A bill that would end binding arbitration in collective bargaining was hailed by supporters as a way to ease the burdens of cash-strapped local governments Tuesday, but harshly criticized by opponents who said it would amount to "collective begging" for public employees.
Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said the current collective bargaining system is "bankrupting this state." He said his bill, SB343, would "take the final decision out of the hands of arbitrators" and "into the hands of elected officials."
Under existing law, local governments and union groups can agree to submit their dispute to a fact finder and to accept the fact finder's determination as final and binding.
SB343 would end that practice and allow local governments, when agreements cannot be reached, to impose management's last economic offer at a public meeting. A companion bill, SB342, seeks to ban administrators and supervisors from belonging to labor groups, and allow employees to decide whether they want union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks.
Roberson cited studies that showed in 2009, state worker salaries were 15 percent higher than the national median. For local government workers, it was 31 percent, he said.
"If Nevada's local government employees were paid at the national median, we would save $2.3 billion over the next two years," he told the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections.
"I value and honor our public employees," he said. But he said the current system has created two classes of Nevadans: "Local government employees on the one hand and everyone who pays for them on the other hand."
Taxpayers, he said, "should have some say over how that money is spent."
Roberson said Clark County firefighters, under scrutiny for alleged orchestrated abuses of sick leave, are a prime example of why collective bargaining reforms are necessary.
Danny Thompson, secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO, responded angrily to Roberson's remarks and blamed decisions by Clark County officials for creating the need for firefighters to work excessive overtime.
"They opened two fire stations and chose not to hire firefighters," Thompson said.
"It was a business decision to do that," he said, adding that blaming collective bargaining for local government woes was "insulting."
Rusty McCallister, with the Professional Firefighters of Nevada, said implementing the bill would replace collective bargaining with "collective begging."
"Indentured servitude is long gone," he said.
"I would be happy to work with Sen. Roberson however he saw fit to hire more firefighters in this state," McCallister said.
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, challenged some of Roberson's assertions and said local officials share blame for their fiscal woes.
"One of my conclusions has been that local employers, in the good times, didn't negotiate in the best interest of the public," he said. "They agreed to provisions that in all honesty they shouldn't have."
He cited examples of contracts that allowed only the bargaining group to reopen contract talks, or pacts that called for automatic salary increases if employee retirement contributions increased.
"I put part of the responsibility of what's occurred over the years on them," he said of local governments, questioning the need for a change in state law.
State workers do not have collective bargaining rights under Nevada law, and all public employees are prohibited from striking.
Thompson said binding arbitration is a way to resolve negotiation disputes. If lawmakers take that away, he said they should "return the right to strike to these public employees."
"There needs to be an ability to solve these problems that this bill would be taking way," he said.
The committee took no action on the bill Tuesday.