Union leaders say they’re braced for ‘war’ on public employees

The head of the Nevada AFL-CIO proclaimed Tuesday that “working families are under attack” by Republican lawmakers who want to weaken collective bargaining laws and pensions now that they control the Legislature.

Danny Thompson, executive-secretary treasurer of the organization, told supporters at the Teamsters Local 14 union hall that the designated GOP Assembly speaker, John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, had sent a letter to local governments soliciting ideas for changes in public employee collective bargaining — the workers’ right to negotiate pay and benefits.

Thompson, a former assemblyman, said he’s been watching the Legislature for some 35 years and he had never seen such an offer, which he characterized as an open declaration that unions and their families would be under assault.

“It’s as if they declared war on working families,” Thompson said, speaking to more than 50 workers and union leaders. “The attack on collective bargaining is evidently coming.”

In response, Thompson said the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions, which account for some 200,000 members, plan to send a more robust lobbying team to Carson City and to have workers urge voters to support union members in the battle.

“Our 200,000 members won’t stand idly by this legislative session,” Thompson said.

Lawmakers instead should focus on big issues, from the state’s dismal education system to its outdated tax system that isn’t keeping up with state revenue needs, Thompson said.

“We’d like the Nevada Legislature to focus on the real problems facing Nevada instead of attacking working families,” he said.

Republicans on Nov. 4 won control of the Assembly for the first time in several decades, winning 25 seats to 17 for Democrats. The GOP also retook control of the state Senate with an 11-10 seat advantage.

In previous sessions, majority Democrats who have long sided with the unions on collective bargaining blocked any reforms and most changes to how public employee pensions are funded and managed.

Thompson said he and other union leaders also plan to lobby Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has expressed general support for collective bargaining reform but hasn’t put out any specific proposals.

So far, four bill drafts have been requested by four Republican lawmakers and any one of the legislative proposals could become a vehicle for something Sandoval could support.

Two of the bill drafts, from Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, and Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Minden, seek more transparency in the collective bargaining process. Wheeler’s bill goes further, proposing to subject contract negotiations to the state open meeting law. Goicoechea’s bill would require any contracts negotiated behind closed doors to be made available for public review before being voted on by local government elected officials.

Wheeler said Tuesday he has no intention of waging war on anybody, especially workers. Instead, he said he wants to talk with union leaders about why it’s important for taxpayers to monitor open negotiations since it’s their money being spent.

“People need to see where their money is going,” Wheeler said in an interview.

As for union pay, which is often negotiated at a higher rate than among the non-union working class, Wheeler said he believes most private sector workers “want payments to be on par with the public sector.”

“I’m looking forward to sitting down and having a discussion with some of the unions and we can work something out,” Wheeler said. “We’re not there to bulldoze them.”

Larry Griffith, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 14, joined Thompson in addressing laborers.

“These people are coming after you because they think you make too much money as it is,” Griffith shouted.

Griffith said Nevada public employee unions have always “negotiated in good faith” and at times agreed to salary concessions to help cities get through tough fiscal times. He said North Las Vegas survived potential state receivership because of union concessions in 2014 that were negotiated with Sandoval’s intervention, for example.

But Victor Joecks, executive vice president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, said public-sector wages are out of line and Nevada’s working- and middle-class families in the private sector are picking up the tab.

As example, he said Henderson employees who worked full-time at the city from 2008 to 2013 saw their average base salary increase from $75,204 to $81,220, an 8 percent jump. Full-time workers employed by the city from 2011 to 2013 saw their total compensation increase from an average of $117,487 to $123,560, a 5.2 percent increase.

In contrast, the median household income in Henderson dropped from $67,617 in 2007 to $61,404 in 2012, a decrease of 9.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, he noted.

“Danny Thompson and other union officials represent workers who take home pay and benefits far greater than citizens receive,” Joecks said. “Elected officials who have the courage to propose collective bargaining reforms are the real champions of working families.”

The libertarian think tank also is advocating the 2015 Legislature reform the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) to move public workers from the current “defined benefit” pension plan to a hybrid plan that would include a “defined contribution” element that carries no liability for government agencies or taxpayers.

As for collective bargaining bill drafts, Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, wants to establish a definition of what constitutes a fiscal emergency for a local government. Determining a fiscal emergency exists allows agreements to be reopened so that government officials and union leaders can jointly respond to a budget shortfall, but there is no clear definition of what constitutes such an event, he said.

Now, if a union disagrees that there is a fiscal crisis, elected officials are forced to impose layoffs or take other drastic actions rather than work collaboratively to address the concerns, Settelmeyer said.

Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno, is requesting the most comprehensive measure. It would clarify rules that exclude supervisors from collective bargaining, prohibit using government funds to pay employees engaged in union activities, require employees to seek union deductions before they would be collected by a government entity and make agreements retroactive to the date of the expiration of the previous contract. It also would require a final contract offer to be made public.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj