Labor moves leave teachers union alone on Education Initiative

Now, it’s really unanimous.

The Culinary Local 226 released its list of endorsements this week, mostly Democrats, with the sure-to-win Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval thrown in for good measure. But the union also urged a “no” vote on Question 3, otherwise known as The Education Initiative.

That measure has already drawn the opposition of the gambling industry, the mining industry, the business community (including the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce), the construction industry, the manufacturing industry and even the Nevada Farm Bureau Foundation.

But the initiative — which would impose a 2 percent margin tax on businesses that earn more than $1 million — has also drawn the opposition of labor. First, the AFL-CIO came out against it (notwithstanding that its executive secretary-treasurer, Danny Thompson, used to be a big supporter). And now, the Culinary.

The opposition is understandable, to a certain degree. Opponents charge that the initiative will cost jobs, and the Culinary and AFL-CIO have apparently accepted that. Yes, unions rarely take businessmen at their word about what they can and cannot pay during contract negotiations, for example, but more on that in a second. The fact is, studies of the tax commissioned by both supporters and opponents indicate, to the extent the money raised by the tax is used to hire new teachers, it would create jobs. (The studies differ as to how many jobs, and whether there would be a net gain or loss.)

Now, far be it from me to criticize labor, especially in one of the last real union towns in America. The Culinary union has been the driving force behind building the middle class in Las Vegas, and its efforts have provided members with good health care and decent wages even in the darkest days of the recession.

The political organizing power of the AFL-CIO is also a force to be reckoned with. When the Nevada Legislature rebuffed Thompson as he sought a minimum wage increase, he vowed to take it to the voters, and he did exactly that. Nevada now has a minimum wage law enshrined in its constitution.

But the fact is, private-sector unions and businesses end their differences as soon as the contract is signed, when what’s good for a particular industry becomes what’s good for the union. And that happens even when it creates a fissure in the labor movement, pitting one union (teachers) against another (AFL-CIO, Culinary).

Think about it: If you were to ask the Culinary right now, the union would tell you that Station Casinos is the worst company in the world. They’d show you their complaints for labor law violations and talk about the need to organize workers and even criticize the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a franchise led by a Station owner.

But if tomorrow Station decided to allow the Culinary to organize its workers? Well, then things would be different! Station would suddenly become a well-led, forward thinking company that appreciates its workers. And the UFC? Downright innovative!

The point: The union’s positions can shift overnight, depending upon who signs contracts.

Too cynical? Well, let’s ask Past Danny Thompson about the need for The Education Initiative. It’s only fair — after all, his name is on the papers that organized the committee to gather signatures for it. This is what he said at a legislative hearing on the initiative in March 2013:

“The reason I am embarrassed, and everyone in this room should be, is that we have the lowest graduation rate in the United States,” he said. “I get a kick out of people saying, ‘you know, you do not solve a problem by throwing money at it.’ We have never thrown money at education ever in this state. We do not fund it to the national average, and we are paying the price today.”

Amen.

But Present Danny Thompson led his union in approving a resolution opposing The Education Initiative this year, a resolution that contradicted several statements that Past Danny Thompson had made. The reason? Contractors claimed the measure would cost jobs, and union members believed them. Ditto casinos, the Culinary’s contractual partners.

It’s unfortunate, but not totally unexpected.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist, who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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