By Ryan Tarinelli
CARSON CITY — For decades, enacting collective bargaining for state workers has remained an elusive goal of supportive Nevada lawmakers. But Democrats this session appear poised to make it a reality, with strong majorities in both legislative chambers and the first Democratic governor in two decades.
“It’s an inequality that needs to be corrected and it’s long overdue,” said Harry Schiffman, a worker advocate and electrician at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
A state Senate bill that would give certain state workers the right to collectively bargain will face its first legislative panel Thursday in Carson City.
Union backers say the bill would lead to improved services, less turnover and better working conditions.
Opponents question what the legislation would mean for the state budget, saying it could come with an increased price tag for the state and restrict Nevada’s ability to handle a possible economic crisis due to raised costs.
If it passes, Nevada would join a majority of U.S. states that have some form of collective bargaining for state employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Under the Nevada proposal, the state would be required to negotiate wages, hours and other employment conditions with labor organizations that represent state employees. Those given the ability to collectively bargain would include janitors, secretaries and accountants, among others. It does not include managerial employees.
Strikes would not be permitted under the legislation.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees estimates about 20,000 state workers would be given the right to collectively bargain if the legislation becomes law.
Democrats have identified the idea as a priority and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has said he believes state employees should be able to collectively bargain in the years ahead.
Efforts to enact such bargaining stretch back at least 46 years in Nevada — a state where other unions, like Culinary Workers Union Local 226, have clout.
There were at least a dozen bills from 1973 through 2017 that would have expanded collective bargaining to some or all state workers. The measures died at various points in the legislative process.
Former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said there was always a good deal of legislative support for the idea, especially from Democrats.
“Unless you have the support of the governor, the bill is not likely to happen,” she said.
In some areas, she said, state employment acted as a training ground for workers who would then leave for a local government position. There was the feeling that the state was at a disadvantage compared to local governments and that state workers deserved equal rights, she said.
Naomi Walker with the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute said workers who are able to bargain collectively often see a dramatic improvement in their quality of life at work. That’s because it creates a framework for employees to discuss conditions with employers, such as how they are treated while on the job, she said.
“For decades now, the right-wing has tried to convince workers in this country that they’re better off going it alone and negotiating on their own,” Walker said. “And I think there’s just a growing recognition that workers are better if they come together and unite for a voice on the job.”
Schiffman, the university electrician, says Nevada’s state workers are treated like second-class citizens and are “drowning” in financial instability. More importantly, beyond wages, he said collective bargain offers employees a better avenue to address safety concerns.
Robert Fellner, director of policy at the free-market organization Nevada Policy Research Institute, slammed the proposal and said increasing costs would undermine the state’s ability to determine its financial future.
“It could come with a high cost,” added Republican Assemblyman Tom Roberts, noting that he’s open to the conversation about the bill. “I don’t know if the state can shoulder that burden and there might be another way to get there without collective bargaining.”
Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer cited financial concerns and said there is no need for the legislation because there are already protections involving workplace issues.
“I don’t believe that it makes prudent fiscal sense for the state to make the cost of government higher when it does not need to,” he said.