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April 16, 2014

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The beginning of collective bargaining

In 1969, lawmakers, worried about the cost of higher salaries, didn’t allow state employees to organize

Unions In Action

Culinary workers march outside the Four Queens hotel on July 10, 1985 to protest low wages. The protest lasted 65 days, and in the end, the union lost out. Not only did the union lose six hotels, including the Four Queens, but the wage increase was nowhere near enough to compensate the workers for the losses they accumulated during the strike. Launch slideshow »

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In February 1969, with labor unrest in Las Vegas and public employees rumbling about strikes, the Legislature took up a bill that would set the rules for how teachers, firefighters, police and other local government employees would negotiate with local governments.

Senate Bill 87, which would be known as the Dodge Act, forbade public employees from walking off the job or even threatening a strike. Organizations could be fined $50,000 a day and leaders could face imprisonment.

In exchange, school districts, cities and counties would have to negotiate with local government employee unions. If there was an impasse between management and the employees, it would go to an independent third party to chose either “last best offer” by each side, versus forging a compromise between the two.

This was the first time local governments in Nevada were required to negotiate in good faith with their employees, Sen. Carl Dodge, a Fallon Republican, said of the law he championed.

Teachers in 1969 wanted their own collective bargaining law that would, among other things, give them a role in education policy issues. The idea wasn’t embraced by state lawmakers, and teachers were included in the larger bill.

Efforts to allow state employees to organize have been brought before the Legislature since 1969 but defeated by Republicans, who say that the state could not afford the higher salaries they believe would come with it. Collective bargaining for state employees was passed in 2009 by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Jim Gibbons. (Not counting workers in higher education, the state has about the same number of employees as the number of teachers in the Clark County School District.)

So-called “collective bargaining” laws have become a national flashpoint for conservatives, who argue that the laws have created outsized pay and benefits for public workers.

Nevada Republican lawmakers and business groups since 2008 have been waging a campaign to roll back these laws; they say they’ll try again during the 2013 Legislature.

They grouse that Nevada has the fewest public employees per capita in the country but are among the best paid.

Nevada state and local government employees were the ninth-highest paid in the nation, according to a study commissioned by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce of 2009 data. (That was down from sixth-highest paid in 2008.)

Conservatives say the system can be improved but think elected officials should have the final vote.

“Our elected officials don’t have final say over how our tax dollars are spent,” said Tray Abney, director of government relations at the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce.

But defenders of the system say collective bargaining works, with the neutral arbitrator taking into account a local government’s “ability to pay.”

While the collectively bargained government salaries affect school, city and county budgets, they have no direct influence on the state’s budget. State employees, since 1969, have not had the same collective bargaining rights that the Legislature gave to local government employees.

“They’re going to come after (collective bargaining) as if it’s the problem,” said Danny Thompson, executive secretary of the AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor union.

The problem, he said, is insufficient taxes.

“The tax system is broken. Until you fix it, all this other stuff is just a ruse. There’s zero impact to the state budget,” he said.

Thompson expects Republicans to make another attempt to roll back collective bargaining rights, otherwise known as Chapter 288, for its place in Nevada Revised Statute.

But, he said: “If they gut collective bargaining, we should have the right to strike.”

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