Few expect major changes to Nevada’s collective bargaining law

Outside the Legislative Building in Carson City last week, some 300 protesters waved signs warning “Wisconsin Today, Nevada Tomorrow” to ward off their worry that public employees here could lose collective bargaining rights.

But that’s not going to happen, certainly not tomorrow and probably not anytime soon.

The legal and political landscape is vastly different here than in Wisconsin, where GOP Gov. Scott Walker is battling to strip most collective bargaining rights from public workers so he can cut salaries and benefits to save millions.

In the Silver State, there’s no big push by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval or the largest local governments — including Clark County, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas — to go after public employee unions. And Democratic leaders who control the Nevada Legislature have made it clear they would block any effort to weaken unions, the powerful forces that have helped elect Democrats and defeat anti-union Republicans.

Most significantly, under Nevada law most state government workers, unlike those who work for local governments, can’t bargain as a group for pay and benefits, making it simple for Sandoval to propose a 5 percent salary slice without having to deal with a union.

“Collective bargaining has nothing to do with the state of Nevada budget,” said Danny Thompson, the leader of the AFL-CIO who helped organize rallies in Carson City and Las Vegas in support of Wisconsin workers. “But we are ready to fight, more than we’ve ever been, if there’s any attempt to weaken collective bargaining and tie it to balancing the budget.”

So far, the city of Reno and a few GOP lawmakers are the main ones pushing for changes to Nevada’s collective bargaining law. The proposals range from giving local governments the right to suspend contracts in times of fiscal turmoil to making both sides reveal pay and benefit offers to the public.

Now, the law allows secret negotiations. It also says local governments can declare emergencies and “take whatever action is necessary” with worker contracts only in cases of riot, military action, natural disaster or civil disorder.

Cadence Matijevich, a lobbyist for Reno, said the city wants to make adjustments during economic emergencies as well, when personnel costs must be cut quickly. Also, the city wants more room to maneuver when the Legislature passes a new law or the governor requires cities and counties to take on more costly duties.

“This is not the city of Reno’s attempt to put an end to collective bargaining,” Matijevich said. “We recognize there’s a value in the process. We just are looking for more flexibility.”

Bill would give governments leeway

Reno has been hard hit by the economic crisis and has laid off nearly 400 workers since 2008. Its reserves are down to a state-mandated minimum 4 percent of general fund spending, putting the city on the brink of disaster.

In Southern Nevada, local governments have laid off hundreds of workers and curtailed services, with the cities of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson closing offices on Fridays to save money.

Under Reno’s Senate Bill 78, a school district or local government automatically could suspend pay and benefit increases when revenue projections show an ending fund balance of 8.3 percent or less of budgeted expenses.

Employee contracts also could be renegotiated if the Legislature imposes new mandates, according to Matijevich. For example, Reno is now liable for more than $30 million in potential workers’ compensation for police and firefighters who may suffer heart or lung problems now that the law presumes the condition is a result of their jobs.

Reno also wants to get rid of binding arbitration in which both sides submit a “last, best” offer to an arbitrator, who then must decide between them instead of crafting a compromise that may be more fair and fiscally responsible.

“Binding arbitration is costly and it’s time-consuming. And perhaps the best thing for the taxpayer is something in the middle,” Matijevich said. “But you can’t get there the way the law is written.”

So far, there’s not much appetite among lawmakers for a big fight.

“I’m not willing to say anybody’s jumping for joy,” she said. “It’s controversial.”

Reno’s bill also would make negotiations public. This is an idea that some Southern Nevada officials have advocated, including Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. He gained attention recently by confronting firefighters for abusing sick leave, which helped push average salaries and benefits into the $180,000 range.

Sisolak, who is from Wisconsin, a strong union state, said he isn’t for ending collective bargaining. But he said the law should let arbitrators make pay cuts retroactive so workers aren’t encouraged to drag out negotiations in order to keep higher paychecks coming for as long as possible. He also believes managers shouldn’t be able to bargain as a union.

“You’re kind of letting the fox guard the chicken coop,” Sisolak said.

public employees hurt by downturn

Nevada’s first collective bargaining law passed in 1969, partly in response to one-day strikes by teachers in Washoe and Clark counties. The Dodge Act, named after its sponsor, Sen. Carl Dodge, R-Fallon, banned public employees from going on strike. In exchange, they won the right to bargain collectively with binding arbitration, giving them more power to negotiate.

During the past two decades of incredible growth and prosperity in Nevada, public employee unions often won large raises. That pushed the salaries of local government workers to as much as 30 percent more than those of state workers, with members of Clark County’s Service Employees International Union earning on average $80,000 annually.

The tables turned with the downturn in 2008. Clark County and the cities of Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas, all have successfully reopened contracts to negotiate pay cuts after unions agreed to come to the table to avoid deeper layoffs.

The city of Las Vegas saved $36 million by negotiating concessions from four unions recently, for example.

“The system works,” said Chris Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association.

Earlier this year, Clark County won a months-long labor dispute with its firefighters union when an arbitrator chose the county’s final contract offer in a decision that will save the government about $7.4 million. The 741 firefighters covered in the contract will get a 2 percent pay cut, no wage increases, a reduction in long-term disability benefits and a tougher sick leave policy.

County Manager Don Burnette led the negotiations. He’s not in favor of major changes to the law.

“There are always ways to improve collective bargaining, but it’s not a bad law,” Burnette said. “There are ways perhaps you can make the process more transparent. Obviously, the public has a right to know what’s going on.”

contract negotiations might be opened

In the end, the move to lift the cloak of secrecy seems the most likely reform to gain acceptance in the Legislature. Two years ago, lawmakers approved a change to require a hearing on any final contract agreement for the public’s benefit.

“We’ve always said let’s bargain in the sunshine,” said Lynn Warne, head of the Nevada State Education Association, the teachers union. “But beyond that, we’re opposed to any kind of modification to collective bargaining. It’s a process that has worked successfully for many years. Usually, both sides get a little bit of what they want.”

Former GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons had proposed opening the contract talks themselves to public meetings. The GOP caucus still likes that idea, according to Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka. He also said Republicans would like to put some sort of “fiscal trigger” into the law so local governments can reopen contracts when there’s a budget crisis.

“None of us are looking for a fight, but ultimately, we have to look at some of these reforms,” Goicoechea said.

State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said Democrats will stand firm to prevent any major changes to collective bargaining.

“I am still very concerned that there will be an attempt to weaken worker rights,” Horsford said. “When you’re talking about public employees, you’re talking about a nurse, a police officer, a corrections officer, who are all providing a public service. People deserve to have a livable wage with benefits.”

Besides the Reno bill, the only other collective bargaining measure introduced as yet is from state Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks. His Senate Bill 169 would prohibit giving seniority greater weight than other performance measures when governments do layoffs.

State Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said he plans to introduce bills to allow governments to reopen contracts for fiscal emergencies and eliminate collective bargaining for management-level public employees. Another measure would identify at least three points during the bargaining process when offers from the employer and the union must be publicly disclosed.

No matter what happens, collective bargaining is here to stay in Nevada.

Sandoval ditched a bill draft submitted by Gibbons before he left office to do away with collective bargaining. Still, Sandoval, without being specific, has urged reforms in order to give local government more latitude to keep costs down.

“I stand ready to work with local government officials and union leaders to ensure employee compensation does not hamper government performance,” Sandoval said in his State of the State address to the Nevada Legislature earlier this year.

In the past week, Sandoval reached out by telephone at least twice to Walker in Wisconsin to offer “my friendship and support,” he said. The two talked about holding the line against taxes, yet he said they didn’t discuss collective bargaining.

In an interview, Sandoval noted that his standing is quite different than Walker’s. The Wisconsin governor is dealing with a GOP-led Legislature and the Nevada body is controlled by Democrats, who oppose Sandoval’s $5.8 billion budget.

“The reality of the situation is the Legislature is populated the way it is,” Sandoval said. “I’m approaching it with what I’ve got.”

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

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