“Fixing” the System

Sep 252005
Authors: Ben Bleckley

One-fifth of New Orleans' citizens live below the poverty line. That was one of the most devastating factors in Hurricane Katrina, because these U.S. citizens had no mode of transportation with which to evacuate the city.

This blatantly obvious injustice continues to be overlooked by at least part of our federal government, however.

Our own representative Marilyn Musgrave and President Bush have ensured that New Orleanians will earn low wages during reconstruction efforts.

In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, while many members of Congress were questioning what went wrong, Musgrave was taking action. She petitioned President Bush to suspend the "burdensome Davis-Bacon mandates" on all federally financed construction in areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

According to a press release at http://musgrave.house.gov, Musgrave argued in a letter to the president that the two-week delay between the time contractors make a request and receive wage information for federally financed jobs is too long.

Coincidently, the Davis-Bacon mandates also require that employees be paid a fair wage.

"The minimum wages shall be based on the wages the Secretary of Labor determines to be prevailing for the corresponding classes of laborers and mechanics employed on projects of a character similar to the contract work in the civil subdivision of the State in which the work is to be performed," states Title 40 Subtitle II, Part A, Chapter 31, Subchapter IV, Section 3142b of the United States Code.

In other words, usually the Secretary of Labor would decide what most construction workers typically make in New Orleans. This would be the minimum government hired contractors could pay their employees.

Now with this section suspended, workers in New Orleans who have waded through toxic water, who have had their homes flooded and destroyed, who may have nothing left to their name, could legally be hired to work for minimum wage – $5.15 an hour – in order to rebuild the city and socioeconomic system that almost killed them.

Representative Musgrave argues this saves contractors money.

I very much doubt there are many contractors in New Orleans living below the poverty line. I do not feel much need to save Halliburton money (they already have a reconstruction contract in Louisiana).

Some might argue that market competition would drive wages up. But if that was the case, competition would drive fair wages even higher and help the working class to make even more money.

Likewise for raises: a worker who did a good job might be given a 10 percent raise. If the starting pay was fair, say $9.50, they would get a raise to $10.45. But at minimum wage, the increase is $5.15 to $5.67.

President Bush certainly isn't yielding to congressional pressure. Only 34 house representatives joined Musgrave in petitioning the president. That's eight percent of the house alone.

All of a sudden, conserving money seems to be an important topic to President Bush – as long as the high and middle classes are still getting tax cuts. Thus, the government saves money by paying federal construction workers almost half what they would usually be paid.

Two weeks is not much time to hold up a reconstruction project. The only legitimate argument is that paying workers less will save the government money. There's a better way to do that.

The president and Republican controlled Congress need to raise taxes. Our country is fighting a foreign war, rebuilding parts of the South, transporting 1.3 million people out of eastern Texas, and fighting a war on terror. This is not the time for a tax cut.

In the 2004 presidential race, Bush said he would exercise better fiscal conservancy. It's time he was held to his promise.

Ben Bleckley is a senior English major. His columns run on Mondays.

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