The White House, in a step that could bring on another big confrontation with organized labor, is considering tightening the way the government administers the Davis-Bacon Act, the 47-year-old law affecting wage levels paid on federal construction projects.
The move, being pondered as an anti-inflation step, would be almost certain to draw opposition both in Congress and among construction unions. Labor leaders have regarded the present way of administering the law as sacrosanct for the past several decades.
The effort comes in the wake of a decision by high officials, reported earlier, to abandon plans to ask Congress to make legislative changes -- a step the White House feared would almost certainly be rejected by the lawmakers.
Under the Davis-Bacon Act, all workers throughout a broad geographic region are required to receive the "prevailing" wage for the area on federal construction projects -- basically guaranteeing those in low-cost rural areas the same high wages as their big-city counterparts.
Budget director James T. McIntyre is scheduled to meet to discuss the issue next week with AFL-CIO President George Meany, who is said to oppose any changes in the present arrangement. Meany is slated to meet with President Carter next Friday.
Officials say the changes they're considering would involve only altering Labor Department wage-figuring practices, and would not require congressional approval. However, strategists concede Congress could reverse the administration's changes if labor leaders balk.
The move apparently was a tradeoff in exchange for agreement by top policymakers to scrap any notion of seeking legislative changes to trim back the law. Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, who vigorously opposed any formal change in the law, is said to be "open" to "improvements."
The 1931 Davis-Bacon Act has been criticized for years as archaic and inflationary -- most recently by a General Accounting Office study that charged it resulted in artificially high wage levels on federal construction projects and a surplus of labor.
The Nixon administration briefly considered proposing repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, but backed down quickly in mid-1970 in the face of a vigorous backlash from union leaders. However, Nixon successfully used suspension of the act as a lever to prod workers into acceptance of a wage controls program.
The changes the administration is said to be considering would range from altering existing wage-setting rules to cutting back on the amount of paperwork that employers must file on federal construction projects.
The proposals include:
Ending the present practice of designating a wage-level the "prevailing" wage for all workers within a region if as many as 30 percent of construction personnel in an area are paid at that level.
Trimming back the size of the regions within which a particular wagelevel applies. That would enable Labor Department officials to set different wage levels for rural or lower-cost areas.
Easing procedures by which the government determined the craft or category of workers on a federal project.
Officials also confirmed yesterday that Carter had followed the advice of his key policymakers in deciding not to propose any changes in the minimum wage law this year or next. Strategists had been considering delaying this year's increase and proposing a lower wage for youths.