Thursday, April 2, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Carson City —
A hard hat hangs in the office of Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen.
It’s not for show.
Hansen is a plumber from a working-class family whose members have included union bricklayers and boilermakers. His hard hat is a constant reminder of his blue-collar roots. But there’s little remorse about the way the three-term assemblyman and his Republican colleagues are treating unions this session.
The GOP has more than 30 bills seeking to reform collective bargaining, prevailing wage, health benefits, workers compensation and other laws rebuked by organized labor as attacks on the middle class.
Unions dubbed one bill as armageddon.
The majority of the legislation aims at public sector unions and employees: police, teachers, firefighters and others. Others bills would hit private sector groups as well.
Hansen doesn’t always toe the party line. He broke with the GOP ranks on one controversial measure signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval that will cut wages for construction workers — union or non-union — building public schools.
But, like most in his party, he doesn’t have second thoughts about government employee unions.
“I am not sympathetic,” he said.
The tone of the bills and the legislative session has Democrats, long considered the union political ally, up in arms. The same goes for groups like the AFL-CIO, which represents more than 120 unions and 200,000 members and has long been an election season partner for the left wing in Nevada.
Democrats had some or all control of the Legislature for decades. But Republicans, in charge of both chambers for the first time since 1985, are now poised to pass their unprecedented measures and partake in a little retribution.
Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, described the mood as “toxic.”
He and other Democrats have complained about a GOP rush to pass bills and the session’s hyper-partisan atmosphere.
“I think if we are going to weaken things that have been in place, they need to be fully vetted,” he said. “I am not sure stripping an entire chapter of a law (on collective bargaining) does anyone any good.”
His comments followed news on Wednesday that Republicans switched one of their own lawmakers, Glenn Trowbridge, out of the government affairs committee into the Assembly’s judiciary committee. Trowbridge, a former public employee, had been siding with Democrats on some of the controversial union measures. He was replaced by Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, one of the GOP’s most conservative lawmakers in the Assembly.
“As someone who’s been here for seven sessions, this is the worst mood the building has ever been in,” Atkinson said. “You have a committee in this body in the middle of the session moving folks around so they can sabotage legislation and create a more difficult environment in this body.”
Wheeler said the move was made so Trowbridge, a freshman, “would have tons of experience when he goes back to his district to campaign.”
Nevada isn’t alone in its polarizing reform efforts. The state joins Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Idaho, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Florida and others that have proposed numerous reforms seeking to diminish union influence in the public sector since 2010.
Sandoval has signaled he will decide on the bills if they reach his desk.
The proposals follow nationwide Republican election victories in the last decade that echo what happened in Nevada in 2014. The efforts also stem from fiscal conservative ideologies that gained momentum as budgets deteriorated and debt soared during the last recession. Lawmakers around the country are confident that state money could be put to better use if fewer government dollars go toward collective bargaining, prevailing wage and workers’ compensation.
Republicans nationwide say the reforms will also be a magnet for businesses.
But there’s also the political element.
Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., is the poster child for GOP-led union reform. He pushed collective bargaining reforms through in 2011, rising to the top of the Republican ranks in the process.
Democrats in the state say his efforts were part of a bigger plan. Public sector union enrollment declined once Walker signed the laws into effect and less money flowed into union coffers for campaigns and other political activities, giving Democrats less muscle during elections.
Walker’s reforms “killed the unions politically” in Wisconsin, Hansen said.
“Once you’re not forcing people to pay dues to the union, they quit,” he said. “That’s the fear politically for them.”
The unions aren’t taking the efforts lightly.
The AFL-CIO has held numerous rallies and protests outside of the Legislature. It’s buying TV ads, sending door knockers to Republican districts, petitioning constituents and promising Republicans that their newfound majority won’t last after the 2016 elections.
The sight of workers wielding protest signs in their steel-toed boots, flannel shirts and jeans is common this legislative session. For many of the workers who come to express their dissent, the GOP bills will bite into their livelihood.
For the group, it’s not a complete partisan battle. About 55 percent of its members are Democrats while 23 percent are Republicans and 22 percent affiliate with other parties.
But the group’s diverse political makeup, though, seems to have little effect on Republicans this session.
Leading a rally in front of the Legislature in March, AFL-CIO executive secretary-treasurer Danny Thompson boomed as he rallied more than 100 workers.
He pointed to the building.
“We have some friends in there. They just all happen to be Democrats.”