D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy says organized labor is jeopardizing a bipartisan proposal that could provide $100,000 and other federal assistance to the tenant self-management program at the Kenilworth-Parkside public housing projects in Northeast Washington.
Fauntroy, a Democrat, and Rep. Jack F. Kemp (R-N.Y.) are cosponsors of a plan scheduled for consideration this week that would authorize $1.5 million to assist such programs and specifically exempt them from federal regulations mandating payment of the "prevailing wage" to their employes.
The exemption would permit the projects to hire tenants who are willing to work at lower wages and "contribute their labor," Fauntroy said. Housing projects required to pay the prevailing wage, which is generally equal to the union scale in the metropolitan area, have difficulty succeeding financially, Fauntroy argues.
In addition, he said, prevailing-wage salaries could raise the income of some tenants enough so they would no longer be eligible to live in the government-subsidized buildings.
Peggy Taylor, associate director of the legislative department of the AFL-CIO, said, however, that the lower-wage provision of the Fauntroy-Kemp measure would "undercut" wage levels of current workers.
"It's not to anybody's advantage to have the wages that are paid to people for jobs reduced," Taylor said. "I don't know how you cast that [stance] as contrary to the interests of poor people."
The plan opens the door for present employes to be displaced by tenant workers and then find themselves unable to find comparable work elsewhere in municipal government, she said. In some cities, the workers could lose jobs altogether.
Fauntroy contended, however, that the labor groups are putting their own interests above those of the poor. "We're going to the floor and give the House the opportunity to stand with the poor or stand with labor," he said.
Kemp, an unannounced candidate for the GOP presidential nomination who has enjoyed strong blue-collar support, said he is "disappointed" by news that labor would not be in favor of the plan.
"Someday somebody's going to ask organized labor what they're for in the inner city," Kemp said. "Welfare and food stamps, or jobs and housing for the poor."
"The labor movement is stronger than we are, but we're trying to survive," said Kimi Gray, who heads the Kenilworth-Parkside Resident Management Corp. "We have more of a vested interest, but we're talking about fighting the fat cats."
The Fauntroy-Kemp proposal, among other things, would authorize up to $100,000 per project to provide technical assistance to resident managers. The wage exemptions would apply to persons working in rehabilitation projects, as well as maintenance laborers and mechanics involved in continuing operations.
Gray said her corporation could cut the $117,000 annual maintenance budget for her Northeast public housing project in half if the employes did not have to be paid the prevailing wage. The money saved, she said, would be used to create programs and hire additional residents.
For several years, Gray said, her corporation did not pay prevailing wages because it was not aware that it was required to do so. Nevertheless, the corporation had to give retroactive pay to only three workers because most of the workers' salaries had exceeded the prevailing wage, Gray said.
Labor's backing could be critical in the battle to approve the Fauntroy-Kemp plan as an amendment to the comprehensive housing and community development bill that the Democratic-controlled House is to resume debating this week.
Without labor support, the measure's prospects for approval are "50-50," Fauntroy estimated. "It'll be tough," said Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), chairman of the housing and community development subcommittee.
The Reagan administration has repeatedly urged abandonment of the federal guidelines that mandate payment of the prevailing wage to workers in projects that receive federal funds, and the issue has become a rallying point for labor organizations.
Observers noted that Fauntroy could actually gain some support among House Republicans anxious to join the fight against prevailing wages. But that support could be more than offset by a loss of Democratic votes from members who sided with the concerns of organized labor, one of the most powerful elements in the national Democratic coalition.