Workers should be empowered to bargain and Democrats know it

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Culinary union workers joined members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Las Vegas May 14 to rally for public employee collective bargaining rights. (Nevada Current file photo)

A bill to allow collective bargaining for state employees should pass in Nevada.

Support for collective bargaining has been a staple Democratic position for decades, and Democrats control both houses of the Legislature.

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, in his state of the state address, said state workers “should be empowered to bargain collectively in the years ahead.” They can’t do that unless and until a bill allowing it is passed.

And yet…

The last time the bill saw the light of day was in a Senate Committee hearing seven weeks ago. It still hasn’t passed the Senate (the bill was granted an exemption from deadlines), and when (if?) it does, it still has to get through the state Assembly. The Legislature, by the way, is scheduled to adjourn Monday.

No wonder union leader D. Taylor was fired up a couple weeks ago at a rally with public employees, accompanied by a stout contingent of Culinary members in solidarity, demanding that legislators act.

“Nobody likes to be betrayed, nobody likes to be lied to, and nobody likes to be given the rationale that something can’t get done when they were promised it earlier,” Taylor said.

Alas, “the rationale that something can’t get done” has been a centerpiece of Nevada politics and policy since statehood. And it’s made a few appearances at this legislative session.

The payday loan industry killed legislation that would have capped predatory payday lending rates. The housing industry killed affordable housing initiatives. Wage and paid leave bills have been watered down to be “palatable” to “stakeholders” — a loathsome euphemism for rich and powerful interests throwing their weight around.

Maybe those interests also wield enough influence with lawmakers to deprive state workers the right to join together in common cause.

The holy sacred private sector amen, along with their ideological soulmates in area advocacy tanks and the local media, are pleased to tell anyone who will listen that collective bargaining would cost the state millions of dollars, because state workers would demand and get, or arbitrate, better pay, benefits and working conditions.

Surprise! Their breathless claims are exaggerated. But let’s say they’re on to something. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that collective bargaining would cost the state more money.

So what?

Shortly after Nevada’s collective bargaining bill had it’s most recent hearing (seven weeks ago) some of the smarty boots at the national left-leaning Economic Policy Center applied some analysis to it, including this point that does not get made enough around here:

…what’s the evidence that Nevada’s spending has become bloated instead of inefficiently low? Take higher education. In the decade between 2008 and 2018 inflation-adjusted higher education spending per student in Nevada fell by 22.2 percent, a much worse performance than the national average. These cuts led directly to a staggering 56 percent increase in tuition for public universities over this same time period—one of the ten steepest tuition increases across the 50 states. Given this track record, the real problem facing Nevadans doesn’t seem to be ever-growing spending, but savage austerity that is sacrificing the future.

The EPI analysis also notes that if collective bargaining automatically resulted in bloated salaries, Nevada teachers would have, well, bloated salaries.

As it happens, Nevada teachers are (still) threatening to strike to pressure legislators and the governor to come up with some more money for education, including teacher salaries.

Whether it’s higher pay for state workers, or for teachers, or paying for the countless other services and regulatory responsibilities and all the other things Nevada has refused to fund adequately forever, the assumption from the “savage austerity” crowd is that Nevada just can’t afford it.

That’s some nonsense. For instance, Nevada spent the equivalent of 2.8 percent of gross state product on education in 2016. Only four states spend less on schools in proportion to the size of their economies. That same inadequacy of state spending as a portion of state GDP can be found throughout Nevada state and local government institutions and services.

There’s actually quite a lot of money in Nevada. The problem is how that money is distributed.

One out of three workers in Nevada is paid less than $15 an hour. Ideally, those workers, predominantly in the service sector, would all be able to negotiate for better pay, benefits and working conditions — like workers in the Culinary can, and have, in the course of comprising a consumer core that has supported Southern Nevada businesses large and small for decades.

There is no legislative mechanism in the works this year to strengthen the bargaining power of Nevada’s private sector non-unionized workers. Maybe next time.

Or maybe some marvelous Democrat will win the presidency and a Democratically controlled Congress will enact federal laws designed to give Nevada and America’s workforce negotiating power. From a $15 minimum wage to affordable housing to child care and more, there seems to be a vibe in political Nevada that we must wait for the federal government to act. It’s a convenient way for state and local officials to avoid action. But waiting for the federal government to save us, all Obi-Wan like, seems just a tad risky, recent experience leaving little faith in the nation’s electorate and institutions.

Meanwhile, there is a bill in Nevada to extend bargaining power to state workers.

Nevada Democrats who control All The Things are fond of presenting themselves as enlightened policymakers working hard to protect workers, the environment, and civil rights, and generally leading a state that is moving forward while others move backwards. Have you heard? Nevada is the first state in the nation to have a majority female Legislature.

The collective bargaining bill should pass.

Unless Democrats do what they’ve done in other instances during the legislative session, invoke “the rationale that something can’t get done,” fearfully cave to special interests, and demonstrate yet again that their shiny new enlightenment is no match for the old tried and true Nevada way of bowing to money and clout.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.

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