Journal of Labor Research

, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp 99–134 | Cite as

The twenty-percent majority: Pro-union bias in prevailing rate determinations

  • Armand J. Thieblot


Each individual wage rate set by Davis-Bacon or by any similar state or local prevailing wage determination petrifies the outcome of competing views of how construction work should be staffed and paid on public works projects. Although presented with great precision (to tenths of a cent for both wages and fringe benefits), the level of wages themselves are of surprisingly little consequence: Those set at union levels soon rise, being automatically updated to new contracts and conditions; the rest fast become obsolete in any rising market, because surveys to update them are rare. But in addition to setting wage levels, determinations also delineate which jobs get to have rates set for them, and perhaps most critically, whether those delineated are identified as union or notunion. Whatever pattern is found may remain in effect for years or even decades, influencing which journeymen and laborers own what job tasks and who may perform what. Also, if a particular job happens to be set as union, it may bring with it dozens or even hundreds of related special job categories, grades of sub-groups, fine distinctions of fringe benefits, and complex divisions of geographic applicability based on local union jurisdictional areas. This study uses determinations recently made in Pennsylvania as an example to examine the mechanics of the wage-setting process. I find that, in addition to the endemic problems one might expect associated with a complex and partly judgmental process, every step of finding and setting prevailing rates includes overwhelming deference on the part of government towards union views and methods. It shows why unions representing less than 20 percent of the private construction work force consistently set the parameters controlling most of public construction. It ends with some suggestions on how better surveys and determinations could be made.


Union Rate Union Density Fringe Benefit Wage Determination Nonunion Rate 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Philips, Peter, Garth Mangum, Norm Waitzman, and Anne Yeagle. “Losing Ground: Lessons from the Repeal of Nine 'Little Davis-Bacon Acts.'” University of Utah Economics Department, 1995.Google Scholar
  2. Stenzler, Yale. “Analysis of the Impact of State Prevailing Wage Rates: Public School Construction Projects, State of Maryland — Fiscal Year 2003.” Columbia, Md.: Associated Builders and Contractors of Maryland, 2004.Google Scholar
  3. Thieblot, ArmandJ. The Davis-Bacon Act, Labor Relations and Public Policy Series;Report No. 10. Philadelphia: Industrial Research Unit, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania (distributed by University of Pennsylvania Press), 1975.Google Scholar
  4. —. “The Failure of Arguments Supporting Prevailing Wage Laws and a New Evaluation of the Benefits of Repeal.”Government Union Review 16 (Fall 1995): 1–44.Google Scholar
  5. —. “A New Evaluation of Impacts of Prevailing Wage Law Repeal.”Journal of Labor Research 17 (Spring 1996): 297–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. —. “Prevailing Wage Laws and Market Recovery Strategies of Construction Unions.”Journal of Labor Research 18 (Winter 1997): 31–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. —. “Fraud Prevalent in Prevailing Wage Surveys.”Government Union Review 18 (Winter 1997): 1–30.Google Scholar
  8. -. “Helper Regulations Should Not Be Rescinded.” 1999, (In the files of the author).Google Scholar
  9. —. “Technology and Labor Relations in the Construction Industry.”Journal of Labor Research 23 (Fall 2002): 559–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. —. “The Fall and Future of Unionism in Construction.”Journal of Labor Research 22 (Spring 2001): 287–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Thieblot, Armand J., Thomas R. Haggard, and Herbert Roof Northrup.Union Violence: The Record and the Response by Courts. Legislatures. and the NLRB. rev. ed., Labor Relations and Public Policy Series ; No. 25. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University, John M. Olin Institute for Employment Practice and Policy. 1999.Google Scholar
  12. Waier, Philip, PE. for R.S. Means Consulting Services. “New Castle County State of Delaware Final Report,” 2002.Google Scholar
  13. Whittaker, William G.Davis-Bacon: The Act and the Literature, New York: Novinka Books, 2002.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Armand J. Thieblot
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Baltimore
  2. 2.George Washington UniversityWashington

Personalised recommendations