The teacher union civil war shows the need for more worker freedom in Nevada

Michael Schaus

The union infighting across Nevada and especially in Clark County shows a real need for policy changes that empower workers, not union bosses.

Last month, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) voted to separate from its parent union, the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA).

The decision was made, according to CCEA, because the state union regularly fails to represent teachers’ interests adequately. That’s an exceptionally interesting observation, given it’s one that the Nevada Policy Research Institute has, for over half a decade, been sharing with teachers regarding both unions.

It’s also nice to see CCEA embracing the idea of “opting-out” of organizations that don’t provide members with sufficient value.

But CCEA isn’t alone in its sudden, albeit limited, respect for worker freedom. The NSEA is now launching its own opt-out campaign, aimed at getting teachers to ditch the newly-autonomous CCEA — and join the NSEA’s new Southern-Nevada affiliate, the NEA-SN.

NSEA’s decision to actually compete for member-loyalty makes financial sense. Estimates suggest the state union could miss out on $3-6 million per year in dues, now that the CCEA no longer has to funnel money “upstairs.”

However, both unions — if they’re to retain members — have their work cut out for them. A clear lesson from CCEA’s vote to split from NSEA is that teachers are overwhelming uninterested in union membership.

Of Clark County’s 18,718 teachers, a mere 796 bothered to cast a ballot in last month’s vote to leave the NSEA. And over the years, more than 40 percent of CCSD teachers have already opted out of union membership entirely.

The reason for this anemic level of teacher engagement shouldn’t be hard to understand. Unions traditionally have had little, if any, desire to actually allow members a real voice in the process of representation.

In consequence, they’ve alienated large swaths of existing and potential members.

Here in Nevada, where right-to-work laws allow workers to fully opt-out of membership, unions have played games to make the process as difficult as possible — giving teachers a mere two weeks to do so in the middle of summer.

Unions have traditionally treated workers less like customers and more like a tax base — while maneuvering to keep members captives of the organization, regardless of their dissatisfaction.

Permitting this is the fact that unions exist in a world where they are never periodically reviewed by the very workers they claim to represent.

The vast majority of Clark County teachers, for example, have never even had a say in whether or not CCEA should even be their collective bargaining agent! Of the more than 10,500 members paying dues to the CCEA in 2015, only two had originally voted in the 1969 balloting that led to CCEA’s recognition.

Requiring unions to go through periodic recertification — a process where the collective-bargaining agent must win approval from a majority of the unit it hopes to continue representing — would be a good start toward ensuring workers have a real voice. And shouldn’t unions be accountable to the individuals they supposedly represent in contract talks?

And who knows? If unions had to be more accountable to their members, perhaps almost half of CCSD teachers wouldn’t have left the CCEA.

Unfortunately, union leaders have long maneuvered to block any real check on their own power from rank and file members.

Even the right-to-work laws that allow individuals to opt out of a union — the exact legal conditions that make it feasible for NSEA to set up a competing union in Clark County — have long been fought by union brass in Nevada and across the nation.

Nevertheless, the indifference demonstrated by the CCEA membership while teacher-union factions descended into civil war clearly demonstrates the need for labor policies that actually respect and empower workers.

After all, empowering workers was the original spark behind the union movement in the first place. It wasn’t so union bosses could use legislation, regulations and employment contracts to siphon dues out of the paychecks of hard-working, yet still dissatisfied, teachers.

Giving educators — and all workers — a real voice in selecting which organization, if any, represents their interests should be something lawmakers of all political stripes can get behind.

Maybe, even the NEA-SN could see the value in requiring CCEA to recertify periodically.

Or is that too pro-worker for Nevada’s labor bosses?

This article was originally published by the Nevada Business Magazine.