AFL-CIO weighs organizing drive in two industries

The AFL-CIO is Nevada’s union juggernaut.

The Nevada chapter of the AFL-CIO has just under 200,000 members in nearly 35 affiliated unions. The group covers postal workers, bartenders, hotel and restaurant employees, firefighters, law-enforcement officials, electrical workers, plasterers, state of Nevada employees, machinists and musicians, among many others. And unlike the national AFL-CIO, the Nevada chapter remains affiliated with the Change to Win unions, including the Culinary and the Service Employees International Union.

Officials of the AFL-CIO are weighing new organizing drives in two local industries, said Stewart Acuff, the union’s national organizing director. Acuff declined to identify the sectors the union is considering targeting, but the union plans to unveil its new membership drives by the end of 2007.

Efforts are already under way to tap the home building industry for fresh AFL-CIO members.

Many workers in residential construction are immigrants who are “being taken advantage of,” Acuff said.

“When a construction worker in Las Vegas gets heat exhaustion or sun stroke because they weren’t allowed to take a break or get some water, it costs employers money,” Acuff said. “But it costs society something much greater: the loss of human dignity.”

The union’s year-old Building Justice drive in Arizona and Nevada involves more than 5,000 workers, most of whom work for subcontractors of Pulte Homes. On its Web log, the AFL-CIO calls Pulte the “Wal-Mart of home developers,” a reference to the nonunion megaretailer that organized labor has targeted in a corporate campaign touching on areas ranging from health care coverage to port security.

Pulte is the Las Vegas Valley’s biggest home builder. The company sold 4,485 units in Las Vegas and 41,487 units nationwide in 2006.

AFL-CIO officials said at their winter meeting in Las Vegas in March that they’re distributing pro-union pamphlets outside Pulte’s new-home model communities in Arizona and Nevada. They’re also spurring unwanted publicity for nonunion subcontractors, holding news conferences that feature local construction workers discussing their treatment on the job.

Pulte officials responded with a statement saying they do not employ the workers that subcontractors hire, nor does the builder have “responsibility for the employer-employee relationships those individuals have with the subcontractors” Pulte retains. They believe the AFL-CIO is including them in organizing campaigns for publicity purposes.

They point to the Platinum rating, the highest rating possible, that Pulte has won for job-site safety five years in a row from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration based on random site inspections. They called the AFL-CIO’s campaign against the company “totally unwarranted.”

Warren Hardy, a Republican state senator from Las Vegas and president of Associated Builders and Contractors in Las Vegas, said more unionization among the county’s 100,000 residential-construction workers would “dramatically” drive up labor costs and home prices.

Union officials counter that organizing residential construction would increase efficiency, safety and quality, and the dividends that improved building practices would pay builders would outweigh the higher labor costs.

Danny Thompson, executive secretary and treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Nevada chapter, said union workers in trades such as electrical work must train as apprentices for as long as five years before they can become journeymen and begin to earn maximum money.

Nonunion job sites often have untrained workers performing construction, Thompson said. That can lead to building errors that aren’t visible to homeowners.

“All of our trained workers know the (building) codes,” Thompson said. “They are trained to build to the codes, and they are very skilled at their work.”

That means safer job sites and fewer construction-defect lawsuits, Thompson said.

But Hardy noted that, thanks to competition with unionized companies, benefits such as training, health insurance and retirement programs are commonplace, even at nonunion shops.

Workers no longer need collective bargaining to enjoy such perks, he said.

Nor do unionized job sites guarantee safety, Hardy added.

Neither OSHA nor the Nevada Division of Industrial Relations keep statistics on whether more accidents happen on union projects.

But Hardy said safety and quality in construction have more to do with the size of a company carrying out the work. He noted that union construction sites aren’t necessarily safer than nonunion projects: Witness the deaths of two workers crushed by falling walls at union-job Project CityCenter on the Strip in February.

“About 75 percent of all construction nationally is nonunion,” Hardy said. “(The AFL-CIO) would have us believe that 75 percent of buildings and homes are not safe. It’s an absurd argument not based on any kind of factual evidence.”

Construction companies aren’t the only businesses facing organizing initiatives.

All of the AFL-CIO’s member unions in the Silver State have organizing campaigns under way, Thompson said. Nevada and New Mexico were the only Western states in which AFL-CIO membership grew, he added.

“That’s because we are committed to organizing new members” in those states, he said.

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