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EDITORIAL: Prevailing wage laws and racism

State lawmakers held a hearing last week on policies that might help improve economic opportunity for low-income and minority families. Activists argued that some long-standing national legislation actually made it more difficult for African-Americans to accrue wealth.

For instance, Solana Rice of the Corporation for Enterprise Development told legislators that the federal minimum wage law passed in 1938 excluded many tipped professions dominated at the time by blacks, including domestic workers, shoe shiners and servers.

This was news to Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, who said “that such policies that are instituted on racial grounds should be rejected,” the Las Vegas Sun reported. “When you look at the rationale in the first place, it makes me cringe,” he said.

Fair enough. But why, then, does Mr. Ford support rolling back modest prevailing wage reforms that Republicans passed in 2015? In fact, why isn’t the majority leader campaigning to repeal the prevailing wage standard entirely?

These statutes mandate that workers on government construction projects receive the “prevailing wage,” which is essentially a euphemism for “union scale.” They drive up costs and discriminate against non-union workers.

But that’s the whole point. State prevailing wage laws derive from the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which dictates wages for federal contractors. The legislation passed in order to prevent cheap laborers — particularly African-Americans — from undercutting union bids for construction projects.

The act “has explicitly racist origins,” noted Reason magazine’s Damon Root in 2010. “It was introduced in response to the presences of Southern black construction workers on a Long Island veterans hospital project. This ‘cheap’ and ‘bootleg’ labor was denounced by Rep. Robert L. Bacon,” a New York Republican who introduced the bill. As a result of the law, Mr. Root writes, “black workers … were essentially banned from the upcoming New Deal construction spree.”

That’s an unfortunate historical reality that Aaron Ford may want to ponder before reflexively embracing Nevada’s prevailing wage laws.

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