Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Public employee unions are gearing up for a battle against Republicans in the 2015 legislative session.
Conservative lawmakers and activists are rallying to upend some of the state’s collective bargaining laws, the rules that guarantee unions the right to negotiate pay and benefits for their membership.
For union workers employed by schools, cities or counties, changes to the laws could mean a shift in how labor leaders negotiate pay raises, benefits and working conditions with local governments. The state’s unionized employees do not have the right to collective bargaining in Nevada.
Three Republican lawmakers have submitted bills aiming to change the laws, and the right-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute has issued a Top-10 list of union reforms that has collective bargaining as a high priority. With the GOP in control of the Legislature and NPRI executive director Geoffrey Lawrence an Assembly policy adviser, unions are not taking any threats lightly. Lawrence is leaving NPRI this month to work full-time in the Legislature.
The Republican push is the latest chapter in a decades-long debate that’s carved a divide in American politics. Organized labor says the proposed legislation and NPRI agenda is an attempt to diminish the power of unionized public employees who work in Nevada’s schools, cities and counties. Danny Thompson, executive secretary treasurer for the AFL-CIO, said the focus on collective bargaining is a “right-wing, tea party agenda” based on bill models that are shipped across the country from think tanks like NPRI and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Supporters of the reforms say collective bargaining laws give unions an advantage over government, providing them with leverage to force concessions on compensation and benefits. Reform proponents say it's also inappropriate for government union employees to have collective bargaining ability when most private-sector employees aren't union members and therefore don't have the same power. The result, they claim, is that government workers receive more than their private-sector counterparts, who foot the bill for their salaries.
Victor Joecks, executive vice president of NPRI, has proposed to end collective bargaining among government employees altogether.
“It is not right for a select group of citizens to be able to have powers over the rest of society,” he said.
In the public and private sector, Nevada is one of few union strongholds remaining in the country and has not seen the Republican-led overhauls that have affected states like Wisconsin, where legislative and gubernatorial efforts led to the end of collective bargaining for public employee unions.
Since 2009, unions have worked within the confines of a Democratically controlled Legislature. Attempts to thwart power or make union reforms have had little impact. But now that Republicans have the majority in Carson City, 2015 may be different.
“We are going to be facing a lot of challenges,” said Ruben Murillo Jr, president of the Nevada State Education Association, which represents 23,000 public school teachers and staff.
When similar legislation made headlines during the 2011 session, the AFL-CIO, NSEA, Service Employees Union international and the Culinary Local 226 among others joined forces to defeat attempts to change collective bargaining.
That’s likely to happen again this year.
Murillo said his organization would partner with unions and businesses to shield attacks. The Culinary Union, which doesn’t represent employees in the public sector, said it would offer its support.
“An attack on one union is an attack on all unions,” said Yvanna Cancela, political director of the Culinary Union Local 226.
Union support in this year’s elections wasn’t what it was in 2012. But AFL-CIO leader Danny Thompson said any attempts to hack at collective bargaining laws will guarantee an election backlash from organized labor.
He said the AFL-CIO, which represents 200,000 Nevadans in 120 different unions, will mount a vigorous defense.
“It will spill over into campaigns,” he said.
One of the proposed laws stems from a collective bargaining lawsuit filed in North Las Vegas. The city, which was facing bankruptcy, wanted to freeze pay raises for public employees. The city argued it could do so because it was in a “fiscal emergency,” saying a down economy was tantamount to a natural disaster or riot. But courts ruled North Las Vegas couldn’t freeze pay on those grounds.
Sen. James Settelmeyer, sponsor of the bill, said he wanted to clarify the language so the law includes fiscal emergencies with natural disasters.
Assemblyman Jim Wheeler is sponsoring a bill to forbid collective bargaining from taking place behind closed doors.
“The fact of the matter is this: When you’re dealing with my money, as a taxpayer, I want to know what you’re doing,” he said.
Bargaining in public could get messy, said Mark Ricciardi, a regional managing partner of Fisher and Phillips, a law firm that represents employers in labor issues.
He is opposed to collective bargaining with public unions, but said doing so in the open could allow public sentiment to play a role in negotiations.
“There would be a lot of posturing,” he said. “It would be a circus.”
Among its proposals, NPRI wants to see an end to binding arbitration. It is a mechanism to prevent workers from striking when bargaining agreements come to a standstill. An independent, third-party arbiter comes in to create a final deal with each side hoping they will get the best result, said, Ruben Garcia, UNLV labor law professor.
“Sometimes it ends and the union isn’t happy,” he said. “Sometimes the employer isn’t happy. That’s the tradeoff in avoiding strikes for unrest.”
Joecks also wants the state to stop collecting union dues from government paychecks, and seeks a requirement for union members to vote to re-certify their respective organizations every three to five years. The votes to re-certify would mean union members would get to vote on whether they want to have the same organization represent them.
NPRI lists bill models of those policy reforms on its website. But no lawmaker has submitted draft requests for those proposals.