City of Las Vegas offers bonuses, firefighters file complaint

When it comes to declining gifts of money, Miss Manners suggests profuse thanks followed by polite refusal.

Las Vegas firefighters took a different tack. Offered a $549 bonus in August, they filed a 10-page complaint with the Nevada Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board.

The ongoing dispute, which could grind on for another year, highlights tension between International Association of Firefighters Local 1285 and city leaders and shows how under Nevada law even seemingly straightforward gestures toward employees can be fraught with peril.

At issue is a "gain sharing" program city officials rolled out last summer. The city laid off workers and cut pay and benefits during the recession, then set aside $1.3 million for "a one-time reward to all employees who have shared in the many extensive sacrifices that have been made during the past several years."

But when it comes to prickly labor relations, one bureaucrat’s purported magnanimous gesture is a labor boss’s evidence of bad-faith bargaining.

Specifically, the union in its complaint takes issue with City Manager Betsy Fretwell’s description of the program in a blog post she authored and in an interview with the Review-Journal.

The statements, made as the city and firefighters were at a negotiating impasse over a two-year contract, were an attempt to "influence bargaining by communicating directly with the employees through the City’s blog and the press," the union maintains.

Under Nevada law, attempts to circumvent union negotiators represent "bad- faith bargaining," particularly because the union already had rejected gain sharing, the complaint said.

CITY’S RESPONSE

In a response filed Jan. 7 the city denied it was doing anything beyond trying to be nice.

"Local 1285 wishes to punish the City for offering to give something back to its members and other city employees," the response said. "The evidence will show that the City did not fail to bargain in good faith."

The response said that the proposed bonuses would have been on top of salary and benefits covered by the labor contract and that comments on the blog and in the press came after the two sides were already at impasse and "cannot constitute a failure to bargain in good faith."

According to a city spokeswoman, 262 non union employees accepted the bonuses, as did 263 workers represented by two police unions.

The 1,248 members of the Las Vegas City Employees Association and 594 fire employees rejected the offer. The firefighters union was the only group to file a complaint.

It probably will take more than a year for the employee-management relations board to make a finding in the matter.

Fretwell and Mayor Carolyn Goodman declined a request to comment.

‘RITUALISTIC DANCE’

Councilman Bob Beers, a former state legislator who has criticized aspects of Nevada Revised Statute 288, which governs collective bargaining, said it can result in a "ritualistic dance" between labor and management that runs counter to efficient government.

"The people have spoken with the voice of the Legislature, and apparently they want us to do this," Beers said. "So we will do it."

Scott Johnson, president of Local 1285, said the complaint is significant because it reinforces the importance of maintaining the integrity of collective bargaining, a process that relies on clear and consistent channels of information.

"Obviously from our position we need to get consensus from our membership, particularly when it comes to salary," Johnson said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285 .

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