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Union debate is about power as well as money

First, let’s agree Gov. Brian Sandoval is no Gov. Scott Walker.

Sandoval had a chance to do precisely what Walker is doing in Wisconsin, which is to sign a bill that eliminates most collective bargaining rights for public employees, other than firefighters and cops.

In Nevada, state employees don’t have collective bargaining rights, but local government and school districts do. Outgoing Gov. Jim Gibbons requested a bill — Senate Bill 41 — that would have eliminated those rights, but Sandoval asked the Senate Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections to not consider that bill.

That didn’t stop union members from turning out in Las Vegas and Carson City Monday to protest everything from Walker’s hard-line approach in Wisconsin to Sandoval’s budget cutting.

Republicans contend, here and in Wisconsin, public employee unions are driving governments into insolvency, with collectively bargained salaries, pensions unheard of in the private sector, and better benefits. If something isn’t done to bring those costs under control, governments will simply run out of funds.

In fact, says the GOP, public employee unions don’t rely on market forces to keep costs in check. A union for a private company has an incentive not to grab too much, knowing, if the company goes under, the union’s jobs will be lost, too. In government, failure doesn’t exist and negotiators are playing with taxpayers’ money, not their own.

The fact is, salaries and benefits for public employees do need to be addressed. And, very likely, public employees (many of whom have already made concessions to state and local governments) will have to give some more before the recession ends.

Part of that is reforming the system to prevent the abuse of sick time to boost pay, as some Clark County firefighters are alleged to have done. (Those abuses are now the subject of a criminal investigation.)

Also, the looming problem of an unfunded liability in the Public Employees Retirement System will have to be solved, not only for the sake of the taxpayers, but for the sake of thousands of retirees who rely on promises made by their government employers.

That’s something that can — and should — come through honest negotiations, however, not unilateral legislative pronouncements. Unions in Wisconsin (and in Nevada, with few exceptions) have indicated they’re willing to bargain to find a solution to the state’s problems, and that’s precisely what should happen.

Let’s also not write off the idea — repeated often during Monday’s rally here and in Wisconsin — that a desire for fiscal restraint isn’t the only thing moving this debate.

Republican critics of organized labor in general — and public employee unions in particular — note frequently that labor is a fervent supporter of the Democratic Party, with both votes and money. Are we to believe this crisis isn’t being used to take a solid whack at a pillar of Democratic support?

Republicans say government doesn’t create jobs, the private sector does. But it’s historically been unions that have agitated to make those jobs pay better, offer better benefits and ensure people are treated fairly in the workplace. It’s that disaggregation of power from corporations and the wealthy that has some salivating to use the recession to finish off labor once and for all.

“Now they (conservatives) want to take away the voice of opposition and that is organized labor and the middle class,” said former Congresswoman Dina Titus at Monday’s rally. When that voice is needed more than ever, it would be a shame to let that happen.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.


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