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Public sector unions and local governments spar over collective bargaining bill


By Andrew Doughman, Nevada News Bureau: Legislators did not immediately vote on a bill from Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, but a hearing on Senate Bill 343 provoked heated testimony over how local governments and public sector unions bargain their contracts.

Lobbyists for public sector unions called the bill “insulting,” and by the end of the hearing, Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, asked people to apologize to each other for “derogatory comments.”

The bill that caused all the fuss would do this: It would eliminate a third-party, binding arbitration process in management and labor contract disputes and instead impose the local government’s contract offer for up to one year.

Roberson said this would allow a system that would save taxpayers up to $2.3 billion as well as provide a clearer chain of accountability to local governments bargaining these contracts.

Despite national scenes like the Wisconsin protests over collective bargaining, the Roberson’s bill sparked the first debate about local government contracts have in the Nevada Legislature this year.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has not emphasized changes to the collective bargaining law.

Assembly Republicans have been more brazen in endorsing a stronger position for management in the bargaining debate. Such a bill could be a bargaining chip at the end of the legislative session, as Democrats try to convince a few key Republicans to vote for a tax increase to offset cuts in Sandoval’s proposed $5.8 billion budget.

Public sector unions have traditionally been a strong ally to Democratic candidates, making a bill like Roberson’s potentially unpalatable to his colleagues across the aisle.

Union groups opposed Roberson’s bill.

Danny Thompson, representing the AFL-CIO, raised his voice when testifying against the bill. He said union workers have taken pay cuts during this economic recession.

“The reality is this: to blame collective bargaining for the problems that local governments are having or that we are having is insulting to me, I have to tell you,” he said.

The Nevada Legislature established collective bargaining in Nevada during 1969. Since then, local governments and unions have bargained contracts through a process of fact finding and arbitration.

The two sides – labor and management – present evidence and a fact-finder issues a report. If both sides do not accept the report, they can turn to an arbiter to make a final decision of whose offer will take effect.

Lobbyists for police and fire fighters unions testified that most of the time the unions lose if arbitration is used, which they said was proof collective bargaining is not a broken system that cheats taxpayers out of money.

“If you were to implement this bill, you will not have collective bargaining anymore,” said Rusty McAllister, representing the Professional Firefighters of Nevada. “You will have collective begging.”

But Roberson said earlier that ending the final arbitration process and defaulting to the employer’s offer for one year would save local governments money.

Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, said this might upset the balance between unions and management.

“Putting this subsection into the bill would cause a local government, an employer, to consider the fact that they have this to fall back on, hence bargaining in good faith might not be something they would do,” he said.

Roberson, after listening to prolonged testimony in opposition to his bill, interjected that Parks had not given supporters equal time to testify.

Parks tried to close the hearing, sparking a hushed conversation that ended with several other supporters of the bill testifying.

Cegavske had the final word when she decried “derogatory comments” that she said lobbyists had made during the hearing.

The Senate Legislative Operations and Elections committee that heard the bill took no immediate action on it

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