The recent front page diary reports on the arrest of a man who signed a contract to pay "prevailing wage" (which really means union wage) on a government construction contract, and then forced the workers to cash their checks at his bank and "give" him back half or more of their wages. Let's hope for fines, restitution, and imprisonment for this creep; that's the easy part.
The hard part is covered by four or five commenters in the thread, including me. What does it mean when the so-called prevailing wage is as at least double what laborers were willing to take? Nobody forced these workers at gunpoint: they still thought it made economic sense to work for as little as $10/hour?
First, it is pointed out in those comments that the "prevailing wage" includes benefits, but given the way this scam operated, the workers probably retained most of those, as they are taken out before a check is issued. So there is an apples-to-orange comparison, and that means that a $10/hour (in cash post-kickback) employee was probably getting closer to $25 when the value of benefits is added back. Nevertheless, the "prevailing wage" in the sense of the contract is obviously much more than the prevalent wage for people who are qualified to do the work.
That still means the contract was for double (as opposed to triple or more) what workers would take for the job. Mind you, the original DKos article refers to "skilled workers", but that's not really so. A tile setter does qualify as a skilled laborer, as it requires several years' of apprenticeship. Whether a tile setter really needs as much apprenticeship as, say, a lawyer, is another question. Even so, we're talking about a position that would pay $140,000 (inclusive of benefits) on a 40-hour week, 50-week year basis, which is a lot of money in almost any profession. A "mason tender" is an assistant to a bricklayer, nor is "laborer" generally used for a skilled worker. So unskilled laborers were to be paid $50/hour, which seems even more extreme.
The problem is that at the same time, as much as 40% (and growing) of private construction work in New York City is now non-union. So what is developing is a two-tier structure: a high-paid cadre who work in public-sector construction, at a time that the public sector is shrinking, and a much lower-paid pool outside a union (as is true of over 80% of construction workers). I doubt if this is a recipe for union growth and economic health. No one seriously believes that wages are going to triple or quadruple in a major industry, at least not without a huge ripple effect. The important, praiseworthy drive to unionize Walmart workers isn't going to result in tripled wages: more like 25% raises and better health insurance, in the best case. So no one, by extension, seriously believes that these unions are going to bring those 80% non-union laborers into their fold. Instead, they'll continue working on a small number of taxpayer-subsidized projects where profitability (whence costs) are not applicable.
This isn't the only example where unions seem to collude with very big business or with government in a short-sighted way. When we lament the shrinking membership in unions, maybe sometimes it's their own short-sighted choice.