In the midst of an increasingly heated contract dispute with the Clark County School District, the union representing more than 18,000 teachers has seen its membership plummet to dangerous lows, threatening its place as one of Nevada’s most influential labor groups.
As of Sept. 10, only 9,526 — or just 52.1 percent — of all licensed personnel who work for the district had union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks for membership in the Clark County Education Association. District records show 59.8 percent of teachers participated in the payroll deduction option at this same time last year, down from 61.4 percent in 2012.
Teachers do have the option of sending their dues directly to the union, either as a lump sum or on a payment plan.
Still, union watchers suspect the shrinking numbers indicate the CCEA soon could fall below the 50-percent-plus-one threshold necessary to retain its position as the bargaining agent for teachers. As the representative for one of the state’s largest public employee groups, the CCEA often doles out key endorsements for politicians, volunteers with campaigns and sends lobbyists to Carson City each legislative session.
The union, which boasted as many as 13,000 members in 2007, admitted its membership has dwindled in recent years but downplayed the significance of that.
“These are not all-time low numbers,” said CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita, who blamed the decline largely on retiring baby boomers, teachers whose contracts expired and others who left for a variety of reasons.
“The current payroll period does not reflect the new membership numbers that we have recently recruited in their totality,” he added. “We’re pretty close to what we had last year — a little under 11,000 people — and we expect that to grow a little this year.”
Despite the district’s recent hiring spree, payroll records suggest union membership dropped by more than 4,500 teachers over the summer.
That’s far more than the 1,645 teachers and potential members who quit — either for retirement, medical reasons, dissatisfaction with the district or any other reason — during the entire 2014-15 school year. With dues at about $800 a year, a 4,500-member drop would cost the CCEA nearly $3.6 million in annual revenue.
In June, the union-controlled health trust required teachers to pay more to save it from the brink of financial collapse by forking over 20 percent of the cost for doctor’s office visits and all medical expenses.
Some teachers have stopped seeking treatment altogether, saving their money for emergencies. Others reported doctors recently started limiting their coverage, worried about the trust’s ability to meets its financial obligations in the very near future.
Ben Johnson, a seventh-year physical education teacher, has suffered from foot problems since running a marathon nearly 15 years ago.
He would like to get new orthotic inserts for his shoes to lessen the dull, yet constant, pain but said that’s out of the question now.
“I just have to deal with it,” said Johnson, whose wife also is a teacher. “We’re having to pay more into the health trust, and they are not covering as much now.
“We are very, very careful to go (to the doctor) only when it’s absolutely necessary,” he added. “We don’t go to routine checkups as much as we used to.”
On top of the crumbling health trust, union leaders promised to deliver a new collective bargaining agreement before existing contracts expired in August. But stalled negotiations forced teachers to absorb an automatic 1.125 percent hike in their personal contributions to the state’s public employee retirement system.
The CCEA blames the current dispute over salaries on district officials. But when the school board last year unanimously approved more than $54 million in raises, the union spent much of it by rewarding 8,000 teachers for their seniority, not their performance.
Regardless, Vellardita doubted the continued strain on teachers — both financial and emotional — prompted many to drop their CCEA memberships.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. “Maybe in a few cases, but overwhelmingly what all this has done is unite our ranks.”
Vellardita also discounted the “exaggerated” impact that the Nevada Research Policy Institute has had on CCEA membership rolls.
For the past four years, the right-leaning think tank has reminded teachers through email to their district accounts, social media and billboards that they can save nearly $800 in annual dues by dropping their memberships during a two-week window in early July.
The organization has no official method to measure how many teachers it convinces to leave CCEA, but word of mouth goes a long way, said NPRI Executive Vice President Victor Joecks.
“Look, we’re not trying to convince anyone who likes the union to leave the union,” Joecks said. “But what we’ve seen over the years is there are thousands of teachers who want to — but don’t know how to — leave the union.”
According to NPRI, support staff unions in at least seven school districts across Nevada fell below 50 percent membership last year. That includes the local Education Support Employees Association, which represents more than 11,000 bus drivers, cooks, janitors and other school workers in Clark County.
Once a union falls below that threshold, they face a risk of losing power through the challenge of another union — as in the case of the ESEA — or a vote by the school board to decertify and withdraw recognition of the sitting union’s bargaining power.
In the case of the CCEA, “I expect they’re a year or two away from falling below that 50-percent mark,” Joecks said.
“I don’t necessarily see the school board decertifying them, though,” he added. “That would take the Teamsters or (American Federation of Teachers) or someone else coming in trying to represent the teachers.”
For Johnson, leaving the union isn’t an option.
He stressed that he doesn’t identify as liberal or conservative — he’s just wary of those in power.
“I don’t feel they have the teachers’ best interest at heart,” Johnson said of the district’s leaders. “So I’ll stick with the union through this.”
Contact Neal Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @nealtmorton.