Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
Northern Nevada electrical workers brought a bitter contract fight with NV Energy to Las Vegas this week, picketing the utility’s corporate headquarters to draw attention to the protracted negotiations.
The powerful Culinary Union lent weight to the demonstration, with hundreds of casino workers marching alongside electrical workers in the rain, demanding that the utility share its profits with employees.
At issue is NV Energy’s decision last year to set a ceiling for retirees’ medical benefits, a change that labor leaders say will result in sharp increases for current and future retirees as health care costs spike.
The picket line was a rare show of solidarity for Nevada’s fractious labor movement, underscoring its larger fight for relevance in the Great Recession that has stripped workers of health care and retirement benefits — core promises of union membership.
An NV Energy spokesman declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations.
Nationally, labor leaders have sought to refashion unions as the vehicle for rebuilding the middle class, a counterweight to corporate power. Labor’s high-profile fight on health care reform, for instance, was part of the makeover, intended to convince workers that unions are interested in bettering the lives of all workers, not just dues-paying members.
But with that battle stalled in Washington, experts say unions feel even greater pressure to preserve the bread-and-butter elements of collective bargaining.
“Right now, most labor unions in the United States are in a defensive mode trying to protect past gains,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “All across the country, unions are concerned the door will shut closed on pension plans, that health care benefits will be whittled down. The unions are trying to protect the issues they know resonate with unorganized workers.”
For labor, reasserting relevance is crucial. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the country’s unionization rate slid to 12.3 percent last year.
For the first time, a majority of American union members are government workers rather than private-sector employees. Just 7.2 percent of private-sector workers are in unions, the lowest percentage since 1900.
Private-sector union membership fell precipitously last year to 7.4 million from 8.2 million in 2008. The implications for unions are dire, experts said.
“If unions can’t protect health care and pension funds, workers will ask, ‘What do I need a union for?’ ” Chaison said. “The unions have to deliver on their past promises.”
Nevada labor leaders understand the urgency, fearing a loss at NV Energy will wound the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents about 800 workers, and embolden other employers in the state. The union has argued its case in a statewide ad campaign, highlighting service cuts and executive compensation.
Unions across the country have made contract concessions to preserve generous retirement benefits. Last year, the Culinary struck an agreement with the major casino companies, postponing a wage increase in part to keep company contributions to health care and pension funds flowing.
On Tuesday, Danny Thompson, head of the Nevada AFL-CIO, spoke to protesters from the back of a utility pickup truck, telling them “this town is a union town ... an injury to one is an injury to all.”
“We’re under attack on all fronts,” Thompson said in an interview. “There are those who are trying to blame the recession on people making decent money with decent benefits. Clearly that’s not the problem. We’re standing with those people who are potentially on the chopping block. The message is: Anyone who wants to take advantage of the situation now is going to be called out.”
Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said the battered economy is forcing rival unions to put down arms and work together. “It’s that feeling that if you can do it to one group, you can do it to all,” she said of the cap on retiree benefits. “Labor leaders are asking themselves, ‘Where does it stop?’ ”
NV Energy had been paying 80 percent of its retirees’ health insurance premiums, but capped those expenditures Jan. 1, according to union officials.
Neither side would discuss details of the contract negotiations, which began in August. But a company spokesman told a Northern Nevada newspaper last year that the utility is asking retirees to contribute more to their health care coverage because of the rising costs of medical premiums.
“NV Energy is simply asking retirees to share in the costs of future increases to medical benefit plans,” the spokesman said. “Nothing is being cut or eliminated.”
D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary, said curbing workers’ benefits is unfair, given that NV Energy reported $182 million in net profits last year, bolstered by a rate increase, and is set to receive millions in federal stimulus dollars for development projects.
“It’s about standing up,” he said. “No one is counting on any politicians. We’re counting on each other. This company has made so much money, charges the highest rates in the Intermountain West and they want to jam these workers. People are tired of that kind of stuff. I think workers are in the mood to fight back.”