Union membership rates expose need for recertification

This article was originally published by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Each summer, my organization requests, pursuant to Nevada’s Public Records Act, a series of records from local governments across the state for the purpose of assessing union membership rates.

Under state law, public-sector unions are required to maintain majority support from the employees they represent. If there is evidence to suggest any union lacks the support of 50 percent of its bargaining-unit employees, a formal process of union decertification can be initiated in two different ways.

Per NRS 288.160(3)(c), “A local government employer may withdraw recognition from an employee organization which . . . ceases to be supported by a majority…” (Emphasis added).  Similarly, the Employee-Management Relations Board may call for a secret-ballot vote — a first step towards decertification — if “the Board in good faith doubts whether any employee organization is supported by a majority,” per NRS 288.160(4) (Emphasis added).

Yet despite the laws on the books, the majority-membership requirement is rarely, if ever, enforced. In fact, an inquiry with the director of the EMRB revealed that he was aware of “no instances where a local government attempted to decertify a union.” Further, the EMRB has operated for years under legal guidance which suggests that it cannot itself initiate the process of decertification, notwithstanding the plain text of the latter statute.

Indeed, as public records make clear, many local-government unions in Nevada maintain the title of “exclusive bargaining agent” even though only a small fraction of the employees they represent are actual dues-paying members.

Take, for example, the Washoe Education Support Professionals union. Of the nearly 3,000 support-staff employees in the Washoe County School District, only about 600 pay annual dues to the WESP, reflecting a membership rate of 20 percent.

Then there’s the Douglas County Support Staff Organization, whose membership rate for its 300-plus employees likewise hovers below 40 percent.

And there are many, many more.

In each of these instances, the fact that a union with dwindling support is continuously permitted to speak for an entire bargaining unit of employees reflects a major deficiency in Nevada’s laws governing public-sector labor relations: Namely, that unions, once certified, maintain the title of “exclusive bargaining agent” in perpetuity.

There is no regular process of union recertification to gauge, periodically, support for the union, which means the vast majority of employees are never afforded the right to vote on which union represents them. Instead, they simply inherit whatever union already exists.

This phenomenon is most pronounced by the Clark County Education Association. Of the nearly 19,000 teachers it represents in Southern Nevada, no more than two — TWO — voted in the original union-organizing election, which occurred decades ago. Nonetheless, the CCEA continues to represent all current teachers on the basis of that single, decades-old vote.

But it has now become clear that denying workers the right to vote on which union represents them has contributed to declining union-membership rates.

Nevada lawmakers should right this injustice by mandating periodic union recertification. Though unions often claim to be the voice of workers, there’s nothing pro-worker about denying them their democratic voice in the workplace.