Workers make their case

A day at the legislature for wage earners

Workers gathered in front of the legislative building in Carson City, and later spread out inside the building to do their own lobbying.

Workers gathered in front of the legislative building in Carson City, and later spread out inside the building to do their own lobbying.

Photo By Dennis Myers

“Because we all need jobs and benefits and we all need a future,” Bonnie Whitney said, explaining why she traveled to the state capital from Las Vegas to join a protest in front of the Nevada Legislature. She’s a member of Laborers Union 872 in Las Vegas.

She was one of many workers who showed up for a day of making their presence known. They are unhappy with what has been happening at the Nevada Legislature, and in politics across the nation. The labor-bashing of Republicans and the defensiveness of Democrats have little value to them. Business capital is treated by politicians as a contributor to economic growth while wages are treated as a drag on the economy.

A lot of these workers have experience working on projects of private contractors that are funded by state government, such as highway construction.

Their picket signs bore slogans that have become familiar during the recession: “Stop blaming the victim,” “Stop balancing the budget on our backs,” “Protect Nevada’s construction workers,” “Prevailing wage puts Nevadans to work,” “Local jobs for local workers,” “There is no recovery until we work,” “Stop the war on workers,” “Nevada public works board sucks.”

Many of the union workers could not spell out what was at stake for them at the Nevada Legislature—they trust their leaders to handle those details. But they understand when they are being attacked and the importance of being on hand in person.

Assemblymember Richard “Skip” Daly, himself a union leader, said non-union workers take for granted that things they enjoy on the job will always be there, but in fact those things can be removed from the workplace.

“You have to be involved in politics because everything we have we take for granted, from the eight-hour day to the 40-hour week, prevailing wage, all those things were all written in the law [as] public policy, and they can all be taken away at the stroke of the pen by politicians,” he said. “So it’s absolutely important. … Forty-hour week is not granted by God. It’s a law.”

Daly said among the things that are under threat in the Nevada Legislature are the eight-hour day, prevailing wages, collective bargaining and pension programs. They are being treated as “potential bargaining chips in exchange for revenues.”

Assemblymember Crescent Hardy of Mesquite has introduced legislation to end the eight-hour day on public works projects.

The contribution that workers make is often overlooked, and some economists portray worker pay and benefits as hampering growth. The minimum wage is inevitably described as causing business closures or layoffs, though economist David Card’s work on the minimum wage has found it has no such effect, a conclusion now accepted by most economists.

Legislators who encourage policies that hold down wages to benefit businesses may well be causing economic decline and a drain in capital from Nevada. Worker spending tends to benefit the Nevada economy, while business expenditures go heavily out of state, economist Glen Atkinson said. In addition, the decline of worker wages has caused stagnation.

Bonnie Whitney picks up the picket sign she used during the demonstration at the Legislature.

Photo By DENNIS MYERS

“Walk through the malls and look how many of the stores in the mall are local stores as opposed to out-of-state corporations,” he said. “That money is not staying here. … This country was doing well when we had decent wages from mass production, strong production and affluent workers. That appeared from World War II to 1973.”

The state’s reputation as a low-wage mecca is no aid to Nevada’s prosperity, he said.

“Businesses that don’t pay decent wages and decent benefits are a burden on the state,” Atkinson said. “What drives up our Medicaid costs? What drives up our affordable housing costs? Look at those people living in those weekly motels, living off those low wages, and look at what they’re doing to our society, beyond just the economy.”

Republicans in the Nevada Legislature have demanded that Democrats agree to change prevailing wage laws before they will agree to extend taxes that are scheduled to expire. Prevailing wages for public works projects are determined by the state labor commissioner based on county surveys and tend to keep wages up.

“If you have very low wages, you have very low spending” at local businesses, Atkinson said. “That kind of income is more likely to be spent in the state than going out.”

Among public sector employees, the governor and most legislators are at loggerheads, with Gov. Brian Sandoval calling for 5 percent pay cuts and Democratic legislators wanting 2.5 percent. It’s a signal of how bad things are that the two sides are arguing not over how to grow the economy but how much to cut wages.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer of Washoe County recently told the Associated Press, “The way you need to balance a budget that’s 80 percent payroll is to cut payroll, whether in the public or private sector.”

And it is true that some economists do not regard public sector payrolls as producing the same growth as private business payrolls, though not all agree with that.

Nevada is also becoming less able to compete for workers. The state is losing skilled workers it needs as they leave the state and its low wages in a recession, hampering the state’s ability to compete in economic development. The state tends to be oriented to trying to lure businesses. Workers seldom appear on its radar screen.

One of the few industries that is thriving in Nevada right now is mining, and mining companies tend to be located not only out of the state but out of the country, causing a flight of the money made in the state from the state.

In 2008, Nevada was ranked 17th in the nation for per capita income at $41,182. Even that figure was likely inflated because Nevada is a tax-haven state for millionaires who have tax residences in Nevada but actually live elsewhere. And those distorted figures make it seem that life for the state’s workers is better than it is.

Little wonder that perhaps 300 workers attended the day at the Legislature.

“It’s worth it, man,” Bonnie Whitney said of the miles from Las Vegas. “We’re here to make a statement.”