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Fair Wages Won for Austin School Construction Workers

On June 16, the Board of the Austin Independent School District (AISD) voted to adopt improved minimum wage standards for school district construction projects, ensuring fair pay for the workers who labor on those building projects. The vote was the result of a coalition campaign by Austin Interfaith and the Austin are building trades unions. The Equal Justice Center, as a member of Austin Interfaith, provided vital legal support, research, and analysis for the campaign.

The improved wage rates will apply to a wave of school construction projects which AISD is preparing to carry out under a bond program approved by voters in 2013. Like all state and federal public bodies, the AISD is required by law to pay at least the local “prevailing wage” rates on its construction projects in order to avoid undercutting the wages prevailing in the local area and to avoid getting cheap, substandard work. The prevailing wage rates are graduated according to skill category and are based on a survey of wage levels prevailing in each local area. The basic problem before the School Board was that the AISD’s current prevailing wage rate schedule was out-of-date, having been established nearly a decade ago in 2005.

The local building trades unions and Austin Interfaith members – including the EJC – urged the board to update their prevailing wage rates using the local wage schedules determined by regular surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor under the Davis-Bacon Act. In opposition, a number of contractors and their trade associations pressed the AISD to hire an outside vendor to do a separate wage survey, anticipating that a different survey would let them pay lower wage rates for most workers. EJC and other organizations pointed out that the one-time separate survey would be costly, time-consuming, and likely more manipulable by employers than the well-established, standardized local Davis-Bacon surveys which the Department of Labor already conducts and updates on a regular basis.

The School Board heard public comment from building trades unions, contractors, and Austin Interfaith members – including the EJC, a spokesperson for Roman Catholic Bishop Joe Vasquez, and other workers’ rights proponents. This was followed by nearly three hours of debate and discussion among School Board members. In that debate many board members expressed concern about ensuring that wage rates for less-skilled workers also should be set high enough to provide a decent living – a “living wage” floor (for example, a minimum of $11 per hour). This is an approach favored by the Equal Justice Center.

At the conclusion of its discussion, the Board voted to adopt the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rates, to be supplemented by a living wage floor. AISD staff were directed to consult with stakeholders and bring back to the Board a recommendation on what specific living wage level to use as the floor. Board members voting in favor of the Davis-Bacon wage rates supplemented by a living wage floor were: Gina Hinojosa, Tamala Barksdale,, Jayme Mathias, Amber Elenz, and Ann Teich. Opposing the measure were: Cheryl Bradley, Vincent Torres, Lori Moya, and Robert Schneider.

The Equal Justice Center expects to continue working with AISD staff and the School Board to help them follow up by promptly devising and implementing a reasonable living wage level for the lowest wage workers.