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September 22, 2005

The 20-Year Wage War in Louisiana

It didn't start with Bush.

Louisiana Republicans, with the support of conservative white Democrats, have been working to legislatively lower wage standards for poor workers in Louisiana for twenty years. When Bush intervened to suspend Davis-Bacon, he was taking sides in an active war over wage standards in the state-- and not surprisingly taking the side of conservative white legislators against poor and largely black legislators and voters from New Orleans.

Civil Rights Origin of Louisiana's Wage Law: Many defenders of Bush's decision to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act -- federal requirements that government contractors pay "prevailing wages" (ie. average wages) for the work in question -- argue that it's an ancient 1931 law, and even argue it was a racist law to begin with.

But Louisiana passed its own state version of Davis-Bacon back in 1968, not as part of the New Deal, but as part of the crest of the civil rights revolution, as black workers and voters across the South were demanding that work done for the public -- usually by low-paid black workers -- pay a decent wage. This campaign was a central part of the "Poor Peoples Movement" launched by Martin Luther king Jr. in his last year of life. People may remember that King died in 1968, but few remember that he died during a southern strike of black workers demanding a living wage for work done on the government dime.

As King said just before he died, speaking before those black workers demanding union wages:

Our needs are identical with labor's needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws which curb labor.
That fight in Memphis was part of the broader civil rights led campaign for expanded unionization of public employees throughout the region and the passage of not only the state Davis-Bacon Act in Louisiana, but also local versions in New Orleans and next door St. Bernard Parish that would use public money to give black workers a legup to decent wages for the first time in state and city history.

The Repeal of Louisiana's Davis-Bacon law: Fast forward twenty years and you have the a new alliance of conservative white Democrats and the growing Republican Party in Louisiana. In 1985, this alliance passed the repeal of the state wage law, only to have the Democratic governor veto the bill. But three years later, the new governor, Buddy Roemer, who switched to the Republican Party in his first term, would sign the repeal of Davis-Bacon. This would leave Orleans and St. Bernard Parish on the Gulf Coast holding out with their local laws against this political tide.

Defending Local Wage Laws: During the 1990s, a series of state votes would seek to restore the state Davis-Bacon act, with black legislators strongly supporting its restoration.

In 2000, the local council in Jefferson Parish, next door to New Orleans, voted 5-1 for a local prevailing wage law, only to see it vetoed by the Republican President of the Parish.

The next year, Republicans and their conservative white allies led a fight in the state legislature to overturn all local prevailing wage laws, even at the local level. This law was only narrowly defeated.

New Orleans Citywide Minimum Wage Fight: This fight parallels the fight in Louisiana over the more general minimum wage for all workers, public and private. In the mid-1990s, unions and community groups like ACORN began lobbying for New Orleans to pass a citywide minimum wage increase. Led by Republican legislator Garey Forster, who would become head of the state Department of Labor under GOP governor Mike Foster, the state legislature in 1997 passed a law prohibiting local parishes from passing a minimum wage higher than the federal level of $5.15 per hour.

Despite the state law, voters in New Orleans in 2002 approved a citywide minimum wage increase of $1 per hour above the federal level by a margin of 63% to 37%. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned the law that fall, forcing the minimum wage back to the $5.15 per hour poverty-level.

Listening to New Orleans: The legislators and voters of New Orleans have been very clear for twenty years that they see Davis-Bacon as a key part of the civil rights struggle to raise wages for poor and black workers in the city and across the state. Bush can spew all the rhetoric about recognizing the decades of poverty for black workers in the city, but if he wants to honor that rhetoric, he will honor the voting wishes of the ciitzens of that city and make sure that public money is used to raise wage standards, not drive them down.

And progressives need to understand that the fight for Davis-Bacon and prevailing wages are not some ancient New Deal bromides, but an ongoing part of the labor and civil rights struggle.

Posted by Nathan at September 22, 2005 02:37 PM