Just as Nevada is the driest state in the nation, making it hard or impossible for some types of vegetation to grow, it also offers one of the most hostile environments for unionized state workers.
Nevada has been a so-called “right-to-work” state for more than 60 years, leaving union members to cope with the problem of free riders who benefit from the union’s work while draining its resources. But there’s an added element in the hostile environment for state workers – unlike their counterparts at the county and local level, they don’t have the right to negotiate together. Anti-worker politicians have consistently denied them that freedom for decades.
Despite these challenges, members of AFSCME Local 4041 secured important victories in this year’s legislative session. After helping elect pro-worker legislators in last year’s elections, AFSCME members worked hard to defend their freedoms. They won pay raises that are more than double any pay increases in the last decade – 3 percent in each of the next two fiscal years. They also saved 17 jobs from being outsourced to the private sector and won additional funding for their health care benefits so premiums will stay the same.
“In no way are we jumping up and down, because some of our members have given up so much over the last ten years,” said AFSCME Local 4041 Pres. Harry Schiffman. “It’s a tepid victory. But it’s a step in the right direction. We were very proactive in this session, and it sets us up going into the next session. We know that nobody is going to give us anything. If you want something, you’re going to have to go and fight for it. Especially in this state.”
Members of AFSCME Local 4041 are classified state employees who provide pretty much any service offered by the Nevada government. They work in the state’s prisons, DMV offices, community colleges, mental health facilities and more. They serve with pride 24/7, and they never quit improving their communities.
The wage raises achieved this year did nothing more than offset prior cost increases to the workers’ health and retirement plans. After the recession that began ten years ago, the state balanced its budget on the backs of its public employees, who were forced to give up cost-of-living adjustments (COLA), experienced furloughs, saw increases to their health insurance premiums as well as cuts to their retirement security.
“We lost anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of our pay and benefits,” Schiffman said. “We had state workers who had to get on public assistance.”
Their victory this year doesn’t make up for what they’ve sacrificed. But it is evidence that even under the toughest of circumstances, AFSCME members can successfully join together to fight for their freedoms – the freedom to earn fair pay and secure benefits, have a voice on the job and be able to provide the best public services to Nevada’s residents.
“Being a union member is very important. It’s the only way to have a voice,” Schiffman said. “It’s the only way to build yourself up, and build your family up, in a right-to-work state where you don’t have collective bargaining rights. If you’re not a union member, who’s going to speak out for you? If not for our local, who would go to the legislature and let them know about the problems we’re having. Only as a union do you have that power.”
He said AFSCME Local 4041 will continue to fight for future victories, including the right to negotiate together.
“There’s nothing more American than negotiating,” Schiffman said. “Everybody is allowed to do it—CEOs and companies, they negotiate their contracts. I don’t know why it seems to be so bad or unthinkable that workers should have the same right.”