Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2017

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Asked to reflect, union members still see the benefits of the collective

With work scarce, union networks are critical but sometimes frustrating


Leila Navidi

Greg Caruso, a laborer with Laborers Local 872, photographed in downtown Las Vegas on Friday, August 31, 2012.

Sun coverage

At the Laborers’ International Union of North America union hall just off West Sahara Avenue, the mood among members hinges on the vagaries of the labor market.

Pedro Lizaola is glum.

Lizaola has been a member of Local 872 since 1988 and is trained in construction and demolition. Before the recession, there was enough work for everyone in the construction trades. Locals could work as much as they wanted and people from out of state were flocking to Southern Nevada to pick up the excess. Then work came to a crushing halt. Two unfinished resorts on the Strip stand as witnesses.

“I worked one day all of last year,” said a despondent Lizaola. “This year, nothing. I’m very frustrated with the union. They do many good things, but when I go to the office in the mornings to see if there are jobs, they seem disorganized and I never get work, but others do.”

Lizaola, who has four children, took a job as a bus boy a year ago at an off-Strip hotel where he said his hourly wage is half of what he made in construction.

Greg Caruso is upbeat, though. Caruso, 48, moved from New Jersey, where he was a member of the same union, to Las Vegas in 2004, partly because of the booming housing market. Caruso said he had worked 5 out of the 8 months of 2012, and while things were slow, he was happy that he was getting regular work from a company doing weather proofing.

“The union here has been great, better than the local in New Jersey,” Caruso said. “They offer more training, the pension is better, the health care plan is better. They’ve negotiated better contracts. I think the union is doing a great job.”

If he has one criticism of unions today, it is that they have lost some of their edge.

“Unions used to be more aggressive in going after work,” Caruso said. “When people say it’s nonunion, we should be more aggressive. We need to picket. We need to get in there and fight for jobs.”

Derrick Stowell, who worked for 16 years as a pipefitter and plumber and is now a business representative for the Plumbers, Pipefitters and Service Technicians Local 525, said unemployment among the local’s members hit 80 percent and has just recently dropped to 60 percent.

“Work fell off in the first quarter of 2010 after CityCenter was finished,” Stowell said. “Everything has changed now. Nonunion did a lot of housing, and we did the bigger projects. Now, they’ve migrated into work that typically union workers would have done.”

Stowell said he knows plumbers who have lost their homes and others who have taken their own lives. The union is trying to adjust, he said: Dues are lower for the unemployed and a welding training program at the union hall has been busy.

But it’s painful, he and others said, that nonunion workers are undercutting union labor by accepting less than the prevailing wage.

Mike Alexander, 52, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 357, said it’s easy for nonunion workers who are working for less than prevailing wages to fool regulators by doctoring time cards.

He complains, too, about how home construction screeched to a halt in Las Vegas.

“This could have been avoided,” he said. “Because of greed, they built out housing way too fast here. It didn’t need to be done all at once. If they had paced it out, we might still be building today and not have excess.”

Also weighing on union workers: efforts among politicians — including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who succeeded, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was rebuffed — to limit union bargaining rights. During the primaries, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said he would work to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, the Great Depression-era law that established prevailing wages for publicly funded construction projects.

Last year, 12 percent of the U.S. workforce had union representation, down from 20 percent in 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While many building trade unions hemorrhaged members during the recession, with some losing more than half of their roster, other unions have remained more stable.

The Culinary Union Local 226, with 55,000 members, lost less than 10 percent of its membership from its peak, according to the union’s political director, Yvanna Cancela.

When asked about declining numbers, the drawn-out struggle with Station Casinos over unionization, several contracts coming up for negotiation and anti-union rhetoric from politicians, two Culinary Union members responded with a shrug. It is nothing new, they said.

“To me, unions, all of us, are very strong,” said Sandra Magaña, a housekeeper at the Mirage. “We all need representation to protect our rights. The union will never back down. Organizing is often a struggle, but there have been some great victories from it.”

Las Vegas’ economy is cyclical, other union members said, and new projects will come along.

“Union membership may never be what it was at its peak, but I think things will come full circle,” Stowell said.

He holds hope that mining, a high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and California, and solar energy plants will bring good fortune for union labor in the Silver State.

In the end, Stowell said, it still behooves laborers to have representation.

“People have been beat down and taken advantage of in this country,” he said. “Unions were needed back in the day to combat exploitation, and they are still needed today.”

And they want to instill in the next generation an appreciation for how unions combat exploitation and promote workplace safety.

“I think a lot of what we have today in terms of overtime, safety provisions and other regulations is taken for granted,” Alexander said. “The history is not passed on to kids in school. Without unions, we wouldn’t have the conditions that we have today.”

Lizaola said he will keep up with his safety certifications and training, but he questions the $30 per month he pays in dues to the union more than he did previously. But he’ll keep paying them.

“The union is trying to help, and really, there is not much they can do. There’s not much work to go around,” Lizaola said. “Things will bounce back. This has been bad, but it will pick up again, and I’ll be ready.”

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