2/6/08

SEIU rules: Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

Since Clark County (NV) Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani took office last year, she and Commissioner Tom Collins have been fierce advocates of organized labor, especially the county employees union. At Tuesday’s meeting, for example, they pushed successfully to give former county workers who missed out on retroactive pay increases a second shot at them. That came over the objections of county management.

Whether it’s an aside on carpet cleaning at the airport or a sharp rebuke of management’s interpretation of the county’s collective bargaining agreement, the two are particularly sensitive to labor issues big and small. The brazenness of their advocacy has rubbed some county officials the wrong way. Organized labor — specifically the Service Employees International Union, which represents rank-and-file county workers — played a major role in getting Collins and Giunchigliani elected, and some question their seemingly unswerving loyalty on labor issues. One county official even privately called the pair “Pavlovian.”

Collins and Giunchigliani, on the other hand, are anything but shy in laying out their case: The county can pay to take care of workers now with living wages and benefits, they say, or pay later through social services and subsidies at the public hospital.

“We need to look at the big picture,” Collins said Tuesday.

That refrain — a common one for Collins — came as Giunchigliani suggested that commissioners hold off on approving the lowest bidder for a cleaning contract at the county’s new McCarran International Airport rent-a-car center.

A competitor for the contract suggested that commissioners take into account factors other than dollars and cents. Collins and Giunchigliani rushed to defend that idea.

“I think we could better define what we want for responsible and responsive bidding,” Giunchigliani said. “I would like to look at our policy for recommending businesses.”

But redefining how the county approaches such issues comes with a price tag — at least upfront. The cleaning contract, for example, drew eight bids, ranging from $398,100 to $849,120. If commissioners weigh factors such as the wages those businesses pay their employees, it could mean using a more expensive contractor.

The retroactive pay issue is another one likely to cost the county thousands of dollars. The county and SEIU struck a deal on a new contract in March that gave employees a retroactive 3 percent raise because the old contract had expired eight months earlier. It also said that employees who resigned or quit during those eight months had 30 days to request the retroactive increase for the time they worked.

But after hearing from former workers who missed the deadline, Collins and Giunchigliani argued that the county should have done a better job notifying the 150 eligible former employees who did not ask for the retroactive pay. County management pointed out that the contract didn’t require the county to put out notification.

Still, Collins and Giunchigliani said, the county should have taken on the responsibility.

“What I do want to do is be fair to our employees,” Collins said.

He and Giunchigliani persuaded their colleagues to have the county renotify former workers and give them another 30 days to apply for the retroactive pay. If all 150 workers respond, it will cost the county about $130,000.

This week’s meeting provided only the latest examples of labor issues that probably wouldn’t have been raised at all before 2007.

In December, a group that commissioners appointed to make recommendations on how to boost small, minority- and women-owned businesses suggested changing the county’s labor requirements for large projects at McCarran. The requirements force nonunion shops to contribute to union trust funds and limit companies to using seven nonunion employees, and even then only if they hire an equal number of union workers.

Collins’ response was typical in its bluntness: “I would recommend we say, ‘Thank you very much for your report,’ but not accept these recommendations.”

The pair hasn’t always been successful, though.

They tried unsuccessfully to prevent University Medical Center management from outsourcing janitorial services at a county building operated by the hospital. Management wanted to go with a company that would perform the work for $16,000 a year, while it would cost the county $73,000 to do the work itself. Collins and Giunchigliani were outvoted by their colleagues.

The hospital is struggling to stabilize its finances. That effort will require the county to bring UMC’s staffing in line with patient volumes. Hospital administrators think they can do it through attrition rather than layoffs.

UMC’s interim CEO, Kathy Silver, said Tuesday, “It’s pretty clear to anyone watching that you have some commissioners who are more concerned about labor issues than others.”

That doesn’t necessarily concern her, she said, but it does mean she has to be sure to do her homework before bringing a proposed contract before commissioners.

(lasvegassun.com)

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