State Supreme Court justices sat poker-faced Monday as they heard arguments for and against a "project labor agreement" that Clark County is requiring to ensure contractors use union workers on jail renovations.
The three justices gave no indication which way they leaned on the dispute between the county and two trade groups. Only Justice James Hardesty asked questions.
The two sides are wrangling over how work should be bid for a $27 million renovation of the county detention center's north tower. It's part of a larger $106 million upgrade planned for the jail.
The high court agreed to hear the case after District Judge Jerry Wiese on June 3 rejected the trade groups' request for an injunction on the north tower work. Wiese also denied the county's request to dismiss the groups' challenge of the labor agreement.
Attorney Theodore Parker, representing the Nevada Business Coalition, argued that this type of agreement unfairly favors union shops, discouraging competition from nonunion contractors and increasing costs to taxpayers.
"PLAs drive up the costs," Parker said.
The second trade group involved in the challenge is the Nevada chapter of the Association of Builders and Contractors.
But attorneys for the county and trade unions argued that the agreement prevents strikes and ensures skilled local labor is used.
"I think it's consistent with the previous Supreme Court decision," said Leslie Nielsen, attorney for the county, who referred to a 1999 ruling that stated a PLA imposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority was lawful.
Hardesty questioned whether the labor deal violates state right-to-work laws.
"You do not require workers to join unions and pay membership dues?" Hardesty asked.
Nielsen said, no, there is no such requirement.
But Parker contends that contractors are not free to use their own employees. At least half of the first 14 workers chosen for the job must come from the union hall, and all workers after that must be union.
The contractors also must pay into a union health care fund, even if they already provide benefits to their workers, Parker said.
Hardesty noted that the high court in 1999 was concerned with strikes that were disrupting a water authority project. Strikes seem less likely to occur now with the slowdown in construction causing a glut in skilled workers, he said, asking whether PLAs are really needed.
Paul More , a trade union attorney, argued that the recession has increased the chances of a strike, partly because contractors are looking to save money wherever they can on projects.
"Every job is highly disputed," More said.