8/19/08

"Go where the money is ... and go there often."

Willie Sutton guides unions' desert success

The national headlines tell stories of unions in retreat, of organized labor groups facing record-low membership numbers and fewer retirement benefits for their workers. But unions in Las Vegas seem to have missed that message.

Labor experts say organized labor in the Silver State thrives today, and they point to sustained organizing and bargaining efforts as evidence of a healthy union climate here. "Las Vegas has been on the radar screen for the labor movement for many years now," said Daniel Cornfield, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "It probably won't go away."

Added Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara: "Las Vegas is the center of unionism in the country. Everyone is watching, because there's a lot of activity going on and all sorts of things happening."

Take the tussle between local electric utility Nevada Power Co. and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 396. Nevada Power wants to reduce union workers' pension benefits by up to 70 percent in a bid to protect the company's long-term bottom line; IBEW officials say the company can afford current benefits, given the 40 percent increase in net income the utility posted in the second quarter. Neither side is yielding, despite their labor contract's expiration in February.

Or look at the bitter fight between the Service Employees International Union and the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee. The nurses' group attempted in May to wrangle representation of 1,100 St. Rose Dominican RNs from the SEIU, forcing an employee election that split workers but fell three votes shy of winning representation outright. Contested votes and pleas to the National Labor Relations Board followed. A runoff election is pending.

From the AFL-CIO's Building Justice campaign to organize residential construction workers to Culinary Local 226's efforts to unionize locals casinos, area unions are agitating for more members and richer benefits. The share of Nevada workers belonging to unions is 15.4 percent, up from 13.8 percent in 2005 and higher than the nation's 12.1 percent. Local union officials say the ailing local economy, with its rising unemployment and its falling government revenue, could give them an important assist in further boosting their share of the state's labor market.

"This (economic) environment is very clearly an opportunity for workers to organize," said D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Local 226. "If you notice when workers really organize in this country it is during a depression, not during good economic times. What's going to happen is that all the cuts that companies have done where workers don't have a collective bargaining agreement, when the economy gets better and they start rolling around, most of the time they don't restore those cuts. Those cuts become part of the landscape."

The economy isn't the only factor set to bolster union fortunes in Las Vegas.

An area's political climate, including its "managerial-legal framework," plays a large role in fomenting organized labor, Lichtenstein said. And in its managerial-legal setup, Las Vegas offers a friendly environment to unions: The Culinary maintains mostly positive relationships with the resorts that employ its 60,000 local members. The deals local unions work out with employers amount to a "sort of de facto abridgement of right-to-work laws" that prohibit making union membership a condition of employment, Lichtenstein said.

Also important to the expansion of organized labor: prevailing union sentiments. There, too, Las Vegas offers benefits to unions. With organized labor's heavy penetration in the resort sector, workers in other industries are well-acquainted with unions and thus more comfortable with their presence. Plus, Las Vegas houses a growing number of Latino immigrants, a demographic that Lichtenstein said tends to harbor strong, pro-union leanings.

"You might have a Latino construction worker whose sister works in a hotel, and he hears about hotel maids who can buy houses," Lichtenstein said. "He'll say a union is a good idea."

Most of the favorable sentiment about unions locally is based on the relatively good relations that the Culinary has had with casino companies.

The Culinary has contracts with most of the major Strip and smaller downtown casinos, the big exceptions being Las Vegas Sands and Station Casinos -- two companies the union has long targeted.

Taylor refused to discuss current organizing efforts. But on July 18, Culinary members descended on various resorts owned by locals operator Station Casinos, the largest nonunion gaming company in Clark County to protest.

New York Times labor writer Steven Greenhouse recently described the Culinary union as "unusually farsighted," and the "most successful union local" in the country.

Greenhouse's new book, "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker," dedicates three pages to the union's rise from 18,000 workers in the late 1980s to nearly 60,000 members today.

The expansion happened as unions nationwide shrank with the modernization of factories and the off-shoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Other unions are joining the Culinary in ramping up local organizing and negotiating activities.

The 7,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 711 continues to picket retail giant Wal-Mart, even as it negotiates new contracts with Albertsons, Food 4 Less, Smiths and Vons. Union officials have said they see Wal-Mart, which has 13 local supercenters and 11 area neighborhood markets, as a long-term growth opportunity.

Unions that used to organize industrial factories now want other avenues to curtail their decline.

The United Auto Workers, whose labor force at General Motors shrunk from 400,000 in 1970 to 74,000 last year, according to Greenhouse, trolled Atlantic City casinos for new members.

Following the UAW's lead, the Transport Workers Union of America is organizing dealers along the Strip through its Las Vegas Dealers Local 721.

After failing to organize workers inside 10 Las Vegas casinos in 2001, the TWU found success at Wynn Las Vegas, where dealers angry over the resort's tip-sharing policy voted for union representation in May 2007. Dealers at Caesars Palace followed suit in December.

The TWU suffered a defeat in mid-July when nearly 60 percent of the Rio's dealers rejected it.

Unions aren't relying on gaming alone for their growth.

Labor officials are increasingly focusing on industries that provide personal and professional services such as entertainment and tourism. They're also chasing the home-building sector, health care, retail and services related to hospitality, such as caterers and launderers, Lichtenstein said.

Those targeted growth areas put Las Vegas right in the path of labor union management and organizers.

The AFL-CIO launched its Building Justice movement in 2006. The campaign, focused on the home-building sector in Nevada and Arizona, has involved more than 5,000 workers, many of whom work for subcontractors of Michigan-based housing giant Pulte Homes. Union representatives and workers have distributed pamphlets outside Pulte's local new-home communities, and they've held news conferences that feature local construction workers discussing their treatment on the job. They've also picketed residential job sites belonging to Pete King Construction, accusing the contractor of poor safety practices.

Pulte officials have countered that they don't employ the staff members of subcontractors, and they're not responsible for the relationships between subcontractors and their workers. They've also said the AFL-CIO is targeting Pulte in its organizing campaigns to generate publicity.

Pete King executives have said they field regular visits from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make sure their safety practices are up to snuff. They countered that the union is more interested in organizing Pete King workers than it is in safety, and they believe unions have targeted Pete King for its large business volume and its big employee base.

Shifting political winds could also have implications for local union growth.

With the 2009 Legislature now six months away, some unions are weighing legislation to send to Carson City.

One of the most public issues, with 12 deaths on Strip construction sites since December 2001, is safety.

Steve Ross, a Las Vegas city councilman and secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, said his organization is looking at legislation that would require union and nonunion contractors to adopt stricter safety standards, including OSHA safety training for all workers.

"We look at the industry in general," said Ross, whose trade council contains 17 construction labor unions. "We want everyone protected."

Ross is also looking at promoting labor agreements for public works projects, and keeping more of them in the hands of in-state contractors.

He plans to present the Legislature with proof of unscrupulous contractors that underpay workers, pocketing the money.

"We want to save the taxpayer money," Ross said. "Someone's walking away with the money and stealing it. The worker's not getting it. We think we have a pretty good case."

And November's presidential election will also affect the expansion of organized labor.

Lichtenstein said unions would benefit more from a Barack Obama presidency than they would a John McCain term. That's because Obama would likely emphasize providing universal health care, which would remove health benefits as a common sticking point in union negotiations and allow organized labor to focus more on what Lichtenstein said they do best -- negotiate over grievances and wages.

What's more, Lichtenstein said, Obama is more amenable to the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed federal law that would replace secret-ballot union votes with card-check procedures. Unions say the act would make it easier to organize a company, because the bill would protect workers from anti-union speech and actions that employers undertake before secret balloting. Employers say the law would make organizing easier because card checks aren't anonymous, and that would leave workers open to union intimidation.

Obama supports the Employee Free Choice Act, while McCain would veto the bill, Lichtenstein said.

"Although the promised land will not be reached with Barack Obama as president, he will be much better for unions than John McCain," Lichtenstein said.

(lvbusinesspress.com)

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