Morain: Is labor leader asking too much?

Robbie Hunter had to fill big shoes when he became president of the state Building and Construction Trades Council of California, and that is what he set out to do.

In his first year as leader of the 400,000-member labor organization, Hunter pushed legislation to expand prevailing wage law, the Depression-era concept that guarantees construction workers their pay.

The question: Has Hunter overreached?

Hunter, 56, is wiry and steely-eyed and has the remnants of a brogue, having emigrated from Ireland as a teenager. He made his way to California in 1980 and became an ironworker.

In his office, Hunter has a photo of himself wearing a hard hat and balancing on a steel beam high above Los Angeles, circa 1992. He was working on what would become Library Tower, the tallest building in California.

He became president of Ironworkers Local 433 in Los Angeles in 2002, a boom time. The union struggled through the crash of 2008, when unemployment ran at 60 percent. He became council president a year ago, succeeding Bob Balgenorth. Balgenorth defended prevailing wage in the 1990s when Gov. Pete Wilson tried to role it back, and presided over its expansion in 1999 when Gray Davis became governor. Hunter seeks more, far more.

Just as public employee unions fight for their pension benefits, the building trades council protects the prevailing wage. Adopted in California in 1931, the prevailing wage law is intended to prevent contractors from importing low-wage workers from outside the state.

Under the law, construction workers are guaranteed union wages on any public works projects paid for with state tax money. The prevailing wage requirement likely raises construction costs. But importantly, it helps ensure that California tax money is used to pay decent wages to California workers.

Hunter argues that the prevailing wage saves taxpayers' money because union workers are better trained and more highly skilled.

"We can do it with the least amount of workers in the least amount of time," Hunter said. "Do it once. Do it right. It will last for decades."

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