Education support staff union endangered by declining membership

One union speaks for all 10,949 bus drivers, janitors, cooks and other support staff behind the scenes of America’s fifth-largest school district. But the union — one of the largest in Nevada —may be speaking out of turn.

Even though the Education Support Employees Association has long negotiated the contract determining support staff’s working conditions, it appears the majority of them no longer stand behind the union.

State law requires unions that represent government workers to have more than 50 percent of a group as members to have the right to bargain on their behalf. But membership in the support staff union teeters at 49 percent of district workers, according to the district’s report of membership dues deducted in September from 5,401 worker paychecks.

Nevertheless, Clark County School District officials say they won’t challenge the status of the support staff union but will continue to negotiate with it to set workers’ salaries and benefits.

“Our focus is on improving student achievement, not internal union politics. We would prefer to not get involved in a matter between employees and their association,” reads a district statement from spokeswoman Melinda Malone to the Review-Journal.

School Board President Carolyn Edwards said she would trust Super­intendent Pat Skorkowsky to look into the union’s status. Edwards, subject of a state investigation focused on her actions in promoting last year’s push for a property tax increase to fund school improvements, reiterated that the district won’t “get involved in union politics.”

However, state law gives employers the power to seek relief from bargaining with a union that doesn’t represent a majority of employees, said Teri Williams, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Business and Industry.

“I’d think they (Clark County School District) would have a vested interest in making certain they’re talking to representation that their employees want,” Williams said this month.

CALCULATING MEMBERSHIP

The Education Support Employees Association’s 49 percent representation rate is based on the number of workers who have union dues deducted from their paychecks. That figure is not definitive; it doesn’t account for workers who pay their dues another way. But it’s the only indicator available, since unions aren’t required to release membership numbers. Calls to support staff union President John Carr last week were not returned.

Full-time support staff workers pay $20.50 in biweekly dues to the Education Support Employees Association.

Another union is also losing membership, although it still is above the majority required by law. The Clark County Education Association, representing 17,908 teachers, has a membership of 59 percent of teachers and has been losing support for years, according to district-reported dues deductions.

The teachers union’s membership is down by 469 teachers from last school year, even though the district added about 1,000 new teachers. The teachers union received a $300,000 grant earlier this year from its parent organization, the National Education Association, to fund “organizing efforts,” according to the union’s executive board meeting minutes in February.

For the past two school years, conservative think tank Nevada Policy Research Institute has run a campaign emailing district teachers about their ability to drop union membership during a small two-week window in July.

Together, district support staff and teachers make up the vast majority of workers for what is the largest employer in the state.

The latest membership numbers bode ill for the unions, said Victor Joecks, the think tank’s spokesman, who said, “Members are dropping like flies. The numbers speak for themselves.”

Other district employee unions are flourishing however, with both police and administrator unions enrolling about 98 percent of eligible workers and staff.

Support staff union officials are now negotiating health coverage with district officials, who don’t plan to act on the union’s potential membership shortfall.

While that decision is ethically questionable, it serves a political purpose, said Martin Dean Dupalo, president of the nonprofit Nevada Center for Public Ethics. The union you know is better than the union you don’t, he said.

“Right now we’re in a gray area, ethically,” he said, emphasizing that the support staff union’s membership is floating at the legal minimum.

But if membership were to fall significantly below 50 percent, the district should not ignore it, Dupalo said.

“At that point, what are you doing negotiating with them?”

CHALLENGING REPRESENTATION

Even if School District officials do nothing, competing unions can challenge the Education Support Employees Association for not having majority membership, according to state law.

Like the district, a competing union would have to petition Nevada’s Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board to hold a hearing on the support staff union’s membership. But since negotiations between the district and the support staff union have already commenced for this year’s contract, a petition must wait for a one-month window that opens 242 days before the contract’s expiration, according to state law. That window is the month of November.

Teamsters Local 14 has been trying to take over district support staff representation for years. It won a majority of votes in a 2006 election asking workers to pick between the two unions. But the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the union must obtain an absolute majority. That means more than 50 percent of all 10,949 support staff must vote for the union, not just a majority of those who voted on the issue.

That kind of a voter turnout is nearly impossible to obtain, Teamsters Local 14 President Al Ghilarducci has said.

An alternative would be challenging ESEA’s membership numbers. But that would only remove the Education Support Employees Association as the representing union, not put the Teamsters in place. A replacement union would need to have majority membership.

Without that, the district’s 10,949 bus drivers, janitors, cooks and other support staff would be left to the conditions of employment set solely by the district, Williams said.

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

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