HARRISBURG, Pa. — The battle over legislation to ramp up transportation spending in Pennsylvania by more than $2 billion a year is shifting to labor unions and whether they will support a provision that they say could erase gains in wages, but might be necessary to win Republican support.
Labor union leaders acknowledged Monday that they are not seeing eye-to-eye on the wage provision as they lobby lawmakers ahead of a potential House vote later this week.
Gov. Tom Corbett and House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, are pressing labor leaders to accept a change to the prevailing-wage law as a way to win rank-and-file House GOP support for a measure that also would raise motorist taxes and fees.
Republicans pitch the change law as a way to save taxpayer money and get more projects done. But labor leaders say it opens the door to allow contractors to roll back nonunion tradesmen's wages on smaller projects, such as paving, guardrail work or curbs, and makes it harder for contractors that use union labor to compete for those projects.
The AFL-CIO, the labor federation, and a number of other labor unions — with a few noteworthy exceptions — are fighting the change.
"We want to do transportation (legislation) without cutting wages and that's what we're going to fight for," said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania.
Prevailing wage laws require contractors on state-funded construction projects costing more than $25,000 to pay specific wages to various tradesmen. The wages are set by the state Department of Labor and Industry and are generally tied to those in the county's organized labor contracts.
The Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council voted in early October to support a change in prevailing wage law as a way to put union members to work, said Patrick Gillespie, the council's business manager.
Gillespie acknowledged that some union leaders worry that making a concession, even a limited one, would embolden anti-union lawmakers to seek more concessions in the future.
"It's a significant departure and it's not something we came to lightly or without a lot of acrimony," Gillespie said. "No one likes doing this."
Philip Ameris, president and business manager of the Laborers' District Council of Western Pennsylvania, said contractors that employ unionized workers typically do not bid on smaller projects and, anyway, those projects are limited.
The state last year funded just 17 projects costing $100,000 or less in 2012, for a grand total of $1.1 million, according to the state Department of Transportation.
In early June, the Senate voted overwhelmingly for a $2.5 billion-a-year transportation funding bill, with no prevailing wage rollback. Since then, House Republican leaders have been unwilling to bring up the Senate's bill because it lacks enough support among the GOP rank and file.
Smith, who is leading negotiations behind closed doors, has not issued a proposed transportation bill.
Gillespie and Ameris said the change their organizations are willing to support involves raising the prevailing wage threshold from $25,000 to $100,000 on the state-funded transportation construction projects it applies to now. They want a transportation dollar figure similar to the $2.5 billion Senate bill.
It's not clear whether a limited concession on prevailing wage will be enough of a change to win substantial House Republican support. For instance, Republicans may insist on raising the threshold higher or exempting more projects, from road-maintenance projects to all state-funded construction projects, such as schools and prisons.
Meanwhile, Democrats are also hesitant to support a change in prevailing wage laws unless labor unions are in agreement, labor leaders said.