through job transfers”: Boeing estimates that it can realize these savings, which according to “”, amounts to roughly half the cost of a single 747, by shipping 1,100 jobs from Puget Sound and an additional 200 from California to lower wage states (aka “right to work” or “red states.”)
These are jobs that up until now, have been held down by our friends and neighbors, most of whom have worked loyally for years, decades and in some cases, a working lifetime for an employer who profited fairly from their labor and was heretofore, loyal to them as well. This move,for which Boeing is willing to spend $150 million, has the added benefit of being able to dump some older workers (aka “deadwood” ) without the risk of age discrimination charges.
A letter published the same day, “No mystery to bond rejection,” blames the school bond failure on $50-$80 an hour prevailing wages and goes on to espouse $15-$20 an hour for journey level building trades. While I suspect that the bond election was lost more due to selfishness on the part of those who feel put upon to educate someone else's kids, my purpose here is to address the wage issue. The”prevailing wage” is normally equivalent to the local union wage and benefit package. For me and my brother and sister carpenters, that package amounts to a total $50.82 per hour. A search of the Labor& Industries site showed the three highest paid construction crafts in Snohomish County, averaging a prevailing wage of $60, but sadly nothing at or near $80. For a little historical data — speaking to carpenter wages only — mid-late 1970s $15 plus or minus, early-mid 1980s low $20s, late 1980s-early 1990s mid $20s, etc.
Admittedly, at first glance, prevailing wages seem high, but there are a number of reasons why construction workers have traditionally been paid more than many other jobs. Firstly, remember that the mandated prevailing wage is the combined amount of wages and benefits ( health& welfare, pension and apprenticeship training ). Non-union contractors working on mandated projects are required to pay the full amount per hour, since most do not offer benefit packages. Apprenticeship is another part of the equation, most of us spent several years (four in my case ) in apprentice training at lower rates of pay. The higher paid trades require longer apprenticeships. Another factor is that of ongoing employment opportunities. For the building trades, steady work is almost non-existent, economic conditions as well as seasonal restraints hamper our ability to stay busy. Even in a strong economy, working nine months out of 12 is considered a “good year” by most craftspeople and in a financial downturn, construction is usually the first thing to go and the last to come back.
Longevity is something else to be considered. Still able to work at age 64, I have outlasted most of my contemporaries by years. Many in our industry are forced into early retirement by injury or debilitating illnesses such as arthritis caused or exacerbated by years of working in inclement weather. And sadly, far too many of our fellows go to work one day and don't come home. Despite the best efforts of employers and workers alike, construction sites are by their nature, dangerous places to work.
At a time when a push is on for a minimum wage of $15 in Seattle and elsewhere across the country, do we really want our public buildings constructed by contractors using untrained, pick-up labor working at rates of pay from three decades ago? Is a good family sustaining wage for hard, dirty and often dangerous work unreasonable? How about the ability of our families to visit a doctor or dentist when required, without the fear of going bankrupt? And is the hope of a decent retirement a little too much to ask?
These things were erstwhile known as part of the “American Dream”, not so much now, I fear.
The race to the bottom in our nation is in full swing and if the actions of the Boeing Co. and the wishes of the letter writer are any indication, Washington seems to be edging it's way toward the head of the pack on what seems to be a pretty fast track.
Ed Armstrong lives in Mill Creek.

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