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May 22, 2018

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Conservative think tank, teachers union continue battle over union opt-outs


Sam Morris

Teachers Ashley Nebe, left, and Jodi Wilde helps students during summer school class Friday, July 5, 2013 at Clark High School

This Las Vegas political campaign almost sounds like a late-night television advertisement:

If you’re a member of the Clark County teachers union, you could save more than $750 a year! Just send a letter to the teachers union by July 15, and start saving now!

OK, so what’s the catch here?

The savings only accrue to teachers who drop their Clark County Education Association membership — and the accompanying obligation to pay membership dues.

Union officials say the group encouraging teachers to do so does not have teachers’ best interests at heart.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute — the conservative think tank waging the campaign — wants teachers to know they can leave their union between July 1 and July 15, and they’ve been publishing instructions about how and why teachers should consider writing an “opt-out” letter to rescind their union memberships.

The think tank escalated the information campaign this year after boasting of success in 2012 during the July 1-15 union opt-out period.

The organization launched a national “Employee Freedom Week” to advise members about how they can leave their unions. The initiative received coverage in local and national media, including from The Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

To support its campaign, NPRI commissioned a poll and even filed suit against the Clark County School District for teacher email addresses. The organization claims to have about 9,000 email addresses for teachers, but NPRI wants email addresses for every teacher in the district so it can tell all of them how to drop union membership.

“We’re not at this point able to contact every teacher,” said Victor Joecks, communications director for NPRI. “We’re in court trying to get public records for public email addresses for Clark County School District teachers.”

Why is NPRI aggressively encouraging teachers to drop their union?

Under Nevada law, unions lose their collective bargaining rights if their membership dips to 50 percent or lower of the targeted membership pool. In other words, the union loses its right to represent teachers in contract negotiations when only half of the employees it represents pay dues. (In Nevada, 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 state’s 50 percent threshold is a looming problem for the Clark County Education Association, which like many unions nationally has seen its membership levels drop.

In 2007, the teachers union had 13,012 members. Six years later, that number has dipped to 10,865.

Currently, 63 percent of School District teachers are union members, down from 70 percent in 2007.

Despite the shrinking membership, teachers union representatives have publicly shrugged their shoulders at NPRI’s campaign, which attacks the union’s very existence.

No big deal, union officials say.

“This is like water rolling off a duck’s back,” said John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association. “Their impact on us is nowhere near what they want to claim it is.”

Despite its appearance of taking a nonchalant attitude toward NPRI’s increasing attacks, the union has sent several mailers to its members proclaiming its legislative victories. It has also written blogs and made Facebook posts defending the union’s merits.

In one mailer, the union proclaims it is “only as strong as our membership is big” and calls on teachers to “step forward” and join.

“(NPRI’s) essential campaign is to take out the advocacy of the teachers union,” Vellardita said. “They want to take away the voices of teachers.”

Joecks said NPRI only intends to inform teachers of their rights.

“Like we did last year, there’s a lot of teachers who are no longer interested in being part of the union, but oftentimes they don’t know or don’t remember that this is the window period because it’s right in the middle of summer,” he said. “Totally unintentional, I’m sure.”

Still, the organization has posted numerous items on its website listing reasons why teachers should consider leaving their union.

The institute argues teachers can save money and gain liability insurance through alternative professional organizations. The organization also argues the union is inappropriately spending teacher dues on politics and salaries of union employees.

The institute also is using the popularity argument: “In the last few years, more than 2,100 teachers have left CCEA,” it claims.

Vellardita disputes the numbers and has told union members that NPRI was not a group that had teachers’ interests at heart.

“You can put lipstick on a pig, but it ain’t a lady,” he said.

Union members helped get a 2 percent business margins tax on the 2014 ballot — money they claim will force the Nevada Legislature to bolster education budgets, reduce class sizes and spend more on educational programming that could help teachers.

“If we were not a functioning organization, which is what these groups (NPRI) want, you would not see these things on the ballot,” Vellardita said. “It would never occur. So that’s one reason alone why their intent is to destroy organizations that would give voters that opportunity.”

The Nevada State Education Association, the parent organization of CCEA, also has weighed in on the matter.

“Educators see NPRI as an arm of the right trying to work to dismantle public education,” said Ruben Murillo, president of the Nevada State Education Association.

The politics are simple: Teachers unions typically align themselves with Democratic candidates and causes, and the NPRI often sides with Republicans and other conservative think tanks.

Joecks said the campaign has nothing to do with political motives. Nor is the organization targeting the teachers union for any particular reason, he said.

“We can’t focus on everyone, so we picked a group that we could focus on and let them know,” Joecks said. “The reason that we’re getting the information out is that the information isn’t out there.”

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