A woman behind a bullhorn yelled to a crowd of union workers in front of the Nevada Capitol on a recent Thursday, screaming until her voice broke for the governor to “quit attacking us” and rallying attendees to “stand up, fight back!”
But Gov. Brian Sandoval didn’t come out, and a bevy of bills to weaken collective bargaining and restructure public employee pensions remain on the agendas — including one scheduled for a hearing Wednesday that labor groups call the “Union Armageddon Bill.”
With Republicans newly in control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, Democrats lack leverage to stop the proposals.
“We’re sunk this session,” said Raoul Doucette, a Sparks resident and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 401 who attended a protest organized by the AFL-CIO. “It’s probably too late.”
He added that union members will have to wait until elections in 2016 to vote legislators out of office.
The first major disappointment for unions was SB119, a measure that extends school construction bonds beyond the term approved by voters but also suspends Nevada’s prevailing wage for all school building projects.
Prevailing wage is a sort of minimum wage for contractors that varies by county and trade, and Democrats argued that repealing it would gut middle-class incomes.
The bill passed on party lines as the AFL-CIO launched a TV commercial in a last-ditch effort to get Sandoval to veto the bill, but he signed it into law the same day the commercials started running.
“Children across Nevada need more schools now, and our education system has limited resources to build them,” Sandoval said in a statement. “This narrowly tailored, extraordinary measure will allow school districts to stretch these limited resources as far as possible to meet an immediate need.”
SB119 is just one of a number of bills unions and their Democratic allies hope to beat back in highly unfavorable conditions. Members of the SEIU showed up for a hearing on AB190, which would restructure the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System to look more like a private 401(k) plan.
A long list of questions about the cost and constitutionality of the measure prompted the Assembly Government Affairs Committee to send it to a money committee for financial review.
Republicans on the committee said the bill needs a more thorough vetting and may not be the best solution, but say the underlying problem — a system-wide debt estimated to be anywhere from $13 billion to $40 billion — needs to be addressed.
“The unfunded liability is not going to go away unless something happens, and we need to fix that,” said Republican Assemblyman Glenn Trowbridge. However, switching to a 401(k)-style system could make public jobs less attractive, and prevent experienced employees from staying in their jobs long-term, as is typical for state workers.
“People are going to look at working for government as short-term employment. They’ll go in, get the experience, get the licensing and leave,” he said.
Unions’ next battle will be on the “Armageddon” measure — AB182, an omnibus bill sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Randy Kirner.
“It’s fairly clear that it would mortally wound unions in Nevada,” said Rebecca Theim, spokeswoman for SEIU Local 1107, which covers nurses and some public employees. “There’s nothing covered in collective bargaining that that bill would not eliminate or damage.”
Among other things, the measure would prevent collective bargaining agreements from stopping layoffs during a budget crisis and eliminates seniority from being considered in layoffs.
It would also remove “evergreen” provisions that preserve the tenets of a contract after it expires if a new contract is not already in place. That would give management incentive to drag out negotiations, Theim said.
Aside from AB182, union workers will have to confront bills that make it easier for local governments to reopen union contracts in financial downturns, one that restructures how prevailing wage is calculated, and one that prevents school administrators from unionizing at all.
Conservative groups such as the Nevada Policy Research Institute applaud the moves, saying Nevada’s existing labor policies are unsustainable and lead to “fiscal calamity.”
Union members say the proposed bills will erode the wages of the taxpaying base and aren’t reflective of residents’ real feelings toward labor.
“This is a repercussion to people not voting,” said Michael Britton, a 57-year-old Sparks resident and member of the carpenters’ union who attended the protest. But “you’ve got to fight, whether you’ll win the fight or not.”