BUSINESS & LABOR
Las Vegas Laborers Eye Housing as Hotel Work Winds Down
By Tony Illia in Las Vegas
The Aladdin hotel's recent opening signals the end of a long building boom on the Las Vegas Strip. Now, the leaders of laborers Local 872 say they want to tap into the area's still-growing homebuilding sector, an area mostly untouched by the union so far. The local has launched a new residential division and hopes it will double the total membership, now at 3,700.
"The future is residential," says Tony Valdez, Local 872's secretary-treasurer.
The laborers' homebuilding program is an interesting test case of how a craft union adjusts when a sizzling market cools down. Las Vegas has one of the country's fastest growing populations. The area finished 1999 with 21,216 new home sales, a 5% increase from the previous year. According to Dennis Smith, president of Home Builders Research Inc., new contract sales will continue to boom if interest rates remain below 9%.
With nine out of 10 homebuilders operating nonunion, says Valdez, starting laborers can only hope to earn $11.70 to $15.00 per hour, depending upon the job, plus pension, health care and benefits. That's about 70% of the starting pay on a big hotel job. "We'd be crazy to think that [homebuilders] would pay the same wages as the work occurring on the Strip," says Valdez.
Jurisdictional disputes with other building trades unions are likely because the complexity and overlapping sections of the current master labor agreement leave broad gray areas, says Jack Schaefer, president of the Nevada Contractors Association.
For instance, the laborers want to place the conduit for electrical wiring, which could conflict with electrical workers union Local 357. And running backhoes for landscaping could create a problem with Local 12 of the operating engineers. Territorial issues also could arise if laborers work at ready-mix delivery truck chutes.
Homebuilders speculate that the slowdown on the Strip is behind the union's new interest in housing. "Why is this needed?" questions Irene Porter, executive director of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association. "The laborers want it because they have 1,800 people sitting at the [union] hall out of work," she claims. The union says its members are busy and working.
Still, Local 872 has launched an aggressive recruitment campaign and says it already has a dozen contracts with utility and pool contractors. "Sure, some [contractors] are nervous about getting into this," says business agent John Seaton. "It takes time to build a relationship."