Prevailing Wage Controversy
Garay's Roofing in Columbia employs legal immigrants but, even if they were illegal, the AFL-CIO said they should be treated the same.
"They ought to have the protection of OSHA, the protection of pension guarantees, and any other provision that someone employed should have," Johnson added.
Employers' organizations, such as Associated Industries of Missouri, disagree.
"If they're illegal they shouldn't be working here, period," AIM President Gary Marble said.
As a lobbying organization for trade unions, the AFL-CIO says employers should not be able to take unfair advantage of immigrant workers.
"Employers are exploiting these people because they are starving to death, [people] who've come here because they couldn't make ends meet in their country, wherever that is," Johnson said by way of explainingwhy the AFL-CIO represents all workers, legal or illegal.
"At this time, along with women, the Hispanic population are the largest populations of people we are being able to organize," he said, "and they're the people who need organizing."
According to an April 2006 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, there are 106 Spanish-speaking immigrants enrolled in the St. Louis Carpenters Joint Apprenticeship Program. Along with individual unions' support and the AFL-CIO, the prevailing wage law is another way to protect immigrant workers.
"It's basically the minimum wage rate that has to be paid to construction workers on public works projects," said Allen Dillingham of Missouri's Department of Labor and Industrial Standards.
The prevailing wage law covers construction on most state university campuses, with some exceptions. Construction companies working at the University of Missouri follow prevailing wage, but the state Department of Labor has no jurisdiction over construction at MU.
The department sets 115 prevailing wage rates for specific jobs each year, a wage for 41 job titles in all 114 counties plus the city of St. Louis. For example, the prevailing hourly wage for a cement mason in Boone County is $33.48, but the same job in adjacent Cole and Callaway counties pays only $30.30 an hour.
Critics said the law was designed to protect workers, but not necessarily illegal workers. However, the labor department only goes to construction sites to make sure workers are paid the prevailing wage. The department doesn't go to construction sites to check the legal status of immigrant workers.
"We do get some phone calls that there may be some undocumented workers," Dillingham admitted. "All we do with that is mainly pass it on to the authorities."
Marble said he believes more buildings would be constructed in Missouri if the state had no prevailing wage.
"To import trailer houses to take care of kids, is that a better quality than a middle school that could have been constructed for $500,000 less if we didn't have prevailing wage mandating a higher cost?" he asked.
Marble said Associated Industries of Missouri wants a wage based on the free market.
"The wage will be whatever an owner can entice a worker to work [for]," he explained.
However, critics said employers would take advantage of immigrants because Hispanics will work for less in the U.S. because it's still more than they can earn back home.
"We'd probably do the same if the tables were reversed and you had your family going without food and clothing, and you can go across a border and make more money and send it back," Johnson said.