When it comes to union organizing, what happens in Vegas rarely stays in Vegas. In the right-to-work state of Nevada, the rules have long been against workers seeking a change in representation. However, with the right amount of persistence, patience and flex of collective muscle, workers have the power to prevail.
Such was the case in February 2015, when what happened in Vegas sent shockwaves through the Silver State. After a hard-fought 13-year campaign for representation from Local 14, support workers at the Clark County School District (CCSD) finally overturned Nevada’s unfair election rules and, in turn, changed the game for all public sector employees. No longer would they have to overcome undemocratic hurdles.
The final chapter that has since unfolded—eight momentous months of rock-em, sock-em organizing—is finally coming to a close. The workers are finally Teamsters.
It was hard to tell when the work day began and when it ended for school workers. Several hours had passed since the last school bell rang in Clark County, and yet, the school day was still far from over at one of the nation’s largest school districts.
It was late Thursday evening, less than 36 hours before the ballot count, and Jay Witecki, a leading member of the organizing committee and longtime member of the skilled trades night crew, invited organizers for one last visit before Saturday’s ballot count.
When asked what it takes to keep the nation’s fifth largest school district up and running, he does not hesitate: “A small army.”
It will not be the first, nor the last, military reference used by Witecki that evening. Like many on the organizing committee, he is a veteran, with more than 20 years under his belt repairing CCSD schools and facilities, and more than a decade of fighting for Teamster representation.
He and his co-workers are part of a shadow army of overnight staffers, clocking in once the teachers and students have left and working into the wee hours making repairs at more than 300 schools and facilities. Tonight, the mission is to paint the interior of an empty elementary school that, according to the crew, has long been overdue for a new coat. It is the type of behind-the-scenes action that defines the role of support staff at CCSD. The men and women who operate behind-the-scenes are more than supporting players, as their name may suggest. They are essential.
There’s no single blueprint for how to successfully operate a huge school district. But if the challenges have any correlation to size, it’s little wonder the Clark County School District is struggling to find a structure that works.
With more than 310,000 students and 40,000 employees, it is not only the state’s largest school district, it is also the state’s largest employer.
The night crew enjoys the work, but they have been frustrated about the job itself. The hours are by no means ideal. They have also been understaffed, underpaid and up against the clock.
“We need more boots on the ground,” Witecki said. “Now we’re understaffed because they’re over budget.”
The support staff have not gotten a raise for more than six years, plus there have been ongoing pay cuts and rising health care costs. For Witecki, however, it is the lack of seniority that irks him most.
“I used to belong to Local 631, so I know what having a Teamster contract will mean for support staff,” Witecki said.
A Better Tomorrow
In a back corner of Local 14, there is a trio of rooms, wall-papered from floor to ceiling, in a collage of printed Excel spreadsheets—11,238 rows devoted to 11,238 employees of the Clark County School District. It tells of their epic organizing story, checkmarks of past and present support for Teamster representation. The majority have checks in the right columns.
“This tells us how they voted last election,” said Local 14 Secretary-Treasurer Larry Griffith, pointing to a middle column. “This is who we have confirmed voted this election, and this tells us who has signed up for membership. We’ve already received more than 3,000 applications.”
Within the labor movement, organizing is the cause within the cause.
“The best organizers are the workers themselves,” Griffith said. If anyone would know, it is Griffith. Before becoming a union leader, he was a union organizer. He has many war stories from his time in the field, but never one like this.
“The outcome depends on the will of the workers. At every step of this organizing campaign, it has been the workers emphasizing the needs of the unit and spreading the message. They are the ones who will lead the fight for justice.” Griffith said. “The union can only guide them to understand and how far they take the fight is up to them.”
Organizers could sense it, workers could feel it: the support swelling, the enthusiasm mounting, the committee clicking in lockstep. After 13 frustrating years, two controversial elections, nearly half-a-dozen legal battles and too many concessions to count, their time had finally come.
Joint Council 42’s semi-truck had been stationed in Las Vegas for months, ready at a moment’s notice to rally workers during the campaign.
Nestled high above the valley and covering the entire northwest region, the Wallace Yard looks almost fortress-like; the fleet looks like a school bus armada high above the valley. Ernie Ixtlahuac is their veteran. He and wife Fran, just one of many husband-and-wife teams employed by CCSD, have long been holding down the fort.
As Ixtlahuac reflects on the significance of the representation vote, he is reminded that it not only marks the beginning of a new chapter, it also marks eight months to the day since their last election, when Local 14 won the election with 71 percent of the vote to join the Teamsters, but not the 50 percent plus 1 of the unit required for certification by the super majority rule that had been invoked.
“That marked the beginning of the end. It was the turning point,” said Ixtlahuac. “From then on, the momentum grew.”
The week after the election, he and Fran, along with nearly 40 of his fellow support staff workers, took their case to the Nevada Employee-Management Relations Board demanding a fair vote. After voicing the need for a democratic vote, the board agreed: a new, simple majority election would take place in the fall.
“We changed the rules, and in doing so, we changed the game,” Ixtlahuac said.
Hungry for Change
The caravan arrived at noon to visit with workers at the aptly-named Central Kitchen, the headquarters of all things cafeteria in Clark County, greeted by a smiling food services worker, Arlete Monzon, a 28-year-old single mother of three and another key player in the organizing effort.
Concessions hit Monzon harder than most. Pay cuts have a face to her—three boys who would have to rely on luck and prayer when it comes to their health and well-being. She had a lot at stake in the election for Teamster representation.
“I’m not the only one. Most of my coworkers are young and Hispanic. We live in these neighborhoods, we also scrape to get by,” Monzon said. “We came to America here and we are treated even worse.”
After Moniz went back inside, truck driver Pat Murphy rolled in to pick up his next food delivery. As the unit’s most far-reaching delivery man, the Detroit native has long been a crucial part of the organizing committee’s communications strategy. Like Witecki, he has also proven to be a powerful voice when it comes to explaining the benefits of real union representation.
“I come from a union family—third generation UAW,” said the former autoworker. “Three generations at each of the big three.”
Murphy arrived in Las Vegas nearly six years ago, back when the fight for Teamster representation was a contentious legal battle.
“I was a supporter from the start, but I knew it was going to be an uphill battle. They had already voted in 2006, and they were still fighting.”
In 2010, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled another election take place, but still a super-majority was required. By the time news of their new election was announced in 2014, the campaign was already out educating voters on what was needed—and why every voted mattered.
Informing a unit of more than 11,000 is no easy feat, explained Murphy. “There was some initial confusion following the announcement of a third election. I just told them, it’s because we changed the rules. Now it’s a fair vote, and we’re going to win big.”
For Carlos Pinto, a long-serving member of the worker-led organizing committee, the campaign slogan—“This is our Year!”—could not have been more apropos.
“Finally” has been the buzzword throughout the voting period. As the countdown to voting grew closer, it seemed every worker had sprinkled it into conversation.
Like many Clark County families, the Pintos spend much of their time devoted to the school district. Their lives revolve around it, and their livelihood depends on it: Carlos has close to two decades under his belt as head custodian; his wife, Lisa, is a teacher for the district; and their children are both students. His in-laws, however, were both Teamsters.
“It allowed them to live a good life, the American dream. They were able to provide for their family, and give my wife a comfortable childhood. They were able to retire comfortably and securely,” Carlos Pinto said.
But security has never been a sure thing at CCSD. With pay cuts and rising health costs, both life and work at the school district has been anything but the American dream. Like many longtime supporters, Pinto dispensed his “finally!” with inflection, stretching it out as long as possible, reveling in the glory of finally being able to say it with confidence: “Finally, tomorrow, I will be able to give my family that same protection. We will be a Teamster family.”
Viva Local 14
When the results were announced, the workers gathered in the Cashman Center exploded with emotion as the entire committee raced out of the vote count and jumped and hollered and cried with delight.
Workers embraced for hugs and high fives. Murphy and Carlos Pinto’s faces were glued with wide smiles; the trio of bus drivers cried, so did Monez, whose mascara was once again running down her cheeks. This time, she said, they are “happy tears.”
“You did this! What happened here in Vegas, was because of you the workers of CCSD,” said Larry Griffith, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 14.
After more than a decade of fighting, Griffith could finally, officially, undeniably, without any hesitation of reprisal, welcome the school workers to the Teamster Union.
“It is with great pride we welcome CCSD support staff to the Teamsters Union. Congratulations, you’re FINALLY Teamsters!” exclaimed Griffith as the room reached its loudest yet, and a new singsong chant drowned out any chance for Griffith to finish his remarks.
A new refrain broke out: “Teamsters! Teamsters, Teamsters!”
As always, they were in unison.
San Bernardino County Now TEAMSTER STRONG
Public Employees Approve First Contract
Public employees working for one of California’s largest counties, San Bernardino, voted to become members of the Teamsters in 2015, establishing Local 1932, and ratified their first contract in November. The local represents employees working at hospitals, in public works and public health services departments, police departments and in dozens of other public positions throughout the county.
The four-year agreement calls for immediate increases to every member’s wages, and it includes a schedule of further increases throughout the life of the contract.
In total, all members will receive at least a 7-percent raise in wages over the contract’s term. Additionally, there are incentives and differential payments offered for various credentials and training that are part of the jobs in the county. Because San Bernardino is so vast, there are many job classifications, including diverse professions such as accountants, motor fleet mechanics, mental health specialists and auditors.
“This agreement has many positive parts to it, chief among them are the increases in wages which employees will see very quickly,” said Randy Korgan, chief negotiator for Local 1932. “During the negotiations, which were challenging, we kept long-term goals in mind and we were successful in reaching an agreement that our members endorsed.”
When the county employees voted last year to become members of the Teamsters, it was clear that the union had the resources, expertise and clout to negotiate the strongest contracts possible. The union had already been successful representing public employees across the country, including those employed in cities, towns, counties and public universities, such as the University of California system, Penn State and the University of Minnesota.
“With our strong track record, we were confident that we could assist in negotiating a strong first agreement and I am proud to say that this is exactly what occurred,” said Michael Filler, Director of the Teamsters Public Services Division.
“I voted yes because this is a good contract,” said Peter Lugo, a member working at the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. “Teamsters are looking out for my future. I’m proud to be a Teamster!”