The discussion pitted members of local construction unions against council members Mike Kasperzak, John McAlister, Chris Clark and John Inks, who questioned or hesitated to support a prevailing wage for affordable housing projects, though only Inks opposed the study.
Prevailing wage requirements allows union construction contractors to competitively bid on projects, but increase project costs.
Prevailing wage "actually allows them to support their family and pay taxes," said Rick Solis, field representative for Carpenters union local 405. Without the requirement "contractors have free reign on what they pay workers," he said, leading to "creative and unscrupulous" measures just to get the job.
"Help stop this race to the bottom that non-prevailing wages create," he said.
Council members decided to take a look at the issue when the city approved a contract for 48 affordable studios at 819 North Rengstorff Avenue without a prevailing wage requirement, despite protests from union officials.
Two union construction workers who said they were Mountain View residents said prevailing wage jobs allow them to live locally and not commute from places with cheap housing, such as the Central Valley.
"If I didn't get prevailing wage I wouldn't be able to provide for my three daughters," said a sheet-metal worker who said he was a Mountain View resident.
A union official pointed to problems in Palo Alto where shoddy work by a non-union contractor on the Mitchell Park library caused a year in delays and required another contractor be hired to fix the problems. Council members noted that Palo Alto doesn't require prevailing wage on city projects. In Mountain View, it is required for all capital improvement projects but not for subsidized housing projects, maintenance services or janitorial services.
Mayor John Inks said he opposes prevailing wage laws in general.
"I think wage laws are very problematic because you artificially inflate pay scales at the expense of someone else" he said, adding that putting the cost on merchants and employers is fundamentally unfair.
"It's a political decision about who is favored over another. People talk about exploitation — maybe there's a fine line between exploitation and choice — where you are willing to work," he said.
Council member and small business owner John McAlister said he he didn't like the picture union members painted of non-union contractors.
"It doesn't help the cause to say that if you pay prevailing wage it guarantees the best possible people will go out there," McAlister said.
Council member Mike Kasperzak said he was "really conflicted" about the issue because residents would ask, "Why are my tax dollars going to ensure that some people can work a project in Mountain View so they can live in Mountain View? Nobody is helping me live in Mountain View other than the market."
In response, council member Margaret Abe-Koga said to Kasperzak: "You say we don't owe anybody the right to live here, but with affordable housing units that's what we are doing. What's the difference between that and paying people who live here already?"
As he was in the vote on prevailing wage for 819 N. Rengstorff (he ended up supporting it) council member Chris Clark appeared to be on the fence again on Tuesday, saying he needed more "data points" to make the decision.
"I support prevailing wage in general," Clark said. "For affordable housing — that's where it gets a little bit trickier for me." When additional funds for higher wages could also be spent on additional units for low income workers — "which is a greater benefit to Mountain View?" Clark said. "You have to make that value judgment."
To council member Jac Siegel, the issue was clear.
"You are skilled and talented people. I really think we need to set an example on this one," Siegel said.
"You gotta do your own soul searching about what this means to you. You are not going to get any mathematical analysis" that tells you what makes most sense, he told other council members.
Council member Ronit Bryant said she once voted against prevailing wage for a project and "it is one of the few decisions I've really regretted on council."
"It's really saying, do you give someone a fish or do you teach them how to fish?" Bryant said. "Do you build affordable housing with workers who will need affordable housing?"