Unions Take Aim at Nevada Higher Education

Geoffrey Lawrence

Assembly Democrats are proposing to extend coercive collective bargaining powers to university professors and other professional staff.

Assembly Bill 224 lists 27 of the 28 Assembly Democrats as sponsors – Assemblywoman Shea Backus is the only Assembly Democrat not sponsoring the bill.

This bill is nearly identical to a senate proposal from 2021 that failed to advance out of the senate. It would require the Nevada Board of Regents to “bargain in good faith” toward “the execution of a written [union] contract.” Section 44 of the proposal would even grant unions a forcible dispute-resolution mechanism called binding arbitration that effectively guarantees a union contract.

During the early 20th century, when unions began to flourish in the private sector, it was generally understood that collective bargaining could not be transplanted to the public sector.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a progressive icon and leading union advocate, argued that this would erode democratic accountability.

“The employer is the whole of the people,” he explained in a letter to the Federation of Federal Employees, and it would be impossible for “administrative officials to represent or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations.”

It was a sharp break from progressive orthodoxy when Wisconsin became the first state to grant public-sector unions the power to compel public employers to collectively bargain in 1959. Many states – including Nevada – reacted by passing express prohibitions on collective bargaining in the public sector.

Nevada passed a statutory ban on public-sector collective bargaining in 1965. A series of pickets by teacher union operatives on the Las Vegas Strip that became highly disruptive prompted gaming companies to press for a reversal to the law.

That reversal came in 1969, with a new law that went beyond reversing the prohibition and instead required local governments to engage in collective bargaining. In the ensuing decades, this requirement was expanded to include binding arbitration.

It was not until 2019, however, that state agencies were compelled to negotiate with unions following passage of legislation supported by then-Gov. Steve Sisolak. Nevada remains the only state to have reversed a prohibition on public-sector collective bargaining and instituted compulsory collective bargaining agreements instead.

The 2019 legislation, however, only addressed unions representing workers in the classified service of the state. Some positions – like university professors – are not structured within the classified service. Assembly Bill 224 would newly extend unionization toward these professionals.

Some professors may not savor the consequences. Sec. 21 of the bill would grant union leaders privileged access to the home addresses, telephone numbers and emails of employees so they can try and convince these professionals to join the union and have dues withdrawn from their paychecks. This despite personal information of employees being shielded from public records laws.

Sec. 24(b) would allow a union representative to be present in any grievance hearing between an employee and the employer even if the employee does not want them there.

Sec. 35 designates a recognized union as the “exclusive representative” of all employees in a bargaining unit regardless of whether any particular employee wants this representation. That provision precludes an employee from discussing pay, hours or working conditions with their own boss.

Other provisions of Assembly Bill 224 go beyond what exists for other employee groups in Nevada. Sec. 27 would allow a union to become recognized as the exclusive representative without even needing to secure majority support of employees in a secret ballot election.

Instead, the union could be certified based on card check, which means union operatives can just collect signature cards from the specified employee group. These provisions have been widely associated with harassment by union operatives who see employee payments of union dues as revenue from which they can draw salaries.

Critics have rightly pointed out that unionization of the public sector grants a privileged position in the policymaking process to special interests. Union contracts comprise a significant share of government budgets and mandatory collective bargaining essentially guts any elected official’s ability to reduce spending or control the operation of government – endangering democratic accountability.

Even if voters wish to make wholesale changes in government, their elected officials’ hands become tied.

The incentives are also different in government. While unions and corporate management may have divergent incentives regarding pay, elected officials often recognize that government unions are highly effective at electioneering and may enter into agreements they know will strain public finances in order to gain union support.

The result is that mandatory unionization in government unquestionably elevates the cost of government. In a 50-state empirical review, this author and others determined that mandatory collective bargaining laws at the state level increase the cost of government by $500 to $750 per capita.

A follow-on report by RCG Economics determined that granting mandatory bargaining powers to Nevada’s state employees would raise the cost of state government by $624 to $764 per capita.

Collective bargaining has its place in the private sector. The civil service system was created to ensure public employees are treated fairly and receive competitive pay and benefits. Unionization of the public sector disempowers individual workers and erodes democracy. Lawmakers should be debating proposals to rein it in rather than to expand it further.

Geoffrey Lawrence

Geoffrey Lawrence

Director of Research

Geoffrey Lawrence is director of research at Nevada Policy.

Lawrence has broad experience as a financial executive in the public and private sectors and as a think tank analyst. Lawrence has been Chief Financial Officer of several growth-stage and publicly traded manufacturing companies and managed all financial reporting, internal control, and external compliance efforts with regulatory agencies including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.  Lawrence has also served as the senior appointee to the Nevada State Controller’s Office, where he oversaw the state’s external financial reporting, covering nearly $10 billion in annual transactions. During each year of Lawrence’s tenure, the state received the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting Award from the Government Finance Officers’ Association.

From 2008 to 2014, Lawrence was director of research and legislative affairs at Nevada Policy and helped the institute develop its platform of ideas to advance and defend a free society.  Lawrence has also written for the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, with particular expertise in state budgets and labor economics.  He was delighted at the opportunity to return to Nevada Policy in 2022 while concurrently serving as research director at the Reason Foundation.

Lawrence holds an M.A. in international economics from American University in Washington, D.C., an M.S. and a B.S. in accounting from Western Governors University, and a B.A. in international relations from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.  He lives in Las Vegas with his beautiful wife, Jenna, and their two kids, Carson Hayek and Sage Aynne.