Politicians love playing homage to jobs and economic mobility, but it’s very rare they actually do anything about either issue. With Cincinnati’s responsible bidder law, the Democratic majority on City Council set itself apart from the typical political mold and actually acted on the two biggest problems facing the country today.
There’s been a lot of confusion about what responsible bidder does, but it’s really quite simple: The rules require businesses contracted for Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) projects to pay for apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs that, in short, provide on-the-job and classroom-based training to workers. And MSD contracts under $400,000, or about half of all contracts, are exempt, which safeguards smaller businesses from more costly regulations.
So what exactly is so harmful about that, according to critics at the Republican-controlled Hamilton County Board of Commissioners? Setting aside legal questions over who should set policy for MSD, critics say responsible bidder burdens businesses and favors unions.
My response: Maybe, but who cares?
This country has put the interests of businesses and management ahead of workers for too long now. It’s why we’ve failed to make major strides in curbing poverty. It’s why the gap between the poor and rich continues to grow.
Over the past three decades, Republicans and Democrats slowly dismantled many of the policies that protected the middle class from the interests of business. Many of those protections were outdated, but that doesn’t mean they should have been completely repealed without adequate replacements.
So let it be clear: The debate over responsible bidder is Cincinnati’s opportunity to switch the dynamic between workers and bigger businesses.
The case in point comes through a study from Mathematica Policy Research that found apprenticeship programs alone can boost a worker’s lifetime earnings and benefits by more than $300,000. Over 36 years of employment, that’s an average gain of nearly $8,400 a year.
What do bigger employers have to do to support the higher wages? Well, they have to pay for apprenticeship programs. They also have to put 10 cents for each hour of labor into a pre-apprenticeship fund. (Even under opponents’ exaggerated estimates, the pre-apprenticeship fund will only raise costs by at most 0.1 percent of MSD’s $3.2 billion sewer revamp project.)
The rule really gets to one of the basic points of government regulation: It forces businesses to make a sacrifice for the broader good of the public. In principle, it’s not too different from asking big banks and financial institutions to meet certain capital requirements — a financial burden — so they don’t plunge the country into another Great Recession.
As for whether the law favors unions, it does. But that’s only because non-union apprenticeship programs are largely inadequate.
The debate over union favoritism spawned in response to a rule within responsible bidder that says contractors only qualify for MSD projects if they have apprenticeship programs that graduate one person each year for five years.
Imagine if a school failed to graduate one person a year for five years. Would the public deem that school adequate? Should it get taxpayer money? Surely not.
Then why should businesses with such wholly inadequate apprenticeship programs get public dollars when similarly priced alternatives exist and want the work?
Still, Councilman Chris Seelbach, who championed responsible bidder, actually offered to replace the five-year graduation requirement with an incentives program. But even that somehow proved to be too much for opponents.
The conflict is now turning into a crisis. In a move that’s far too typical of modern Republicans, county commissioners took their opposition to the next level and voted last year to put a hold on MSD projects until responsible bidder is completely repealed.
But the projects are needed now to undertake a federally mandated revamp of the local sewer system. If MSD doesn’t start work soon, it risks costly fines from the federal government.
Let that be clear as well: County commissioners singlehandedly halted MSD projects. There is no provision in responsible bidder that required them to do so. If it were up to the city, MSD’s sewer revamp would be in full swing today.
So if the federal government comes down on the city and county with fines to enforce its mandate, remember who to blame: It’s not just Republicans in charge of the county; it’s the same people who have favored business interests over workers’ needs for the past 30 years.
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