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The power of a union: Nevada state worker mobilization makes the difference

AFSCME Local 4041 members at a rally to demand a say in budget changes. Photo credit: Cyndy Hernandez
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CARSON CITY, Nev. – Over the past few weeks, as the Nevada state government grappled over how to cover a $1.2 billion dollar budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, members of AFSCME Local 4041 mobilized to take action against budget cuts that asked them to make the same sacrifices they made during the Great Recession a decade ago – sacrifices they are still recovering from.

In mid-June, Gov. Steve Sisolak made a proposal that included once-a-month furloughs, amounting to a 4.6% annual pay cut for workers, and a year of merit pay freezes for state employees. Additionally, 50 state employees would have been laid off. Local 4041 members denounced the plan and demanded that the governor negotiate with them over these proposed changes to their working conditions. 

AFSCME members won collective bargaining rights for state employees in 2019 and were eager to take this opportunity to exercise their right to negotiate over changes to their working conditions.

After the governor refused to bargain over his proposed changes to the 2021 budget, Local 4041 filed an unfair labor practice. 

“It took us years to win our right to collectively bargaining, and we have to fight to defend them. The governor must honor this right and initially he didn’t. So, members quickly mobilized to demand we have a say in any changes to the budget and our working conditions,” said Harry Schiffman, president of Local 4041 and an electrician at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

In late June, the local held concurrent rallies in Las Vegas and Carson City, with hundreds more joining to watch online, to demand that they be included in the budget process. Workers also circulated a petition and called the governor’s office to demand he talk to them.  

On July 8, the legislature convened a special session to make amendments to the fiscal year 2021 budget that began on July 1. Lawmakers heard the stories of state employees. During the Great Recession, some had lost their homes. Some had applied for financial assistance through the same program they had had helped other Nevadans navigate. Legislators then stood up for state employees and vowed to look for another way.

“By sharing how these cuts would affect our ability to provide for our families and our ability to continue to provide the services our communities need during this pandemic, we were able to change the conversation about how much state employees can take in cuts, having just lived through devastating cuts for the last 12 years,” said Schiffman.  

Local 4041 leaders were ultimately able to negotiate with the governor’s office.  As a result, furlough days were reduced from 12 days to six starting in 2021, the merit pay increase was preserved and 28 layoffs were prevented.

“We thank the governor for honoring our rights as workers under the collective bargaining law; as well as the legislature, particularly Speaker Jason Frierson, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, Chairwoman Maggie Carlton, Chairwoman Joyce Woodhouse and Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui. Their input was vital in crafting a solution that became the basis of our agreement with the governor,” said Schiffman. 

On July 19, both chambers of the Nevada State Legislature passed an amended FY 2021 budget. And on July 20, Sisolak signed the amended budget into law. 

“I want to mention how important it is that we did not balance our budget on the backs of state employees, who time after time have been asked to sacrifice when our economic conditions are less than ideal in this state,” state Sen. Yvanna Cancela said during one of the Senate floor sessions.

“The inclusion of state workers in budget discussions and the agreement we made with the governor is historic – it’s the first time we have had a real say in changes to our working conditions and the first time we’ve had a written agreement over these changes. This sets us up for our first ever contract negotiations later this year,” said Schiffman. 

For Local 4041 members, the budget fight proves that the actions workers take away from the bargaining table are just as important as face-to-face negotiations. 

“State employees came together to fight for our right to be heard and to fight back against another round of cuts to our livelihood. This is what being a union is all about,” said Schiffman.

Local 4041 will continue to advocate for real solutions to address the financial impact of COVID-19. This includes changes to lush subsidies, deductions and tax breaks for corporations to ensure they pay their fair share of taxes. And it includes pushing the U.S. Senate to follow the lead of the House of Representatives and pass $1 trillion in flexible federal aid to states, cities and towns.

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