In the midst of the Great Depression the federal government enacted the Davis-Bacon Act (40 U.S.C. section 32141 et seq.) to help workers on federal construction projects. Under the Davis-Bacon Act, minimum wages must be paid to workers on federal public works projects based on local “prevailing” wages. At the time, the goal of the law was to help curb the displacement of families by employers who were recruiting lower-wage workers from outside local areas. A darker history suggests that it was also intended to discourage minority workers from competing with unionized white workers.
Fast forward to today. Many states, including California, adopted “Little Davis-Bacon” laws applying similar requirements on state and local public works projects. California’s prevailing wage law (Labor Code section 1720 et seq.) requires contractors on state and local public works projects pay their workers the general prevailing rate of per diem wages based on the classification or type of work performed by the employee in the locality where the project is located.
Over the years, labor unions have sought to expand the definition of what constitutes a “public works project” from private residential developments receiving public funding (generally, prevailing wages required) to off-site fabrication of materials at permanent facility for a public works project (no prevailing wages required) to enforcement mechanisms such as making a general contractor liable for prevailing wage violations of its subcontractors (yes, indeedy, see Labor Code section 1775).