By Frank Callahan
President of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council
1988 represented a major challenge for the labor movement, as anti-union employers and contractors lobbied to repeal the Massachusetts prevailing-wage law. The law had been on the books since 1914, and required that workers on state-financed building projects be paid a wage roughly equivalent to union workers. A federal prevailing wage law, the Davis-Bacon Act, was enacted in 1931 for federal building projects. The purpose of prevailing wage law is not just to protect union workers and contractors from their underpaid and underbidding counterparts, but to ensure that contracts for taxpayer-funded projects are awarded based on competence and productivity, rather than the lowest price—jeopardizing quality.
In the mid-1980’s, the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), who had for the past decade lobbied Congress to overturn the Davis-Bacon Act, started a campaign in Massachusetts to repeal the prevailing wage. In 1987, ABC—who then called themselves the Fair Wage Committee, collected the required signatures to place a question on the ballot to repeal the law.
Throughout 1988, Massachusetts residents were subjected to heavy campaigning from ABC and their ally Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT) for a yes vote on Ballot Question # 2. Early in the campaign, voters heavily favored the repeal; at one point by a margin of 49% to 30% according to a union poll. ABC had effectively convinced voters that the prevailing wage was a wasteful, unnecessary tax. A major development in the campaign was a study released by a well respected research firm hired by the construction unions, which disproved much of the anecdotal and contrived evidence that ABC and CLT had been using to sway voters. The study determined that a repeal of the law would result in only a marginal tax savings, and that the most significant result would be lower wages for workers. The publicity generated from this study helped to transform the issue from a superficial argument over taxes, to a more substantive argument about profits vs. people.
While transforming the argument and disproving the ABC’s propaganda was helpful, it was ultimately the efforts of the construction unions to mobilize member and public support that resulted in the defeat of Question 2. Unions held voter registration drives for members, and the building trades were able to gain support not only from other unions, but also from elected officials throughout the state, students, community leader and public housing advocates. The argument was seen as an issue for the entire working class, rather than just a segment.
On Election Day, a supporter of the building trades was placed at every polling place in the state. After the polls closed the voters rejected Question #2 by a wide margin of 58% to 42%. What at one time seemed impossible based on public opinion was achieved through solidarity and mobilization, and a public commitment to economic justice.