Teachers union organizer says boss fired her for trying to join union

A Clark County’s teachers union executive director is facing a federal hearing prompted by accusations that he fired an employee because she wanted to unionize.

“My job is to recruit teachers to join the union, but you won’t allow me to join a union,” claimed former Clark County Education Association organizer Maria Elena Hermanson.

Along with the Clark County Staff Organization, Hermanson filed a complaint against the CCEA’s John Vellardita.

The National Labor Relations Board, which enforces the federal law prohibiting employers to fire, punish or coerce workers who want to organize, will hear the complaint Aug. 13.

Vellardita fired Hermanson on Feb. 20 after her six-month probation period had ended. She met with him to discuss joining the staff organization already representing other CCEA staff, she said.

Vellardita contended in a Friday inter­view that Hermanson’s request to join a union had nothing to do with her dismissal.

“She was a probationary worker let go at the end of her probation because of performance,” said Vellardita, referencing the direction he has been given from CCEA’s board to “clean up” staff performance and improve customer service for the more than 17,000 Clark County teachers it represents. “We have a standard here.”

But Hermanson defended her performance and said the timing is more than coincidental. She discussed joining the union mere days before her termination, she said.

“It was definitely not because of my performance,” she said.

Vellardita pointed out that the teachers union has “voluntarily” agreed to allow the staff union to represent organizers.

However, Michael Soden, president of the staff organization, argued that Vellardita only made the change so that he could defend Hermanson’s firing and say to the national board that he is not standing in the way of union organizers who want representation themselves.

“He’s not stupid,” Soden said of Vellardita. “Once there was no way out of it, he agreed.”

The federal board receives about 25,000 complaints a year from employees. The most common allegations against employers are over threats, interrogations and unlawfully disciplining employees for their union activity.

“We feel confident we can defend our actions,” Vellardita said.

Half of all charges are withdrawn or dismissed, according to the board.

“It is a high bar to meet,” said Vellardita, who has worked in labor for 39 years and emphasized that Nevada is an at-will state, meaning an employer can terminate a worker without reason.

Still, a third of all charges made to the national board result in settlements.

In cases of illegal firing, reinstatement and back pay are usually the terms of settlement. These employers paid just under $44 million in back pay to illegally fired employees last year, according to the national board.

Hermanson is also seeking back pay.

“I’m not seeking in any way to harm CCEA. They do a great job for teachers,” Hermanson said. “I would just like to be reinstated with benefits.”

But she ultimately wants to see all CCEA staff protected by the staff organization.

Vellardita couldn’t have dismissed her as he did if she were a staff organization member, said Soden, noting a lack of respect during negotiations with the teachers union since Vellardita became executive director more than a year ago.

“I have to speak up or nothing is going to change,” Hermanson said.

In a 2010 federal lawsuit, Vellardita was personally liable for $77,850 in damages, the largest share of any of the 17 co-defendants, for conspiracy to make their Oakland, Calif., union un­governable, destruction of files and property, violating union bylaws and breaking fiduciary responsibilities.

At the time, Vellardita was head of the long-term care division of United Healthcare Workers-West, a chapter of SEIU, the nation’s largest health care union with 1.2 million members.

According to court testimony and documents, Vellardita and other leaders of the California local were dismantling it because word had trickled down that the SEIU was going to take it into trusteeship and likely replace its leaders, in part because of financial improprieties.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.