Las Vegas Sun

May 21, 2019

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Guest column:

Controversy over bargaining rights rooted in myths

This month, lawmakers in Carson City introduced a bill that would extend collective bargaining rights to Nevada state workers.

The employees covered by the bill perform crucial work on behalf of Nevadans every day. With a partial list that includes transportation, maintaining critical forestry, desert and water resources, running state universities and colleges, maintaining public health and staffing our correctional facilities, Nevada’s dedicated public service workers perform many services we need to keep our state vibrant and healthy.

Why, then, is collective bargaining for state workers controversial? Much has to do with misperceptions about unions and collective bargaining.

First, opponents often juxtapose the interests of state workers with those of the taxpayers, but they are creating a false distinction. Nevada state employees are taxpayers, just as they are parents, community members and users of public infrastructure. However, they have experience and knowledge in the inner workings of publicly delivered services that most of us don’t.

And bargaining is not just about wages. Allowing our fellow citizens an official voice in how the state’s work is done allows all of us to benefit from their expertise. Teachers, who know firsthand how individual attention can help a child to flourish, have taken part in demonstrations to demand smaller class sizes. Nurses who see how important safe staffing levels are for saving lives have testified in statehouses all over the country to bring us all more effective health care. In several cities, government workers alongside community activists have sounded the alarm about dangerous financing schemes that put public revenues into big fees for big banks rather than improving schools or fixing roads.

A national survey of public-sector workers found that half said they don’t always voice ideas for improving their jobs because they fear retaliation or believe their ideas will be ignored. When public workers have a structure for giving input and can speak up without fear of retribution, they can perform the important civic service of making the people’s government work more efficiently and fairly for all of us.

Collective bargaining is a process, and does not guarantee particular results for employees, or that there will be strikes. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 189,000 workers in Nevada already engage in collective bargaining, with school districts and local government unions engaging in arbitrations or impasse procedures in lieu of strikes.

It is hard to see why the state allows school district employees the freedom to join a union, and yet denies that freedom to bargain with its own employees.

Collective bargaining results in a stable workforce that benefits Nevada and its citizens. In many states, bargaining has helped create structures that improve the longevity and skills of workers and will support the states in a changing economy.

If Nevadans want to utilize the knowledge and skills of our workforce and capitalize on the commitment to strengthen public services in the future, legislators should consider the bill to extend the freedom to negotiate with their employees.

Ruben Garcia is a law professor at UNLV.