Las Vegas Sun

September 15, 2014

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Union leaders’ salaries stay high even in hard times

Las Vegas labor union leaders can tell you the past few years have been pretty lean.

It’s no secret that workers haven’t fared well in the milieu of foreclosures, layoffs and wage stagnation associated with the unemployment capital of America.

So when union members gather this week for the annual state AFL-CIO convention at the Excalibur, many will arrive representing institutions that have lost money during the past few years.

But while it might not be great to be a union laborer, it’s still good to represent union laborers.

Many local union executives have gotten pay raises and others have maintained six-figure salaries as membership dues collections have either stalled or declined among local union chapters, according to local unions’ annual public tax documents filed between 2009 and 2012.

Most local union executives in the building trades — a hard-hit sector of the economy — make more than $100,000 a year representing member workers.

Masons, carpenters, glaziers, painters, plumbers, pipefitters, electricians and other skilled laborers earn in the range of $40,000 to $60,000 a year, according to state wage data.

Meanwhile, real earnings have stagnated, economic projections remain flat and unemployment remains high.

But economists say the six-figure salaries aren’t out of place, even in a hard-hit city like Las Vegas.

“It’s not unusual to see six-figure salaries for union executives,” said Stephen Brown, a professor of economics and director at UNLV’s Lee Business School Center for Business and Economic Research. “When you’re a member of a union that may seem like a big salary, but when you compare it to other types of executive compensation ... the salaries wouldn’t be out of line at all.”

The average chief executive makes $171,050, according to the state’s official wage data.

The highest-paid local labor official is Thomas White of Laborers International Union Local 872, according to a Sun review of unions’ annual tax documents.

The union reported that he made $239,335 in 2011 as well as $111,204 in other compensation, a jump from $220,964 in salary and $77,523 in other benefits that he reported receiving in 2009. White reported working 60 hours a week each year.

At the same time, Laborers International's dues collections have decreased from about $7.4 million to $3.9 million.

John Smirk at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, District Council 15, made $177,479 last year and received $74,787 in other compensation, according to the union’s public tax filings.

That’s $11,442 more than he reported earning in 2009. In both years, he reported working 60 hours per week, meaning he made about $77 an hour in 2009 and $81 an hour last year.

Not all executives receive compensation. Directors at the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees reported no income on their public tax forms.

Former president Al Martinez reported $6,315 in annual compensation from Service Employees International Union Local 1107 last year.

Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the top official at the Culinary Local 226 union reported almost no change in her $89,337 salary between 2009 and 2011.

Danny Thompson, the Nevada State AFL-CIO’s leader, got a 5.5 percent raise from $160,406 to $169,193 between 2009 and 2012.

Others, however, have taken pay cuts in solidarity with out-of-work laborers.

Membership dues dropped from $2.3 million to $600,000 between 2009 and 2011 at the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 13.

Some executives making six figures in 2009 docked their own pay.

Richard Crawford is the top official with the local bricklayers union, or the secretary-treasurer in union parlance. He took a $14,817 pay cut, dropping his overall compensation to $93,603 in 2011, the most recent year for which records were available.

“We just felt that it was prudent as far as, you know, our members are out of work,” Crawford said. “Everyone suffers together. We’re a team.”

Crawford said his members are finding more work as the economy continues its slow crawl out of the recession.

Meanwhile, state labor union officials say they made strides this year at the Nevada Legislature — an example of what union executives are able to accomplish, they say.

“While some of our unions may be fighting to recover, on the legislative and political side, we feel stronger than ever,” said Anthony DeAngelo, spokesman for the Nevada State AFL-CIO. “You can look at legislation that can create jobs and put our members back to work and give them opportunities to grow and recover.”

Labor lobbyists supported an NV Energy bill to close coal plants, a move that they say could employ union workers in cleanup activities and in the construction of new power generation plants that would replace two aging coal plants in Nevada.

Union representatives also supported a measure that would raise the Clark County gas tax, which they say will provide laborers with sorely needed construction work.

That measure needs the approval of five of seven Clark County commissioners, and the Nevada State AFL-CIO plans to introduce a resolution at the convention saying that it will not endorse any commissioner who votes against the gas tax hike.

Such a measure could provide work for laborers and, in turn, provide unions with more dues.

“Hourly wages are back where they were prior to the recession or maybe a little stronger, but if we look at weekly compensation, people are still making less,” Brown said. “People are still working fewer hours. So basically there’s less of a base from which dues can be collected.”

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