(Michael Chamberlain/Nevada Business Coalition) – Clark County’s appeal of NBC’s lawsuit to prevent a union-favoring agreement will soon be heard in the Nevada Supreme Court. The state’s highest court will determine whether the Project Labor Agreement the County had negotiated with local trade unions on part of the Detention Center renovation unfairly favors those unions over non-union contractors and workers, as the District Court Judge had ruled.
Until the County Commission’s unsuccessful attempt to impose a PLA on all projects in 2009, there was little talk of PLA’s. With construction such a huge industry in Las Vegas for so many years, why weren’t PLA’s bigger in the past?
The push for PLA’s on government jobs is all about local trade union leaders trying to use their political might to get their people to work when construction is down and they’ve priced themselves out of the market. Furthermore, union leaders have been feeding the rank-and-file misleading promises and false hope in order to keep taking their dues money.
For years few people gave PLA’s much thought. A couple of governmental bodies, notably the Southern Nevada Water Authority and McCarran Airport, used them but they were not widespread.
The unions had plenty of work. Construction work on the Strip, whose casinos were built almost entirely with union labor, was booming. There was ample work, both union and non-union, to go around.
In addition, many taxpayers weren’t overly concerned with the cost of public projects. Few paid attention because they were doing well themselves.
Then it all came crashing down. First to go was the housing market, but that didn’t affect the unions because this area of the construction industry is even more non-union than casino construction is union. So the unions were still fat and happy.
But then the carnage reached the commercial sector. All of the Strip projects were either completed or, like Echelon and Fountainbleu, halted in midstream. Eventually about all that remained for the unions was CityCenter.
So the unions had to scramble. There was little chance of them making a dent in the private commercial market. Over the years they’d made themselves uncompetitive on most projects with their inflated wage and benefit packages and insane work rules. (Ever hear the stories about ridiculous things like having to wait for an electrician to change a light bulb? Most of them contain far more fact than fiction.)
Even some union contractors were second-guessing their decision to sign on. Some were refusing to renew their agreements or looking for ways to get around them.
The unions’ only hope remaining was to use their political influence to force contractors to use union workers on public works projects. In 2009, a few months after unions spent more than $200,000 on just the four winning candidates in Clark County Commission races, the Commission took up a proposal to impose a PLA on every County construction project.
Only through the action of groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors, which were able to quickly mobilize a strong showing of opposition, was this attempt to impose the will of unions on the public stopped.
But that didn’t stop the unions, or their favorite politicians. Rather than a blanket PLA, they’ve been working on imposing PLA’s on individual projects, with the same ultimate effect.
The union leaders need to do this to justify the false hope they’re feeding their members. While the out-of-work lists at the union halls have been growing, we’ve been told that union leaders have been telling members to hang tough and that more work is just around the corner.
Except that it’s not. For those union members whose leaders won’t tell them the truth, we will. Most of the union members who are currently out of work will never have steady construction work in Las Vegas again.
Certainly things will get better than they are now. But there are now 100,000 fewer construction jobs than at the height of the boom. Las Vegas may never be at the point where it will need that many construction workers again, definitely not until many, many, many years in the future.
Why would the union leaders mislead their members? In the immortal words of Gov. William J. LePetomane in Blazing Saddles, “We have to protect our phony baloney jobs here, gentlemen!”
They need those members here to keep paying dues, and they’re going to continue to fill them full of false hope to get them to keep paying up. Meanwhile, they are doing serious harm to those members and their families. They are keeping them from leaving for some place in which they may be able to find work in their chosen trade or from looking for work in an industry in which they may be able to make a living.
The sudden push for PLA’s on government projects in the last few years is an effort by unions to try to generate more work for their members, whom they’ve been filling with false hope to keep them around and paying dues while there is little work.
(Michael Chamberlain is Executive Director of Nevada Business Coalition.)