In Democratic speeches, echoes of labor's agenda

If the labor movement gets its wish, Democrats controlling both houses of the Nevada Legislature will roll back measures spearheaded — and passed — by Republicans last session when the GOP controlled both houses.

And on the first day of the state’s 79th legislative session, Democrats appeared to be heading in that direction. Remarks made by Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson during their first floor speeches Monday aligned closely with the labor movement’s legislative agenda.

The state’s labor leaders have identified a number of priorities heading into the legislative session. Chief among them: affordable health care, prevailing wage reform, safeguards against energy rate hikes and better wages for public employees.

Rusty McAllister, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada State AFL-CIO, said officials representing working families have been meeting with Democratic and Republican legislators to advocate their causes. Unions representing a wide variety of workers — electricians, plumbers, nurses, firefighters, construction workers and state employees, to name a few — are affiliated with the Nevada State AFL-CIO, he said.

Their overall goal, he said, is to “protect members with good health care and livable, working wages to support families.”

Frierson said the state must create “economic security” for Nevada families by addressing the need for a living wage, paid family leave as well as continuing efforts to diversify the state’s economy. But it was Ford who offered the most forceful acknowledgement of the labor movement’s concerns and vowed to listen and make the needed corrections.

“We’ll take another look at last session’s extreme and unnecessary legislation that targeted the pocketbooks of working men and women by slashing wages for construction workers, limiting project-labor agreements, and attacking collective bargaining rights,” he said from the Senate floor. “To our friends in the labor movement, we heard you when you said, ‘Never Again,’ and we agree.”

Rising health-care costs, both in the form of hospital charges and pharmaceutical pricing, have put a squeeze on businesses, rendering unions unable to negotiate for better wages, McAllister said. That’s why unions representing working families will be supporting bills that deal with hospital costs and transparent pricing, he said. Specific bills have not yet been drafted, though.

“We make sure that our health care is good for our members and take less in wages to accomplish that,” he said, describing the ripple effect of increasing health-care costs.

The laborers’ agenda also includes resurrecting a wage-related issue that garnered significant attention during the 2015 session. Two years ago, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law a bill that exempted charter school construction projects from the prevailing wage and allowed school districts and the Nevada System of Higher Education to pay 90 percent of the prevailing wage for construction projects.

Union officials have said those changes could lead to out-of-state companies receiving contracts rather than Nevada residents. The Nevada Independent asked for an example of that actually happening and will publish when and if one is provided.

The prevailing wage should be fully restored because it would provide jobs for Nevada residents and keep that money in the local economy, McAllister said.

Assemblymen Skip Daly and Chris Brooks confirmed to The Nevada Independent that they’re drafting bills that would address the prevailing wage concern.

"They affect the average guy, the little guy out there that government's supposed to be trying to help,” said Daly, a former journeyman laborer who now serves as business manager for Laborers Local 169 in Northern Nevada. ”So we're going to be reviewing all of those things and see if they make sense. If they're a step in the wrong direction, we'll try to fix them."

Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer said the exemption on school construction projects was an agreement that both sides came to in 2015.

“Senator Ford sat down and negotiated that deal two years ago," he said. “It’s a shame that his word only lasts for two years.”

The Nevada State AFL-CIO and other unions plan to closely monitor discussions regarding the energy deregulation as well. In November, voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot question that sought to create an open, competitive electric energy market. The ballot question passed with 72 percent of the vote, but it’s a two-step process. It would need to be confirmed by another vote in two years. The AFL-CIO was the principal opponent of the initiative.

During the governor’s State of the State address last month, Sandoval announced the creation of a committee on energy choice to “help prepare us for the complicated changes that lay ahead if Nevadans approve energy choice.”

The labor unions want to ensure that any energy deregulation is done in a way that prevents rate increases for customers, McAllister said.

“People feel like they have to step in and do something,” he said. “Now the question is, what are they going to do?”

The governor also announced a 4 percent cost-of-living adjustment and increased funding for health benefits for state employees last month. The unions support the wage increase but also want to make changes to a collective bargaining law that they believe lengthened the negotiation process, McAllister said.

In essence, the unions don’t want to see any legislation that would put a “financial burden” on the backs of public employees, he said.

McAllister said he’s hopeful lawmakers will draft bills pertaining to these issues and send approved legislation to the governor for his signature.

“It’s going to be a long 120 days, and a lot is going to take place between now and the end,” he said. “Hopefully, some of these issues will get addressed.”

11:12 p.m. — This story has been updated to correct recent changes to the prevailing wage law.

Riley Snyder and Michelle Rindels contributed to this story.

Caption: The Nevada State Assembly chamber during Governor Sandoval's 2017 State of the State address on Jan. 17, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.