In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling prohibiting government unions from compelling workers to subsidize their activities, the Nevada Public Research Institute (NPRI) is proposing policy changes to improve workers’ freedoms in the state. Its recent "Primer on Worker Freedom" proposes three state-based worker reforms for legislators to implement.
The recent Janus v. AFSCME ruling "showed the country that the historic, often uncontested, power that unions have over the very workers they claim to represent is not absolute," NPRI Director of Research Daniel Honchariw said.
Union laws differ according to federal and state regulations. Federal law governs private-sector collective bargaining. With the exception of federal-employee unions, state laws vary over the extent to which they govern public-sector unions.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than one out of every five employed Americans in 1983 was part of a union. By 2016, that number halved to one in 10.
In Nevada, union members accounted for 12.7 percent of wage and salary workers in 2017. Nevada’s union membership rate was at its peak in 1996, averaging 20.4 percent. It was at its lowest in 2016 at 12.1 percent.
Nevada’s union membership ranks 14th nationally, tied with Massachusetts, for having the most union members, above the national average.
In 2017, 146,000 Nevada workers were members of unions; 36,000 were represented by a union or employee association. Combined, they total 15 percent of employees in the state, ranking Nevada 13th in the nation for percentage of employees who are members or are covered by unions.
Currently, union security laws in Nevada deny public-sector employees basic worker rights, NPRI says. Employees are denied the right to vote about their union representation. They are prohibited from having the right to choose not to be a member of a union without restriction. And non-union members are denied the right to represent themselves during union negotiations with employers.
Initially, several state laws designed to protect workers’ rights are actually undermined by them, NPRI argues, because they emphasize union interests above those of individual workers. To address this disparity, NPRI proposed three specific worker-freedom reforms: 1. require periodic government-union recertification and 2. "workers’ choice" in representation, and 3. eliminate the "opt-out periods," which restrict dues-paying members from withdrawing from their union.
Periodic union recertification relates to "union security" laws, which enable unions to be certified as the "exclusive bargaining agent" if they demonstrate that they represent a majority of their respective public employees – meaning, only the union can represent all workers, including those who opt out of joining the union.
As a result, the vast majority of government workers belonging to a union are never able to choose which union represents them, NPRI argues. Instead, they inherit the existing union already representing their bargaining unit.
"This is a tremendous disservice to individual workers, as it denies them their right to a democratic workplace and strips them of their voice," NPRI says.
Public sector employees shouldn’t be forced to be a member of a union; instead, they should be allowed to vote on union representation, NPRI maintains. Legislation should be proposed to allow workers to periodically choose which union represents them every year or every few years.
As a "Right-to-Work" state, government workers are not required to pay union dues or fees as a condition for employment. But non-union workers are required to accept union-negotiated employment terms in Nevada. Both union members and non-union members don’t like this arrangement, NPRI argues, which should make the statewide policy of "Workers’ Choice" easy to implement. Doing so would allow non-union employees the right to choose representation other than the union during contract negotiations. The NPRI report lists examples of how this policy change would benefit both types of workers.
Finally, NPRI suggests that the legislature eliminate restrictive opt-out periods, which specifically impact public school teachers and education professionals. Current regulations only permit a two-week period for teachers to leave their union, during the summer break. NPRI suggests that the legislature pass a law allowing teachers to have the right to opt out or change their membership any time of year.
NPRI cites the large number of teachers who have already opted out of paying union fees despite the restriction, arguing this "demonstrates the degree to which union leadership has failed to adequately address the concerns of former members."
Honchariw argues that "rather than focusing on better serving members, some union leadership has turned to further narrowing opt-out eligibility, in an apparent effort to forcibly retain members."
UNLV economics chairman Jeff Waddoups said after the BLS numbers came out in July that the "large drop in union density occurred among public sector workers, and it fell more in the membership figure than the coverage figure," the Las Vegas Sun reported. "Public sector unions are losing membership faster than coverage. This means that people who are getting the benefit of union representation are not paying dues, and that unions are having a more difficult time getting workers to pay dues."
If enacted into state law, the proposed policy changes would "constitute measurable progress toward restoring and prioritizing the rights of both union and non-union employees in Nevada’s public sector," NPRI says.