The Austin Chronicle

Labor Backs AISD Bonds

By Rachel Proctor May, August 20, 2004, News

In a move of confidence that Austin ISD will honor an 11th-hour commitment to adopt an accurate prevailing wage scale for its construction projects, Austin's Central Labor Council unanimously voted Tuesday night to endorse the district's $520 million bond package to fund capital improvements. But while the union endorsement erases one major threat to the package, the issue is by no means settled.

If voters pass the bonds (early voting starts Aug. 25), the board will call a nine-member committee, including three labor representatives, to oversee an independent prevailing-wage survey. ("Prevailing wage" basically means a market average – the idea is that public dollars shouldn't be used to depress market rates.) The findings of this survey will be used to update the district's current wage scale for trade workers, like electricians and ironworkers, for the first time since 1988.

This solution is a compromise: The CLC had wanted the district to simply adopt the prevailing-wage scale the U.S. Department of Labor developed for federally funded projects in the Austin metropolitan area. The district argued that the DOL study doesn't reflect the entire market – it overcounts bigger, higher-paying firms and doesn't account for smaller, cheaper ones. So while the unions are happy about the agreement – reached after a week of "tense but civil" meetings with the district and trustees – some still have reservations. "I don't have a problem with conducting a new survey unless the main purpose of that survey is to depress wages," Michael Murphy of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers told board members Monday night. "I hope that's not the case."

Louis Malfaro, who heads up both the CLC and the Education Austin teacher's union, pointed out that the unions had a strong interest in finding agreement. "We were heading for a lose-lose," he said. "But we need work and they need schools. Lose-lose was not an option." That's especially true for Malfaro – his members will feel it most if the bonds fail and schools remain overcrowded and needing repairs.

Meanwhile, board members of the Save Barton Creek Association decided to take no position on the bonds. Other environmental and progressive groups, including the Save Our Springs Alliance and the South Austin Democrats, oppose the package, arguing that the new schools on the fringes of town drive sprawl. While the SBCA expressed concerns about the package – including building schools in the southwest (included in Proposition 1, a $183 million school-building package), and the decision to pair (in Proposition 5) a new performing arts center with the most controversial of the new campuses, a middle school in the southwest – the group also praised environmental measures that made it into the package. "We do applaud the SOS measures that will be taken by the schools that will be built over the aquifer," said SBCA board President Harold Daniel.

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