The New York City Council has dealt Mayor Giulianis privatization campaign a body blow. In September it passed a bill over the mayors veto that requires city contractors
in four industriessecurity, cleaning, food services, and temporary office workto pay their workers a prevailing private-sector wage as defined by the city comptroller. The expected price tag of the wage legislation: at least $16 million a year. New York thus joins a growing list of municipalitiesincluding Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Santa Clara County, Californiathat have adopted such misguided measures.
The bills premise is ludicrous. It supposes that city contractors, left to themselves, would somehow pay less than the markets actual prevailing wage. Yet city contractors answer to the same law of supply and demand as other employers. The point of the bill is to keep them from adjusting pay in response to, say, a surplus of janitors in the labor pool or a downturn in requests for them. Rest assured, the citys prevailing private-sector rate will only go up, up, upnever reflecting downward pressure on wages.
The Councils meddling in the labor market is a patent effort to destroy competition in city services and to protect New Yorks municipal unions, which lobbied furiously for the bill. Because the bill requires the city comptroller to survey union and non-union businesses alike, the prevailing wage will reflect inflated union pay scales. For a non-union contractor, the law will mean both higher payroll costs and, necessarily, higher bids for city jobs, weakening the citys chief incentive for privatizing services. If contractors don't charge that much less, why bother?
Two competing visions of the citys economy were at stake in the battle over the wage bill. The Council, taking its cue from the now defunct command economies of the Soviet bloc, believes that city government should police economic outcomes and ensure fair results in pay, housing, and other goods. The mayor, by contrast, has a far more expansive idea of the citys economic potential, one in which government delivers essential services as efficiently and inexpensively as possible and thus encourages the private sector to generate prosperity for all New Yorkers. Score one for the Council.