Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008 | 2 a.m.
In a state that prizes small, limited government, public employees have always been the exception, insulated from the economic ups and downs of the private sector. That is, until now.
Beyond the Sun
For the first time in Nevada’s history, county and city governments are turning to public employee unions, strongly suggesting labor leaders reopen existing contracts and make some concessions — or face the prospect of layoffs.
Clark County officials, led by Commission Chairman Rory Reid, met with leaders of the Service Employees International Union and the police and fire unions Thursday to deliver the grim news. Expenses are outpacing revenues, Reid said. Thus, current labor costs are simply unsustainable, he said.
The three unions represent 12,000 workers, and their leaders bristled.
“A meeting like we had has never been seen,” Reid said later. Prior to this week, reopening contracts has “never even been suggested as an option.”
In labor-friendly Las Vegas, it’s a striking development. Indeed, the sensitivity of such a suggestion was clear, with labor leaders saying Reid tactically waited until a news conference to utter: “Everything is on the table.”
Similarly, Las Vegas, facing a $150 million deficit over the next five years, has met with four unions to discuss labor costs, which account for 75 percent of the city’s budget. The City Council is expected to address the issue Dec. 3.
Nationally, the move is hardly unprecedented. Citing budget shortfalls, counties and state governments across the country are examining the possibility of revisiting labor pacts to save money.
California and New York, typically labor-friendly states, are looking to temper costs by reducing state employee pay.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to mandate monthly, one-day unpaid furloughs for all state employees for the next 19 months. He is also proposing to slash Columbus Day and Lincoln’s birthday from the calendar and stop premium pay for those who work on the remaining 11 paid holidays. State agencies would also be encouraged to establish 10-hour, four-day workweeks.
Those changes would require legislative approval.
In New York, Gov. David Paterson is asking unions to forgo next year’s negotiated 3 percent pay hike.
Public employee unions are fighting back in both states.
Richard Hurd, a labor relations expert at Cornell University, said the country has not seen such a widespread movement toward labor renegotiation since the 1992 recession. Back then, New York City municipal workers, for instance, gave back millions in wages to avert layoffs.
Still, Hurd noted that such union concessions are typically voluntary. “Unless an agreement is reached, the contract is binding and the employer’s options are limited,” he said. “They always have the option of eliminating jobs or laying people off.”
Concessions often take the form of reduced pension contributions and postponed or waived raises, Hurd said. Generally, a union’s first step is to work with the government to find cost savings. Indeed, all three unions here have asked to examine the county’s books before revisiting their contracts.
For its part, the county began instituting a three-part cost containment plan in May, curtailing employee travel, restricting overtime to “critical purposes” and leaving 350 budgeted positions vacant. Last month, County Manager Virginia Valentine asked department heads to examine their individual budgets to identify further cuts. Those officials will report back next month. Also, The County Commission approved a plan this week to cut a dozen programs and services at University Medical Center, including its outpatient oncology center and high-risk obstetrical unit.
With part three comes possible layoffs.
The county is in this position, in part, because of considerable overtime costs, which until this year had been increasing. From 2002 to 2007, county overtime jumped 151 percent. The county knocked off — “with some tweaking here and there” — $3.5 million this year, bringing costs down to $26 million from last year’s $29.5 million, according to county spokesman Erik Pappa. (The Sun reported in February 2007 that Southern Nevada has three times the national average of public employees making six-figure salaries.)
One union, the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents Metro and corrections officers, is refusing to reopen its contract, saying it would be all but pointless because the union’s contract expires in June and is accounted for in the county budget.
President Chris Collins is less than thrilled with the prospect of his union being the first to negotiate a new contract because it could set the standard for public-employee contracts in the new economy.
The jockeying has begun and the police union’s stance could foreshadow some inter-union tension.
If layoffs are necessary, Collins said, workers in nursing and fire and police services should be treated differently from other county employees.
“I think if you ask someone on the street if they would rather cut a police officer or cut county employee ‘B’, they’ll pick B,” he said. “The people who provide for the safety and welfare of the citizens in our valley, that should be our very last cut.”
Ed Burke, executive director of SEIU Local 1107, wasn’t as quick to abandon solidarity, but defended his members’ value: “I can make the same case for child protection. We’re just as important as the others.”