Labor unions work to combat negative stereotypes

Darren Enns, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council, speaks during the Nevada State AFL-CIO convention at the Excalibur Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013.

2013 Nevada State AFL-CIO convention

Arturo Mendoza, center, a field campaign director, speaks to union members during the Nevada State AFL-CIO convention at the Excalibur Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Marielle “Apple” Thorne rattles off the stereotypes with ease: Unions seem greedy; they defend bad workers; their workers make too much money.

“The whole public image of unions isn’t great right now,” said Thorne, business agent with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 720, in Las Vegas. “We’re looking for more ways to change our brand and image.”

This week, she’s one of many union workers meeting for the annual Nevada State AFL-CIO convention at the Excalibur, where labor representatives are talking about strengthening their organizations in a time of declining memberships and hard economic conditions.

“Labor is at a bit of a crossroads,” said Anthony DeAngelo, spokesman for the Nevada AFL-CIO. “Our members are struggling to come back from the recession and we are as well.”

In order to grow, union representatives say they’re looking at attracting a younger, more diverse set of workers.

Like the workforce in general, union workers today are an aging cohort whose ranks will only continue to shrink if they don’t add younger workers. But that’s a goal more than a reality; state legislators addressing the crowd at the Excalibur spoke mostly to an older audience.

Thorne, 32, is among the younger members.

She said unions do good work in the community, serve as advocates for workers and help workers gain access to a middle-income life.

But that message doesn’t always get through, she said.

Instead, union workers say they encounter ignorance or outright hostility.

Aaron Jones, 27, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, sarcastically declares that he is a “union thug.”

“I’m also the guy who’s doing maintenance for the 70-year-old woman down the street,” he said.

Meanwhile, that community-minded brand runs up against complaints that public sector unions benefit at the expense of other working taxpayers and that unions serve as a conduit solely to pay executive-level salaries to union brass and members.

Union representatives said they’re trying to broaden their appeal beyond such tactics that “divide and conquer” middle-class workers, Jones said.

To achieve such ends, unions have increasingly used partnerships when worker interests align with those of other groups.

At the Nevada Legislature, union representatives linked arms with NV Energy and environmental groups like the Sierra Club in advocating for a bill that would shut down coal plants in Nevada and mandate new construction that they said would also employ union labor.

Nationally, the AFL-CIO has endorsed a U.S. Senate plan to overhaul the country’s immigration system by spending more on border enforcement and providing a path to citizenship for people illegally in the country.

“That helps all workers because if you have 11 million people who businesses feel free to pay substandard wages and discriminate against, that does affect all workers,” DeAngelo said.

Locally, the state AFL-CIO hopes to appear frequently in the press and in public talking about issues on the 2014 ballot. One of those is the 2 percent business margins tax, which the state teachers’ union has dubbed the Education Initiative.

It’s a cause that might not seem directly tied to the well-being of union workers, but union representatives say the hundreds of millions of dollars the tax would bring in directly influences the quality of life of workers and their families.

“What you see is labor understanding that we have to be willing to adapt and evolve and do what it takes to help our members,” DeAngelo said.

Despite dips in membership during the recession, the labor movement in Las Vegas still has political clout; the halls of the AFL-CIO conference at the Excalibur were populated with many of same lobbyists who haunt the halls of the state Legislature.

Democrats in elected office also shuffled into the conference and broadcast their pro-union remarks via Twitter.

Danny Thompson, director of the Nevada State AFL-CIO, says Las Vegas is certainly a union town.

The percentage of unionized workers in the workforce has declined for decades, but Nevada is the undisputed No. 1 union state in the Mountain West with unions representing 16.4 percent of its workforce.

Unions represents less than 10 percent of workers in other Mountain West states.

But DeAngelo said such statistics have limited value.

“Every worker wants good wages and good benefits,” he said. “We want to see our non-union brothers and sisters have access to these things ... There’s no prefix to ‘worker.’ It’s regardless of union or non-union, private or public sector.”