In a season when hard times have made it opportune for business to push for anti-labor legislation, workers are pushing back hard.
The worker uprising in Egypt has inspired similar protests across the United States, most notably in Wisconsin. Their target is not repressive government but business attacks on workers through legislation.
The way the recession has created a climate that permits previously unimaginable proposals to surface was seen most clearly in the Missouri Legislature, where Sen. Jane Cunningham introduced legislation to undermine child labor laws, making it legal to employ children under 14, halt inspections of companies that employ children, and lift restrictions on the number of working hours for children.
In Nevada’s legislature, proposals include:
• Repeal of a voter-approved state minimum wage;
• Elimination of collective bargaining in local governments;
• Elimination of seniority rights in workplaces;
• Allowing employment contracts to be reopened and abrogated;
• Cutting state worker pay by 5 percent;
• Switching from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension plan for state employees.
This week, workers public and private gathered in front of the Nevada Legislature for a rally calling for an end to worker bashing.
Republicans who disdain what they call “class warfare” when it’s done by Democrats have been in the forefront of worker-bashing. Just five years after Nevada voters for the second time approved a minimum wage that is $1 over the federal minimum for workers whose employers fail to provide health insurance, GOP Sen. James Settlemeyer of Minden called for another public vote on the issue. Republican Joe Hardy has introduced legislation to repeal the Nevada minimum wage. He said it will create a “level playing field with other states” and will make employers more willing to hire.
But Nevada is one of 14 states with a minimum higher than the federal level, and many of those states are high population states, like California and Illinois. In the West, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and New Mexico have higher than federal minimums. So a level playing field would not be achieved with a change in Nevada. A business group called the Nevada Prosperity Project argues that Nevada’s minimum wage makes the state uncompetitive, meaning less able to attract businesses, but Nevada is plainly more competitive for workers at a time when state officials are concerned about losing workers.
Sen. Sheila Leslie, a Washoe Democrat, said she does not believe legislative critics of workers are in touch with the way working people live.
“I think there is a disconnect between a lot of people and the working classes, that a lot of people who are professionals in the private sector don’t really understand what it’s like to live on minimum wage and not to have health benefits, not be able to plan for your retirement. I mean, I know lots of people who work two or three jobs part time here and there to make it work, and they have no hope of owning a house. I think a lot of people don’t understand that gap.”
A good deal of the worker-bashing going on now is aimed at public employees. A Clark County dispute over alleged abuse of sick leave, overtime, and other benefits has aided critics of workers, as they have tried to portray an exception as the norm.
Some workers point out that protestors in Wisconsin are fighting to keep something—collective bargaining rights—that state workers in Nevada have never had.
Las Vegas columnist Hugh Jackson argues that falling wages in companies have led to resentment of public workers, a sentiment conservatives have been all too willing to fan into flames: “[P]eople have concluded that since the private sector treats its workers poorly, the public sector should, too. … Budget shortfalls, the collapse of prosperity and politically correct hostility to the public good whipped up by a relentless right-wing propaganda infrastructure have created a surly population quick to mistake public servants for public enemies. Public employees are blamed for everything from a rising national debt to declining core values.
“Heaping scorn and derision on public employees is undeniably easy and fun, which is why all of us do it. But whatever Rush said on the radio, the government workers are not part of a plot to destroy family, faith and freedom. They’re people doing their jobs. And the popular assault on the government workforce distracts attention from bigger problems.”
Leslie agrees that hard times are fostering anti-public worker attitudes. “Now we’re in tough times, and they say, ‘Public sector workers shouldn’t have better benefits than private sector workers.’ And yet in good times, nobody’s clamoring for public sector workers to have the same bonus and salary opportunities that private sector workers have. … In the private sector, your great innovator or your hard worker, [they] get rewarded financially. … In the public sector those fiscal rewards aren’t there. They just don’t exist.”
“Nevada state workers are not unionized,” said labor activist Andrew Barbano. “They have no collective bargaining rights, and their salaries show it, but they are targeted nonetheless.”
Many politicians like to say that public employees are paid better than private sector workers. But it’s a proposition that doesn’t withstand close examination. Government workforces are not all made up of file clerks. Because of the tasks performed by government—from auditing gambling casinos to inspecting medical clinics—the state requires more employees with top skills and advanced degrees. When those workers are compared with their counterparts in the private sector, the state workers come off second best.
Jason Geddes is a biochemist who handles environmental services for the city of Reno. He has known the issue as both a politician/state legislator and as a public employee. He said recently, “I’m a public employee. I make far less than I would in the private sector. But we also have the lowest amount of public employees of any state in the country. I mean, as a percentage, they’re far less than any state in the country. … It’s easy to say, you know—‘bloated government,’ ‘big government’—but we’re not. … When we’re trying to hire people in the health sciences—doctors, nurses—we have to compete in the marketplace to get somebody. … And we’re offering far less than the private sector.”
For instance, Nevada state workers who inspect medical clinics are paid $60,000 a year, but they also have skills that are highly marketable in the private sector. Reduce their state pay, and they have other options.
One former state official said that public employees have held state government together during the recession and especially during the Gibbons administration when morale was low, and the workload increased because of hiring cuts. He also said that the state is getting closer to being unable to do its regulatory tasks. “I’m prepared for people dying,” he said.
Gov. Brian Sandoval equates these state functions with private sector experiences: “I’ve met with several employers that have had to cut salaries, that have had to cut benefits for their employees and I think that the state government needs to do the same.”
But state government, unlike businesses, has legally mandated duties to perform and can’t attract the people to do those jobs if it can’t compete for workers.