Led by IBEW members, Nevada’s building trades
unions hit a triple in the Legislature this spring, restoring prevailing wage
and project labor agreement laws killed by the business lobby in 2015, and
ensuring that apprentices from accredited programs fill a percentage of jobs at
public construction sites.
“We came in focused on priority bills that would make Nevada stronger without costing the state money,” Las Vegas Local 357 Business Manager Al Davis said. “We felt confident that the governor would see the same benefits we saw, and he did.”
File those victories and a long list of other 2019 legislative wins for working Nevadans under “Elections Matter.”
Unions and social justice allies ran exhaustive campaigns to get out the vote last November. Their efforts sent twice as many Nevada voters to the polls as in 2014, when midterm losses shook the state’s labor movement. Anti-worker politicians and a governor who shared their agenda rapidly attacked workers and unions with punitive legislation.
Today, a pro-worker trifecta is in charge: a supermajority in the Assembly, a near veto-proof Senate, and a progressive governor unafraid to stand with labor. It is also the nation’s first female-majority legislature.
The results have been dramatic.
More than 20,000 public workers in Nevada finally have collective bargaining rights – the biggest victory of its kind in any state in nearly two decades. The state’s minimum wage is going up. Many workers without sick leave are gaining a week’s worth. Costly penalties are in store for employers that violate equal-pay rules and other workplace protections.
More broadly, new laws tackle everything from pocketbook issues to government transparency, including better access to health care, lower prescription costs, an urgent increase in school funding that also will raise teacher pay, money for technical education, tax credits to spur affordable housing, same-day voter registration and sharper teeth in the state’s public records law.
In all, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed 636 bills by the mid-June deadline. One of the last was SB207, requiring building contractors to fill a percentage of public works jobs with apprentices from accredited programs.
The bill’s chief sponsor was Sen. Chris Brooks, a Local 357 member who brought his solar contracting business into the IBEW nearly 20 years ago.
One of the state’s foremost solar experts and a staunch labor advocate, Brooks was elected to the Nevada Assembly in 2016, re-elected in 2018, then quickly appointed to fill a Senate vacancy.
His apprentice legislation stated that “a skilled construction trades workforce is essential to Nevada’s economic well-being” and that training on public projects is crucial experience.
Brooks also sponsored the PLA bill in the Senate and championed the Assembly’s prevailing wage bill. Notably, all three bills improving wages and opportunities for building trades workers passed without a single Republican vote.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Via plane to Reno and rental car to Carson City, Davis made the case for the bills at the Capitol multiple times, often in tandem with the executive director of the southern Nevada NECA chapter.
After the crushing defeat in 2014, Davis helped establish a labor-management committee to cooperate on building trades legislation that would benefit both sides.
“It wasn’t just labor by itself,” Davis said, explaining the strategy he and his NECA partner employed. The two met jointly with some lawmakers and approached others one-on-one – those politicians at either end of the spectrum who’d be more receptive to arguments from business or labor, but not both
In May, Davis was among labor and industry special guests as Sisolak signed prevailing wage (AB136) and project labor agreements (SB231) back into law.
“The bills I’m signing today are a demonstration of my commitment … to ensuring that our economic recovery reaches every kitchen table in every working household in the state of Nevada,” Sisolak said.
The governor made good on his word, Davis said.
“Steve got up at his inaugural and told everybody what he was going to do – he was going to bring back prevailing wage and project labor agreements and pass collective bargaining for state workers,” Davis said. “He was adamant about it and he laid it all out in his first speech.”
Sisolak isn’t shy about pointing out how labor fights for the greater good on issues commonly demonized by the right – from collective bargaining for public employees to reviving prevailing wage.
“By requiring that workers are paid a prevailing wage on public construction projects, we’re not only supporting our working men and women by providing competitive wages, we’re also attracting the best workers to ensure a quality product as an end result,” Sisolak said at the bill-signing.
“Nowhere,” he added, “is that more important than in our children’s schools. Our kids deserve to learn and grow in a safe, well-constructed school that will last for years to come.”
Nevada’s building trades were well armed to battle for prevailing wage in the 2019 session, no matter who won last year’s elections. In February they released an 81-page report by two economists who studied the effects of the 2015 law, finding that it hadn’t cut construction costs or increased bid competition.
In fact, the rollback “harmed Nevada’s construction industry without delivering on its promises of lower costs… This policy experiment should not be repeated in Nevada or in other jurisdictions,” the researchers stated.
The assault on PLAs was similarly harmful. Sisolak said restoring them, “rights another wrong.”
“The 2015 law claimed that making it hard for unionized workers to participate in public works projects is more non-discriminatory, fair and open,” he said. “We know nothing could be further from the truth.”
In 2016, Nevada voters showed enough anti-worker lawmakers the door to return both chambers of the Statehouse to Democratic control. However, GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval still had two more years on his term.
Jim Halsey, assistant business manager and political director for Local 357, said IBEW leaders focused like a laser between elections on educating and engaging members.
“The credit goes to our members, who responded to our ask to participate, to educate themselves on the issues and to vote for labor-friendly candidates – and to phone bank and knock on doors and get other voters to the polls,” he said.
Halsey hopes members can see how different things might be without their activism and votes.
“I try to stay away from the whole Republican-Democrat thing because we interview and endorse labor-friendly candidates regardless of party,” he said. “But sometimes Republicans make it clear. We didn’t get support from them on any of our labor bills – but we didn’t need it either.”
While Republicans maneuvered to block union bills with “fiscal notes,” inflating or conjuring up costs of enacting them, the Legislature’s worker-friendly majority was strong enough to withstand the pressure.
Davis cautioned that the new laws alone won’t persuade members that their energy and effort in 2018 was worth it. “I don’t think they’ll fully connect the dots until we see the jobs that are created because of the legislation,” he said. “It all sounds good, but it doesn’t really mean money in your pocket yet.”
Meanwhile, he said, it’s critical to keep members engaged heading toward 2020, when there’s even more at stake: the state lawmakers they elect will redraw the boundaries of Nevada’s legislative districts.
“We got severely gerrymandered in 2010,” Davis said, referring to the current district maps that hurt the interests of working people and paved the way to disaster in 2014.
“I think what’s been accomplished so far is great, but we need to keep our eye on the next 12 years,” he said.