Las Vegas Sun

October 2, 2014

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Labor:

Is 4 percent decline in teachers union membership advocacy group’s doing?

Union exec: Opt-out campaign is just part of NPRI’s political agenda

Image

Steve Marcus

Robert Hollowood, left, talks with Letty Elias, assistant executive director of the Clark County Education Association, as they recruit new members for the union during a Clark County School District orientation session for new teachers at the Venetian Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. Over 1,700 teachers took part in the orientation.

Nearly 470 Clark County teachers dropped their union membership this summer, according to data obtained by the Sun from the Clark County School District.

The 4 percent decline in the teachers union membership comes on the heels of a bitter battle between the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Clark County Education Association.

For the past two years, the local conservative advocacy group has been waging an email campaign encouraging teachers to drop their union.

The contract between teachers and the district allows union members to “opt out” of the union during a two-week window from July 1-15. Historically, between 300 and 400 teachers take up this option, according to union leaders.

During June and July, NPRI sent several emails to thousands of teachers, notifying them of their opportunity to opt out of the union. NPRI publicized reasons why teachers should drop the union and provided template letters they could send to the union to opt out.

“NPRI doesn’t make anyone join or leave any organization, but we do think teachers should know when they can leave,” NPRI Communications Director Victor Joecks said. “Obviously there’s a strong demand to know those options (seeing) 469 teachers deciding that the union is not the right choice for them and their family.”

However, it’s unclear how much of an effect NPRI’s campaign has had on the union’s membership levels.

School District officials told the Sun that the union does not directly report how many of its members drop their membership. The district is not privy to the opt-out letters teachers send to their union.

The teachers union has declined to release its membership numbers, citing a privacy issue.

However, the district was able to determine a rough estimate of union membership levels by looking at the number of teachers who have union dues automatically deducted from their twice-a-month paychecks. The Sun obtained those estimates through a public records request.

“These 469 teachers were active teachers last year and had union dues deducted from their paychecks,” district spokeswoman Melinda Malone explained in an email. “These 469 teachers are still active teachers this school year and do not have union dues deducted from their paychecks.”

Malone noted, however, that union members don’t always pay their union dues through an automatic paycheck deduction. Some teachers could decide to pay their dues in a lump sum at the beginning of the school year.

Yet, despite this caveat, the district’s estimates are the best barometer for determining the organizational health of the local teachers union. And the prognosis has not been good.

Nationally, teachers union membership figures are plummeting, a growing concern for union leaders trying to boost their clout in a political landscape that is vastly changing.

Last year, the National Education Association — the umbrella organization of the local teachers union — estimated it has lost the equivalent of 100,000 full-time members since 2010, according to Education Week.

By the end of this school year, the national teachers union projected it will have lost 308,000 members — and with them $65 million in revenue from union dues.

In Las Vegas, this downward trend in union membership is holding true.

In 2007, at the start of the economic downturn, 13,012 Clark County school teachers were members of the union. They represented about 70 percent of all public school teachers.

However, the School District’s most recent figures show that the teachers union currently has 10,648 members, or about 59 percent of all public school teachers.

This 18 percent decline in union membership has affected the union’s dues revenues, according to its federal tax returns. Union dues are $768 annually per teacher.

The union collected about $2.83 million in dues during the 2009-10 school year, according to tax documents. That figure dropped to $2.62 million during 2011-12, the last year for which data is available.

Union leaders blamed the teaching profession’s aging workforce and mounting workplace pressures — such as rising class sizes, greater emphasis on testing and growing teacher demands — for the decline in union membership.

The decline also may be attributed to teacher turnover. More than 1,000 teachers left the district this past school year because they retired or resigned.

“It’s the retirement of the baby boomer (generation) en masse,” John Vellardita, the union’s executive director, said. “That’s the reason why you’re seeing this organization going up and down. … (NPRI’s) influence was pretty insignificant.”

Regardless of the reason behind its membership decline, union leaders are hopeful an influx of 1,800 new teachers this school year will boost its ranks. Already, the union has recruited more than 1,000 new members this fall, Vellardita said, boasting that 3 out of 4 new teachers have joined the union.

Continuing to recruit more members is a priority for the union. That’s because the union will lose its collective bargaining rights if it doesn’t have the majority of the bargaining group as its members.

Under Nevada law, unions lose their collective bargaining rights if their membership dips to 50 percent or lower of the employee group. In other words, the union may lose its right to represent its members and employees in contract negotiations when only half of the employees are dues-paying members. (In the Silver State, workers cannot be compelled to join the union as a condition of employment.)

As a matter of political principle, NPRI has campaigned vigorously against collective bargaining laws, which allow unions to form and negotiate contracts with employers. It argues such contracts put too much strain on government budgets and tie the hands of elected officials to make decisions.

The local teachers union is still far from reaching that 50 percent threshold. However, a declining membership is a looming political problem for the teachers union.

NPRI’s campaign to encourage teachers to leave the union comes one year shy of a major tax initiative that proponents — mostly teachers union members — argue will pump $800 million into Nevada’s public education system.

The 2 percent margins tax on businesses with more than $1 million in revenue, regardless of whether or not they are profitable, is a hotly debated issue on the 2014 ballot. NPRI, which tends to oppose taxes, has been campaigning against the tax, dubbed the Education Initiative.

And according to union leaders, attacking the tax initiative is ultimately what NPRI’s union “opt-out” campaign is about.

“We don’t view this in isolation from (NPRI’s) political agenda,” Vellardita said. “(Their) motivation isn’t just to enlighten the poor teacher but to dismantle the organization putting forth this change. … It’s done to weaken (our) organization.”

Although NPRI and the teachers union have tussled about other issues, such as charter school policies and collective bargaining, Joecks said NPRI hasn’t asked anyone to leave the union.

Rather, Joecks said he’s heard various complaints from individual teachers who have left the union.

“It’s not all about poor service or union bosses' salaries or the unions’ political wings or just about saving money, but clearly what you’re seeing is that CCEA is not meeting the needs of its teachers,” Joecks said. “What a campaign like this should really do is make the union look at itself and say, 'How can we improve service for our members?' They can take this campaign and say, 'We’ve got to make this organization better.'”

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