President Bush yesterday suspended application of the federal law governing workers' pay on federal contracts in the Hurricane Katrina-damaged areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The action infuriated labor leaders and their Democratic supporters in Congress, who said it will lower wages and make it harder for union contractors to win bids.
The Davis-Bacon Act, passed in 1931 during the Great Depression, sets a minimum pay scale for workers on federal contracts by requiring contractors to pay the prevailing or average pay in the region. Suspension of the act will allow contractors to pay lower wages. Many Republicans have opposed Davis-Bacon, charging that it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy to unions.
In a letter to Congress, Bush said he has the power to suspend the law because of the national emergency caused by the hurricane: "I have found that the conditions caused by Hurricane Katrina constitute a 'national emergency.' "
Bush wrote that his decision is justified because Davis-Bacon increases construction costs, and suspension "will result in greater assistance to these devastated communities and will permit the employment of thousands of additional individuals."
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney denounced the Bush announcement as "outrageous."
"Employers are all too eager to exploit workers," he said. "This is no time to make that easier. What a double tragedy it would be to allow the destruction of Hurricane Katrina to depress living standards even further."
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, accused Bush of "using the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to cut the wages of people desperately trying to rebuild their lives and their communities."
Miller said: "In New Orleans, where a quarter of the city was poor, the prevailing wage for construction labor is about $9 per hour, according to the Department of Labor. In effect, President Bush is saying that people should be paid less than $9 an hour to rebuild their communities."