Union members, county negotiators clash over stalled contract talks

Strained talks between the Service Employees International Union and Clark County officials boiled over at Tuesday's County Commission meeting.

And the finger pointing was in full swing.

Dozens of union members, clad in a sea of purple shirts and carrying signs, accused county officials of stalling contract negotiations and providing the commission with inaccurate numbers.

County administrators provided commissioners with a chart that showed the union members received average total salary increases of 12.5 percent since 2009, even after concessions.

That number, which could reach 15 percent by the end of the fiscal year, will continue to rise until union and county officials come to an agreement.

Al Martinez, president of the county's largest public employees union, said that he hadn't seen the numbers and that the county's bargaining unit withheld information from commissioners.

Ed Finger, assistant county manager, took issue with the accusation.

"All of our financial records are public," Finger said. "The suggestion they haven't been provided any financial information is just factually inaccurate."

At the start of the month, county officials filed a complaint with the Local Government Employee Management Relations Board to compel the union to meet more regularly with county officials and "begin bargaining in good faith" toward a new contract. The board has not yet acted on the complaint.

Finger said 70 percent of the union members receive a 4 percent merit increase each year on their anniversary. The other 30 percent are at the top of their pay range and no longer receive the increase. However, once employees reach eight years of service, they receive a .57 percent longevity pay increase for every year of service.

A recent study by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce found the state's public workers were the ninth-highest paid nationwide, receiving average annual pay of $56,872 in 2009. That is 13 percent higher than the national average of $50,187. But the study found that Nevada ranked last in the number of public workers per capita, with 43.6 for every 1,000 residents in 2009.

SEIU represents nurses, hospital workers and public employees at McCarran International Airport, the Department of Family Services, the Regional Transportation Commission, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Southern Nevada Health District, among other agencies.

County management again complained about meeting with union representatives only once a month and expressed interest in meeting more frequently, alleging the union is "dragging its feet."

Union officials argued that the size of the union, with its more than 5,000 members, would make that almost impossible as it takes time to "develop a platform and reach out to membership."

"We'll meet every single day until we get the contract done," County Manager Don Burnette said. "We have every interest in getting this contract done as quickly as possible. ... There's not a person here who wants to consider laying off one more person."

Union members said they can't give anymore.

Last year, union members took 2 percent salary cuts. Before that, the county cut the union's cost-of-living increase from 3 percent to 1 percent.

County and union officials are scheduled to head back to the bargaining table Thursday.

Commissioner Lawrence Weekly characterized the discussions as "a pretty sad situation" and gave county management a tongue lashing.

"I would like to see our management team move forward and put what we have on the table," Weekly said. "What I'm hearing in these meetings is they're very contentious. People are being extremely disrespectful. How can we come to some resolve if we're not talking. I'd hate to see anybody get laid off."

Willis Ifill, a criminal investigator with the public defender's office, is on the union's 20-member bargaining unit.

"Bargaining is supposed to be about dialogue back and forth," Ifill said. "That has not been happening."

Commissioner Steve Sisolak expressed frustration at the "he said, she said" discussion.

"It seems reasonable people could sit down in a room across the table and say, 'Here's what we want, and here's what we want,' and that's not happening. It's he said, she said on both sides. It seems like we could move ahead with this quicker."

Sisolak was able to get the union and county officials to put all of their proposals on the table for Thursday's meeting in hopes of speeding up negotiations. The county is dealing with a $47.9 million budget gap because of slumping property and sales taxes.

At a time when more cuts are on the table, union members took issue with the commission for considering contract extensions for Burnette, Chief Financial Officer George Stevens and Aviation Director Randy Walker.

Commissioner Tom Collins was the lone vote against the extensions, saying they technically offer pay raises because the county pays the trio for a longer period of time. The contracts were extended through 2013 and 2014.

Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.