Union bosses recently tried to hold emergency-response services hostage in Clark County. Service Employees International Union Local 1107 – the union representing a portion of the county's emergency medical response workers – recently threatened to strike because the county's contract service provider refused to negotiate with unauthorized representatives.
When SEIU's previous collective bargaining agreement expired last month, SEIU declined to negotiate directly with American Medical Response, the service provider under contract with the county. SEIU instead co-opted another labor organization, the International Organization of EMTs and Paramedics (IAEP) Local 5000, to negotiate on behalf of SEIU's members. SEIU chose to send IAEP to the bargaining table because IAEP has significant experience in dealing directly with American Medical Response in other counties and municipalities across the country.
In the past year, IAEP chapters have used aggressive tactics in several labor negotiations with AMR that have resulted in massive salary increases. In April, about 300 AMR workers in Los Angeles County went on strike – resulting in a shortage of emergency medical services and a clear threat to public safety. By flexing its muscle, IAEP was able to coerce AMR into conceding 20 percent pay raises within three days. In September, IAEP planned a strike for EMS workers in Santa Barbara County. To avert that strike at the last minute, AMR was forced to concede to 13 percent pay raises and greater benefits.
While IAEP has been successful with aggressive labor tactics such as these, there should be no illusions about who, in each case, the losers have been. It has not been AMR. It has been the taxpayers of the respective counties. AMR is simply a contract service provider. When AMR's labor costs increase, this increase is passed on to the county with whom it contracts.
Further, there should be no illusions about who the beneficiaries have been. While AMR workers have received higher pay and benefits at the expense of taxpayers, this has also meant greater dues collections controlled by the union bosses.
When such bosses systematically threaten to withhold vital services from local taxpayers unless the taxpayers reward them with more money, this is extortion and unethical at best.
In the case of Clark County, IAEP did not even have legal authority to negotiate on behalf of AMR workers. While about 41 percent of Clark County AMR workers belong to SEIU, none are actually members of IAEP. On these grounds, AMR refused to recognize IAEP as the legal representative of Clark County workers and filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. As a result, IAEP conceded the illegality of its actions by relinquishing its claims of representation and SEIU withdrew notice of intent to strike.
If a strike had begun on November 28 as planned, Clark County and the City of Las Vegas would have had to compensate for the loss of emergency medical services by making more units available from their fire departments. However, on a major holiday weekend there would likely have been fewer units available to respond to the increased workload. It appears that the choosing of this date was no accident. It simply underscores the predatory approach that the union has taken toward taxpayers.
Taxpayers in Clark County and elsewhere in Nevada should not be exposed to this type of manipulation by union leaders. In light of this fiasco, policymakers should take necessary steps to limit the power that union leaders can exert over taxpayers.
Unions generally derive their power from the government's monopoly status over the services union workers provide. Consumers in private markets rarely are forced to pay for this type of behavior because open competition erodes the power of union leaders. Hence, the best way to protect taxpayers is to expose unions to greater competition. This should be done by soliciting open bids for the provision of public services. Services such as fire protection, road maintenance and construction, water and sewer service, health care, and emergency response can and should be open to competition.
In cases such as the one involving AMR, already a private contractor, local governments should solicit new bids as such contractors approach the end of any collective bargaining agreement. This would eliminate the stranglehold that union bosses have over taxpayers during labor negotiations.
Failure to establish greater competition now will most likely lead to further victimizing entanglements with predatory union bosses in the near future. When taxpayers are facing higher unemployment and declining incomes they should not be on the hook for unscrupulous union bigwigs.
Geoffrey Lawrence is fiscal policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.