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What role will Nevada’s unions play in the election?

Tess Vigeland Feb 2, 2012

Tess Vigeland: The next battle for the GOP nomination happens on Saturday — Nevada holds its caucuses. The Silver State was hotly contested in 2008. Since then, it’s been a hotbed of the housing crisis.

As part of special Marketplace election coverage on The Real Economy, we’re looking today at one of the most important voting blocs in the state: unions. Ruben Garcia is a professor of labor law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Welcome to the program.

Ruben Garcia: Thank you.

Vigeland: What is the union landscape in Nevada? As we know, unions have been under fire in many parts of the country. What’s it like there?

Garcia: Well you have a large portion of the labor movement in the service sector, in the hospitality industry. So the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, is the dominant union in the Las Vegas area. But there’s also a significant portion of construction unions. That proportion has decreased recently with the downturn in the economy, but they still play a large role in the elections. And you also have public employees who are also active politically.

Vigeland: Well let me pick up on the construction union. Given the obvious issues with construction — particularly there in your state — how are those union members feeling this time around, as opposed to, say, 2008?

Garcia: Well I think there’s always going to be a question about whether the last four years have been good to working people. In many indicators, that has not been the case — whether it’s housing or wage stagnation. So the question really is whether priorities have been realized. Whether or not all of the hope for change that unions were looking for in the election of President Obama have come to fruition.

Vigeland: And is there any way to predict how that might go?

Garcia: Well I think it’s going to be a very close election, everyone acknowledges that. It will be very hard fought. But there’s also the idea of the alternative. If the other party is actively against those priorities that labor has and the Democrats have simply been able to overcome that opposition, then it’s still quite likely that most of the labor movement will be in the Democrats’ camp again this year. We also know that unions in any election can contribute a lot of people, mobilization. They can provide resources to get people to the polls. The hospitality workers union, the Culinary, will probably be a significant force in the election. Maybe less so, however, the construction trades — because of their loss of membership, loss of people power — that they have suffered in the recession.

Vigeland: Has the hospitality industry seen that as well, though? I know that Las Vegas proper was hit terribly in the recession. Is that coming back? Will that make a difference?

Garcia: Well they are still a significant portion of the labor movement. There are 60,000 or so members of the Culinary in the Las Vegas area. This is speaking mostly about the southern half of the state. In the northern half of the state, there are certainly other factors. But in the Las Vegas area, they’re still a significant force politically. There have been, of course, layoffs recently. But not on the scale that we’ve seen in the construction industry.

Vigeland: Ruben Garcia is a professor of labor law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Thank you so much.

Garcia: Thank you.

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