About 200 union laborers rallied Tuesday outside the U.S. Department of Labor office on Las Vegas Boulevard to protest lower wages to be paid on federal projects such as the $50 million FAA control tower at McCarran International Airport and the $100 million U.S. Army Reserve Training Center in Sloan, which are yet to begin construction.
They delivered a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis citing that the wage scale for seven specific building trades is less than 50 percent of accepted wage standards and eliminates health benefits.
That allows out-of-state companies and out-of-state workers to take construction jobs that should be going to local residents, said Greg Esposito, business representative for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 525.
So-called "prevailing wage" rates determined by the Labor Department are based on a survey conducted in 2002 and do not represent the true area standard, Esposito said.
"They haven't updated it (the federal survey) since (2002), whereas the state labor commissioner updates it every year and the wage rate he came up with is $30 an hour higher," the union representative said.
The federal wage determination for plumbers and pipefitters, listed in the same survey category, was $48.77 until 2007. With the publication of the new rates, the crafts were split. Pipefitters stayed the same, but plumbers were dropped to $23.11 an hour.
A separate wage survey conducted by the Nevada labor commissioner set the wage for plumbers at $41.92 an hour.
Local contractors who follow the current wage and benefit structure will be unable to compete on an equal basis with out-of-state contractors, Esposito said. Economic programs aimed at putting Las Vegans back to work will have the opposite effect, he said.
"I'm protesting being out of work for the last year," plumber John Beeby said at the rally. "I've never been out of work this long in my life. This is union-busting. A lot of guys come running here because they'll work cheap and they know we can't compete."
One Local 525 member estimated that 900 of the union's 1,200 members are unemployed.
Warren Hardy, lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors, said some would argue that the collective bargaining rate used by the state is "way out of whack," in some cases twice as much as what's paid in the private sector. The federal rate is more in line with real wages, he said.
"It is going to make it difficult to compete," Hardy said. "They decided to price themselves out of the market with the collective bargaining rate, and this a consequence of that."
Darren Enns, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, believes the Department of Labor made a mistake by cutting wages and benefits by as much as 50 percent for some trades, but not others. It's inconsistent and drastically hurts plumbers, he said.
Esposito said he's been working to get the Department of Labor to correct the wage "inequalities," including a meeting with Secretary Solis at the office of Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.
"These are significant federal projects and they deserve a quality work force to ensure quality construction," he said. "When you put a bid out that doesn't meet acceptable wage standards, you are guaranteed to get workers who don't have the same skill and training level."
Enns said part of the inconsistency comes from the number of contractors participating in the survey. While ironworkers and laborers may have hundreds of contractors to survey, some crafts are limited to the teens or fewer, he said.
For example, the Department of Labor invited 37 contractors in Southern Nevada to participate in the 2002 wage survey. Wages were reported for just 19 plumbers on five separate projects, and those wages were inconsistent, he said.
Contact reporter Hubble Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0491.