Refusing to Leave $6M in Dues on the Table, NEA Confronts Complications as It Tries to Hold On to Las Vegas Teachers Union

Teachers rally at the state capitol in Oklahoma City on April 2, 2018. (Photo credit: J. Pat Carter/Getty Images)

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One of the National Education Association’s largest locals, the 11,000-member Clark County Education Association, cut the cord with its state and national unions and declared independence last week. Concurrently, Las Vegas teachers saw their dues lowered by almost 40 percent.

The turnout for the disaffiliation vote was low — less than 8 percent of those eligible cast a ballot — but support for continued affiliation was anemic. Only 99 teachers bothered to vote in favor of staying with NEA and the Nevada State Education Association.

One would think that after such a poor showing NEA and NSEA would fold their tents and go home. But the unions won’t sit still for a loss of $6.1 million in annual dues. They formed a competing union — NEA Southern Nevada.

The new union has no officers, no bylaws, and no bargaining rights with the school district, but it has a logo and a membership form that authorizes it to charge an unspecified amount of dues in perpetuity.

“To the extent that NEA-SN is not currently an employee organization recognized as the exclusive representative for purposes of collective bargaining, I understand the NEA-SN will seek to obtain that status,” the form reads.

Ah, but that’s a problem. Unseating the exclusive representative is tough under normal circumstances, but to do it in Nevada is exceptionally tough. Oddly, it is so tough because of the efforts of NEA and NSEA lawyers.

In Nevada, a union must win a majority of members in a bargaining unit, not just a majority of votes cast, in order to replace the incumbent union as exclusive representative. In 2006, the Teamsters outpolled the Education Support Employees Association (ESEA), an NEA affiliate that represents bus drivers, custodians, and other support workers in the Clark County School District.

Unfortunately for the Teamsters, they needed to receive 5,259 votes in an election in which only 4,736 total votes were cast. The union began appeals to the state labor board, which eventually culminated in a December 2015 representation election that the state agreed to award to the organization with the majority of votes cast. The Teamsters received 4,349 votes to ESEA’s 970.

Even with the loyalty of less than 10 percent of its unit, ESEA would not relinquish its exclusive bargaining privileges. It challenged the results in Nevada Supreme Court. Seventeen months later, the case still has not been decided.

The relevance as it relates to the Las Vegas teachers union is this: If the NEA loses the Nevada Supreme Court case, it will immediately lose exclusive representative status for support workers, and probably thousands of members to the Teamsters. But if NEA wins, its new teachers union would never be able to generate the roughly 9,000-vote support needed to get rid of the Clark County Education Association. It would remain in perpetual second-class status.

Those are two unpalatable options. Unless the NEA and the NSEA come up with an ingenious third path, they are likely to drop their court challenge and accept the Teamsters’ win.

As in Nevada, NEA formed rival unions in Memphis, Tennessee, and Santa Rosa County, Florida, after local unions disaffiliated. The new Santa Rosa union even generated enough support to spur a representation election for teachers, which it lost.

The irony is that rival unions are only feasible in states that do not require non-members to pay representation fees to the bargaining union, the subject of the landmark Janus v. AFSCME case, awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. If Nevada were a mandatory representation fee state, members of newly formed NEA Southern Nevada would have to pay NEA/NSEA dues and representation fees to the Clark County Education Association. Few teachers would choose to pay two unions, especially if only one has bargaining rights.

Analysis of the implications of the Janus ruling has focused almost entirely on how many public sector union workers will drop their memberships. Recent events lead me to believe we may see a tremendous surge in the formation of new unions, or at least movement from one union to another. Only one could be the exclusive representative, but public employees would be able to change loyalties painlessly, ensuring much more frequent turnover in representation.

Last week, Oklahoma Teachers United, a grassroots group formed outside of the union structure and a prime mover in the recent walkouts, threw its support behind an effort to impeach officers of the Oklahoma Education Association. One of the group’s co-founders, Larry Cagle, said he would also consider a campaign to encourage teachers to resign from the NEA-affiliated union and instead join the other national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers.

Just as the breakup of Ma Bell ushered in the current age of telecommunications, we may be on the verge of an entirely new era of competition in labor representation. That could be good news for teachers, and bad news for the current two-national-union monopoly.

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