Give government workers the choice to represent themselves

This article originally appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

All workers deserve to have a voice when it comes to negotiating the terms of their employment — unfortunately, current state law strips away that opportunity from thousands of Nevada’s public servants.

For employees of local government agencies statewide, the terms of their employment are typically set by a controlling union, regardless of whether or not they are even dues-paying members.

Indeed, while state law permits workers to “opt out” of financially supporting their workplace union, those who choose to exercise this right nevertheless remain governed by the union’s inflexible contract.

It’s a system that nobody particularly supports.

Workers who opt out are disenfranchised and without a voice, and union leaders are left with the burden of negotiating on behalf of workers who refuse to financially support their efforts.

For the benefit of all parties involved, Nevada lawmakers should reverse this injustice.

A statewide policy of Workers’ Choice — giving nonunion workers the individual power to negotiate their own contracts — would ensure all employees’ voices are heard.

The problem originates from a decades-old state labor law — NRS 288.160 — which mandates that a government employer certify the union as “the exclusive bargaining agent of the local government employees” once majority support of the union has been established.

Here, the word “exclusive” is inherently anti-worker. It ensures that only union representatives — not individual employees — are allowed to negotiate with an employer on matters of pay, benefits, and workplace conditions. The effect is that non-dues-paying employees are left without a voice, prohibited from representing themselves during contract talks.

Implementing Workers’ Choice would correct this injustice, rightfully restoring the democratic voices of all workers while laying the groundwork for potentially revolutionary changes regarding how government workers are compensated.

Consider the classic case of a married couple being offered comprehensive health insurance as a fringe benefit by both of their employers — thus doubly covering both spouses and their dependents. Certainly, this redundancy offers no additional benefit. After all, a single family health plan should by itself be sufficient.

In such a case, shouldn’t either of them be permitted to negotiate a higher wage, for example, in lieu of overlapping health coverage? Or perhaps extra vacation days?

Common sense says so — and in much of the private sector such flexibility to negotiate with an employer is a natural right.

But not so in the one-size-fits-all world of “exclusive” collective bargaining agreements.

Workers’ Choice could also bring about even greater, revolutionary benefits for public-sector workers. It could be the vehicle through which public-employee pay increases — especially for high-performers.

After all, the greatest hindrance to a compensation system that rewards outstanding public servants is union hegemony. With Workers’ Choice’, educators could leverage their teaching records for higher pay during individual contract discussions.

Fortunately, the potential for this pro-worker reform seems ripe, as both sides grow increasingly frustrated with the failings of the current system.

Unions, for example, have long been critical of so-called “free riders,” referring to non-member employees who nevertheless reap the benefits of the union’s collective bargaining activities. This argument is oft-cited as the basis to repeal Nevada’s “right to work” status, which prohibits an employer from requiring that workers subsidize any union, if only partially, as a condition of employment.

But from the reverse perspective, independent employees rightly view themselves as “forced riders,” because they are compelled to accept the union’s contractual terms regardless of whether or not they are members.

As these criticisms clearly illustrate, neither side is content with the status quo.

Granting workers the choice to represent themselves would altogether eliminate the basis for this debate, simultaneously relieving employees of unwanted representation, and unions of their duty to provide services to non-members.

With the interests of both unions and independent employees in mind, let’s restore the democratic voices of Nevada’s government workers.

Let’s give them the choice to speak for themselves.