By Rita Weisshaar
I never really understood the consequences of not voting, or voting for the wrong state legislators. But my recent experience at the state legislature opened my eyes. Our action, or inaction, in the political realm affects the working families of Nevada, as well as our children and grandchildren.
Voter turnout was low in Nevada’s last election, just 45% as compared to the last presidential election in 2012 when it was 80%. The result was to put Republicans in control of both the Nevada Assembly and Senate, giving them the votes to easily pass many bills.
Some legislators came prepared to attack the middle class families of Nevada—our wages, benefits and retirement. There were attacks on public employees’ pensions and collective bargaining rights, and also on schools.
One bill would give school districts and the higher education system a shorter time frame to raise funds to build and repair schools. It would also eliminate prevailing wages to be paid on construction and repair projects. Those for the bill were given unlimited time to give their testimony. Those opposed were given 3 minutes only, and many were not allowed to speak at all. This bill was ramrodded through both houses and signed by Governor Brian Sandoval on March 6.
Then the flood was on and there were additional bills introduced in both houses that would affect workers in both the public and private sectors in negative ways.
SB 183 was nicknamed the “Christmas” bill because there were so many “presents” for anti-labor forces. The bill would prohibit deducting union dues from local government employees’ paychecks. It would
exclude certain employees from the bargaining unit, stop “evergreen” clauses in certain agreements, and eliminate arbitration for firefighters, police officers, teachers and educational support personnel when there is an impasse in bargaining.
Probably most destructive of all was SB 193, a bill that would destroy daily overtime protections, requiring overtime premiums only after 40 hours of work in a week.
I was asked to work on a statewide campaign organized by the AFL-CIO to protect working families. The campaign included walking the districts of legislators who sponsored these bills, holding rallies, and running radio and TV spots.
During the walks each Saturday we circulated “petition postcards” to be delivered to legislators. Each week, from February to the end of May, there were 40 to 100 volunteers from many different unions, and from the Nevada Alliance for Retired Americans. In April, we were joined by additional paid walkers. In northern Nevada IBEW 1245 sponsored four walkers: Vicki Borst, Jesse Hoch, Judy Hoch and Ben Weisshaar. CWA and the AFL-CIO also sponsored paid walkers.
All walkers both volunteer and paid covered districts in Reno, Sparks, Carson City, Fallon, Elko and Ely. They were collecting hundreds of signed petition cards on each walk. At the same time unions and other concerned groups gathered cards from their members and friends. The number of cards collected totaled over 16,000. Apparently legislators and their staffs were very disturbed when the labor lobbyists delivered stacks of cards to their offices on numerous occasions.
I was trained to help organize the events , process the walk data, and get petition cards ready for delivery.
We had two major rallies in front of the legislature. After the speakers were done, we marched over to Governor Sandoval’s office and used loud chants to urge him to stop these bills. We attracted a lot of attention. You could see people on every floor of the Legislature building peering out the windows and taking photos. At the last rally on April 23, there were 600 or more in attendance in Carson City and an equal number in Las Vegas.
The Legislature ended at midnight on June 1. I believe our campaign made an impact and was successful. Of the 35 bills that would impact workers in some way, only 10 passed. One of these was SB 158, which will limit the coverage for industrial insurance claims of occupational related diseases for police officers and firefighters to those diagnosed while the person is still actively employed.
SB 183, the “Christmas” bill, did not reach the governor’s desk. Nor did several other truly bad bills. But one of the worst—the bill that would gut the 8-hour day—looked impossible to stop. It had passed both houses, with amendments. It looked like thousands of Nevada workers would be the losers. But then a miracle occurred.
On the last day of the session, late in the evening, Gov. Sandoval sent word that if SB 193 came to him, he would veto it. The bill died in the Assembly that night. I don’t know how Gov. Sandoval made his decision. Perhaps he did it on principle. Perhaps he heard about our petition cards being delivered to his party members. Or maybe he did listen to us as we stood with our brothers and sisters chanting outside his office to stop the attacks on the working families in Nevada.
It was through hard work and dedication that working people prevented most of these bills from becoming laws in our state. We got lucky this time. To prevent these attacks in the future, all of us need to take seriously our responsibility as citizens to vote, and we need to be very careful about who we elect to office.