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August 2, 2015

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For valley’s public employee unions, tactics change with times

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Leila Navidi

Firefighters stand in back during a town-hall meeting in April 2010 led by Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak at Loews Lake Las Vegas. Some say firefighters were there to intimidate the commissioner, who has been outspoken about firefighter pay and benefits.

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These aren’t the best of times for organized labor.

All around, public employee unions are coming under fire as groups of privileged workers who earn good wages and benefits while most in the private sector wallow in the doldrums of the Great Recession.

Republican political leaders in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states have actively pushed anti-union legislation. The furor in Wisconsin led to a failed recall-election against anti-union Gov. Scott Walker that may, in turn, embolden further attacks on unions in coming years.

In any case, it certainly hasn’t helped a nation where public employee unions have stretched over the decades into almost every line of work supported by taxpayers.

In Southern Nevada, Clark County and Las Vegas, unions represent police, firefighters, transit workers, prosecutors, different types of administrators, nurses, maintenance workers, janitors, security guards and more.

For decades, their benefits rose with the fortunes of a growth economy. Everyone it seemed, even private-sector workers, made good money. Tax revenues were high, so rather than open messy labor battles, politicians mostly gave in and gave public-worker unions what they wanted.

When the economy dropped into the abyss in 2007, tax revenues went with it – but union benefits remained. Five years later, politicians who fought to cut into those benefits are reviled by unions but praised by many taxpayers.

Some unions are still fighting. Las Vegas firefighters have denounced city approval of a fire department study that could lead to cost-savings as unnecessary. In June, North Las Vegas police supervisors sued the city to stop a move to gut parts of its union contract.

Last month, the Sun wrote about firefighters in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Clark County endorsing a campaign to slam private ambulance companies, seen by some as an attempt to ensure that firefighter EMT service doesn’t fall to the budget blade.

At other times, though, the unions have done what would have been unthinkable three or four years ago: They have issued statements of conciliation; they have given up sacred benefits, such as longevity pay, in light of southern Nevada’s unrelenting economic struggle. Gone is the anti-administrative rhetoric from Clark County firefighters; and where the police union threatened political retribution to those who didn’t see a contract their way some four years ago, it has worked nearly hand-in-hand with the sheriff to approve contracts quickly.

The myriad smaller unions rise and fall with the fortunes of the Big Three: SEIU, firefighters and police. Here’s a primer on how circumstances have changed for the major unions in the past five years.

Service Employees International Union

The SEIU represents healthcare workers, maintenance staff and, in the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, civil engineers, public information coordinators, planners, traffic signal workers and others.

In early 2007, little notice was paid to a contract between the SEIU and Clark County that granted a 3 percent raise retroactive to 2006, a 4 percent raise in July 2007 and 3 percent boosts in the next two years. At the same time, thousands of those union members remained eligible for merit-pay increases.

Over four years, the raises cost the county an additional $77 million. At the time, a county spokesman called the raises “fair” because they were less than increases in the consumer price index.

County officials also worried they could lose even more if they took their case to an arbitrator. That’s because North Las Vegas had recently granted 4 percent raises in each of four years to its union workers. Arbitrators partially base decisions on wages and benefits in surrounding communities; bigger increases in North Las Vegas result in bigger raises in Clark County.

Zoom ahead five years. The financial landscape changed and so have contract terms and negotiation tactics. County administrators, backed by commissioners who seem to scrutinize every dollar spent, acknowledged in late 2011 that in the previous three years, the SEIU’s 5,000 workers had averaged wage increases of 12.6 percent total. (At the same time, county prosecutors had received nearly 15 percent in wage increases.)

In August 2011, county commissioners approved a binding agreement forcing some 3,000 University Medical Center workers to pay back an average of $280 each, part of a deal to cut their pay by 2 percent.

Both moves sent a strong signal that county administrators had the support of elected county commissioners.

A few months later, the county and SEIU agreed to a two-year contract that froze longevity pay for a year, erased merit increases for two years and eliminated cost-of-living raises for the same two years. The deal with some 5,000 employees saved the county $20.4 million over two years.

A few weeks ago, SEIU and Regional Transportation Commission negotiators came back with what they believed would be a contract accepted by the commission’s board. Except the board didn’t like it. While other unions had eliminated longevity pay for new hires, this contract proposal kept longevity pay, albeit at a lower rate. And while it tied various pay raises to the consumer price index – which hadn’t been done in previous contracts – transportation commissioners said no and told them to come back with something more austere.

Nick DiArchangel, SEIU spokesman, sees the shift in politics as an opportunity for the unions to become more creative and cohesive.

“You’re going to start seeing public employee unions say ‘we have solutions, we have ideas,’ which are not ‘don’t take from us, don’t take,’ but are paths upon which to build stronger service,” he said. “I think in places where you see things being taken away, the unions haven’t stepped up and said we have a solution.”

What DiArchangel doesn’t see is the demise of unions, which appears to be the wish of various policymakers around the country.

“People with regressive politics have done a great job of tying the economic collapse to public employees and saying that reducing services is the solution,” he added. “This ignores the facts of who created the economic crisis and the housing collapse.”

He doesn’t think a majority of the public feels that way, though.

“I don’t see a public backlash against public employees, and that might be because they make up such a huge portion of our economy,” DiArchangel said, noting his wife is a special-education teacher. “We’re so connected to the fabric of the community. You can’t say ‘that public employee’, because that very same person is in your house or your neighbor.”

Police

Of all the union/administration relationships, perhaps none has appeared as easygoing as the one between the union representing Metro Police officers and the sheriff. As Sheriff Doug Gillespie reported, for 25 years until 2010, Metro’s budget increased 10 percent each year.

A sizable portion of those increases resulted in higher wages and benefits for officers.

But cracks began to appear in 2005, when the union and the staff of former Sheriff Bill Young presented a four-year contract that increased wages and benefits 25.6 percent, or more than 6 percent each year. The contract, however, failed to gain enough votes of Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Committee.

At the time, County Commissioner Tom Collins served as one of two commissioners on the committee. Fearing he would vote in favor of the fat contract, Collins’ fellow commissioners voted 6-1 to remove him from the committee. His replacement, Rory Reid, voted “no” to help defeat the contract. An arbitrator later approved a contract granting wages and benefits totaling 22 percent over four years.

By the time new contract talks came around in 2010, the economy was in full slump.

The union quickly agreed to no cost-of-living increases, though the contract kept intact 4 percent step increases for an officer’s first 10 years and longevity pay that starts at 5 percent and maxes out at 15 percent. Las Vegas and Clark County, which co-fund a majority of Metro’s budget, also agreed to fund all of the state-mandated increases in pension contributions.

Two years later, even relatively tiny wage increases are being rejected. In May, Fiscal Affairs rejected the sheriff’s recommendation for a two-year contract, beginning July 1, 2013, that would give police 3 percent merit increases in year one and 1 percent in year two. When that didn’t fly, he offered 1 percent and 1 percent.

That didn’t fly, either, and negotiations continue.

Chris Collins doesn’t sound worried. The executive director of the Police Protective Association is looking at his union numbers and membership is up by a few percentage points.

He thinks membership numbers are doing well because of two factors; the economy and “the department’s more aggressive stance in discipline and terminations.”

At the same time, they union has avoided making itself a target in the public’s eyes.

“I’m not going to say we’ve fared well (with contracts) but we’ve done as well as anybody in the country as far as what we’ve given back,” Collins said. “We’ve come to terms with the city and county for three years in a row and have avoided arbitration and the big public battles.”

He added that “image is important. The police department needs the public trust.”

When the economy bottomed out, Collins said, unions were caught somewhat off guard by the political attacks against their members. “Public unions did not get out and counter those claims very well, with proof and documentation to say, look, that’s simply not true.”

A new coordinated effort among police associations across the country to disseminate more information about public union costs and benefits, he hopes, will change perceptions.

“As we provide more facts and willingly enter debate, the sentiment will change,” Collins said. “But it’s going to take some doing.”

Fire

No public unions in Southern Nevada have been more beloved for so many years past, yet so reviled in recent times, than those representing firefighters.

Here’s how the leader of another public union, who did not want to be identified, put it: “They lived large for what, 100 years? They’ve always been the most popular. Always been the good guys. Not anymore.”

Only 10 years ago, for example, it was practically sacrilege – or at the least, political death – to square off against a firefighter union. Former County Commissioner Erin Kenny is said to have won her election to office in 1994 and 1998 as a result of her support from firefighters, who campaigned for her door to door.

That kind of power politicians ignore at their own peril.

It’s the kind of power that resulted in firefighter union contracts like no other in the breadth and scope of benefits earned. In the view of some elected leaders, it also created a backdrop that allowed more freedom for firefighters to wrack up large overtime benefits by, as Commissioner Steve Sisolak puts it, “gaming the sick-leave system.”

And then the economy tumbled.

In the past three years, local politicians have pummeled firefighter unions like no other. They made a big target. Firefighters’ benefits and wages are better than everyone else’s, so government bodies looked to those areas for savings.

When the unions fought back without volunteering concessions – their argument was sound from one standpoint: those lucrative contracts were signed by elected leaders – it made headlines.

The change started three years ago. If Erin Kenny was the Clark County Commission posterchild for union love, Sisolak is the guy whose poster graces dartboards in county fire stations.

Sisolak took office in 2008, right around the time the economy tanked. Almost immediately, he began criticizing the wages and benefits of firefighters.Two years ago, for instance, the average county firefighter collected wages and benefits totaling $189,000, much of it coming from overtime.

The county firefighter union fought back hard. Members once showed up at one of Sisolak’s informational meetings at Lake Las Vegas, their arms folded as they stood in the back of a meeting room, to stare and try to intimidate him. Sisolak started scrutinizing sick-leave usage, which results in overtime pay and pension contributions for firefighters called to replace a sick co-worker.

The union, meanwhile, fought to maintain hard-won wages and benefits, leading to a contract stalemate. An arbitrator heard the case and sided with the county, adding it did appear some firefighters were gaming the sick-leave system.

Months later, the county fired two firefighters for sick-leave use; both won their jobs back. Meanwhile, the FBI is continuing an investigation into the sick-leave issue.

Remarkably, the county and firefighter union are trying to make nice.

Negotiators for both sides wrapped up two contracts within months of each other earlier this year, saving the county millions; sick-leave and its resulting overtime have fallen dramatically; and in July, Sisolak wrote a lengthy letter to the editor proclaiming “there are many hard-working, honest firefighters who deserve our respect and gratitude.”

Too good to be true? To be sure, there is a bottom-line rationale behind the niceties. In two years, Clark County voters will be given the chance to vote on a special property tax that benefits the Fire Department. Should voters turn down the proposal, the county will have to make up an estimated $15 million that currently contributes to wages, operational costs and capital projects.

Many could lose their jobs. Will they be firefighters or other county employees?

* * *

Sisolak says he doesn’t want, nor does he see the day when public employee unions disappear. But echoing the sentiments of people those on both sides of the fence over the last four to five years, he said the days of fat contracts with no questions asked are gone.

“I think there will always be more scrutiny from here on in,” Sisolak said, adding that even if the economy improves, the memory of this economic downturn will stick in people’s minds for decades to come.

“In this case, I don’t think people’s memories are going to be short,” he added. “No one wants to go through these kind of gut-wrenching decisions again in the future.”

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