New Reno Council won’t play ball on anti-union legislation

Republican lawmakers, fresh off taking the majority in the Nevada Legislature for the first time in decades, are pursuing sweeping changes to the state’s collective bargaining law, which sets the ground rules for how local governments wrangle with their public employee unions over salaries and benefits.

If successful, the changes would shift power to local government managers. They also could take public employee unions out at their financial knees.

But don’t expect the new Reno City Council to take part in the effort.

After more than two years of the city being at loggerheads with its public employee unions, the council elected in November has taken a dramatically different tack on labor relations than its predecessor.

Under the old council’s leadership, Reno spent $1.5 million on a pugnacious law firm that — with mixed results — went to battle with the city’s 10 unions to exact benefit changes aimed at putting Reno on a better financial footing.

The old council also had an aggressive legislative agenda geared toward convincing state lawmakers to give city management “greater authority” in labor negotiations and more control over the city’s pocketbook.

But in one of its first political moves this year, the new council gutted the collective bargaining agenda that city lobbyists had planned to take to Carson City this year, replacing it with a deceivingly simple one-line position statement:

“The City of Reno will take a position of active neutrality” on collective bargaining changes to “maintain and place value on the relations the city has with its employees.”

The new council is led in part by Councilman Paul McKenzie, whose day job as a labor rep has had him lobbying the Legislature to protect and expand collective bargaining rights for several sessions, and Councilman David Bobzien, who served as a Democratic state lawmaker for four terms before being appointed to the council.

Under their guidance, the council has opted not to spend their political capital fighting a Republican majority that could easily push through its collective bargaining agenda. But the city doesn’t want to be seen as helping that effort, either.

“I don’t think it’s a reasonable expenditure of our political capital to openly oppose the legislation in the current environment with the current legislators,” McKenzie said. “We could have influence over other areas. We have no reason to piss them off and tell them their bill is no good when we might need them for something.”

Troubled history

In many respects, Reno’s recent troubles with its public employee unions offer the perfect case study for Republican lawmakers who want to loosen what they see as the unions’ upper hand in contract negotiations.

The prior council, guided in large part by former Councilman Dwight Dortch, a business-backed Republican who openly attacked labor unions during council meetings, took a hardline approach to labor negotiations. The council was — and remains — focused on addressing a growing gap in the funds needed to pay retirement health benefits.

The past council hired the Las Vegas law firm Fisher and Phillips, which is an advocate for the type of changes Republicans are now trying to enact, to handle its labor relations. The firm cost the city $1.5 million with an approach that brought several contract negotiations to the brink of binding arbitration — a process for resolving an impasse that can be combative, expensive and lengthy.

Also last year, the Reno City Council found itself faced with the loss of a significant federal grant that funded 50 firefighter positions. It decided to lay off 35 firefighters, but was halted by a judge who sided with the fire union’s argument that the city had violated its labor contract.

By the time the Nevada Supreme Court weighed in and reversed the decision to halt the layoffs, the council had already pulled money away from other priorities in the budget to fund the positions through the end of the fiscal year.

Lawmakers and city officials alike lamented a system that would allow a judge to hamper a city council’s basic responsibility to decide the city’s budget.

“You can’t force the city to come up with money that isn’t there,” said Assemblyman Randy Kirner, the sponsor of Assembly Bill 182, which would enact sweeping changes to collective bargaining, including broadening a city’s ability to lay off workers. “Deferring maintenance, not taking care of parks. That’s not a good balance.”

But although Kirner cites Reno’s experience as an example for why collective bargaining reform is needed, he said that’s not the reason he is pursuing the legislation.

Right to work state

“I don’t carry this bill because I think Reno needs some attention, I carry this bill because Nevada is a right to work state,” Kirner said. “I take the approach that we need to balance the interests of the unions with the interests of the general public and the taxpayers.”

Although Nevada is legally a right to work state, in which union membership can’t be required as a condition of employment, the state is home to powerful public employee unions that represent teachers, firefighters, police and other local government employees.

Kirner said his bill isn’t aimed at eliminating the collective bargaining rights enjoyed by those unions. Rather, he wants to strike a better balance of power that favors taxpayers. Many of the changes proposed in his bill would give city managers more flexibility and would increase the amount of money cities can set aside as a savings account and protect from salary and benefit negotiations.

But other provisions in the bill appear aimed solely at striking blows hard enough to hobble many unions financially. The bill would prohibit the city from deducting union dues from employee paychecks and also would bar labor reps from taking paid time off to participate in negotiations or conduct other union business.