Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2019

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Don’t blame unions for our current problems

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J. Patrick Coolican

Monday at dinner I overheard some older gentlemen, sipping cocktails, state unequivocally that unions were the cause of the demise of the American automakers.

I found it amazing that no consideration was given to Detroit’s years of mismanagement, shoddy designs and slavish devotion to trucks and SUVs while consumers were switching to smaller cars. Instead, these guys assumed, the working stiffs and their generous contracts were at fault.

The conversation was hardly surprising, however. The total defeat of labor unions is nearly complete, with the results for many average workers a nightmare.

In the postwar boom — the golden era of the American middle class — one-third of private-sector workers were unionized.

This collective power was a boon to workers and Democrats. In response, for decades conservative Republicans have fought a long, strategically sound and wildly successful battle against organized labor.

Conservatives say the unions impede innovation and competitiveness and speed American decline. But they surely — at least unconsciously — realize that less money for workers means more money for shareholders and managers.

Republican administrations from Ronald Reagan on have happily looked on or actively participated as the private sector — sometimes with the help of corrupt or incompetent unions — has crushed the labor movement. Just 6.9 percent of workers in the private sector are represented by unions now.

It’s better in Las Vegas: Culinary Union Local 226 has effectively organized most of the Strip — perhaps 50,000 workers — and in turn pushed up wages and benefits and given us some semblance of a middle class.

Still, it is in this context — the decades-long effort to crush labor to the benefit of shareholders and managers — that we must examine calls here at the Legislature to weaken the bargaining power of local government unions.

Collective bargaining was granted to local government employees in 1969 because dealing individually with increasing number of employees was growing unwieldy.

For obvious reasons, police, teachers and firefighters aren’t allowed to strike; instead over time, we’ve given them what is known as binding arbitration — if the two sides can’t agree, an arbitrator makes a decision and his decision is final. Arbitrators used parameters that included jurisdictions’ ability to pay and what nearby governments paid. And the unions were an effective political force. You can see how during the boom this spiraled up compensation, which is where we are now, with local government employees making 15 percent more than the national average.

In recent years, the Legislature has passed laws forcing the arbitrator to look at pay across the nation and not just in Southern Nevada, and to look at whether the contract is fiscally sustainable.

Although no one is calling on a Wisconsin-style destruction of collective bargaining rights, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, in exchange for its support for a tax increase, has a wish list on bargaining that would tilt against the unions:

• Eliminate binding arbitration and force the local government entity, rather than an arbitrator, to make a final determination on a contract and put it into effect. They hope this would force county commissioners to be more accountable to the public for contracts. Unions say the current system works and that they often lose — firefighters have lost eight of 12 in binding arbitration in recent years.

• Require reopening contracts during an economic crisis like the one we are enduring.

• Prohibit supervisors from being in a collective bargaining unit. This creates one unionized employee negotiating with another and blurs the line between management and workers, the chamber says.

• Prevent any automatic increases in compensation — such as “longevity pay” — from taking effect after a collective bargaining agreement has expired and a new one is being negotiated; they say automatic increases, combined with the old pay arrangement, has unions stalling while local governments bleed.

Some lobbyists up here want to make all public-sector contract negotiations subject to the open meetings law, meaning open to the public, to which I say, as soon as their meetings with Gov. Brian Sandoval are also open to the public. That shuts them up.

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