It is to be the dawn of a new age for Nevada’s prison guards. Having announced this week that corrections officers are officially unionizing under a collective bargaining expansion law passed in the twilight of the legislative session, happy days are finally here. Sgt. Shari Kassebaum, the head of the new bargaining unit, is convinced that it will improve morale and retention. According to her, “[i]t’s going to be able to set the standards that we haven’t been able to have, and it’s going to hold accountability to the administration that we haven’t had before.”
That’s a lot of optimism, without a lot of specifics. I’m sure she believes it. If only there was some way to observe, in advance, just what kind of utopia comes from unionizing a government workplace where budgets are ultimately determined by politicians.
Meanwhile, teachers of the Clark County Education Association, which has existed for years, have declared that their morale is so low, their working conditions so intolerable, that they are about to break the law and walk off the job.
The foolishness of such a move cannot be overstated, and the damage done to their profession will last for decades. Let us consider the ways.
Public employee unions flexed all their political muscle to get Gov. Sisolak in the governor’s mansion, and he delivered for them. He promised teachers statewide would get a 3 percent pay increase, and he was willing to provoke a state constitutional crisis in order to get that increase in the budget. Say what you want about the legal impropriety and lack of necessity of such a move (and I have), you have to admire that level of commitment to a campaign promise.
But now, 3 percent is not just not good enough, it’s so insulting as to motivate teachers to form a picket line. Today, the governor seems to be siding with the teachers against the unpopular school district. But he’s playing a dangerous game. If I’m Gov. Sisolak, I’m feeling like a big knife with “CCEA” written on it is sticking out of my back with all of the strike talk. The governor has already declared that a strike is not an option. If a governor known to be very, very pro-union has to come in as the heavy to bust an illegal strike, the union he busts will be lying broken, bloody, and powerless in the street for a very long time.
Public employee strikes, after all, are illegal. In making them so in 1969, the Legislature declared, “(a)That the services provided by the State and local government employers are of such nature that they are not and cannot be duplicated from other sources and are essential to the health, safety and welfare of the people of the State of Nevada; (b)That the continuity of such services is likewise essential, and their disruption incompatible with the responsibility of the State to its people; and (c) That every person who enters or remains in the employment of the State or a local government employer accepts the facts stated in paragraphs (a) and (b) as an essential condition of the person’s employment.” Those declarations are no less true now than they were when they were codified 50 years ago.
The union itself faces a daily fine of $50,000 during a strike, and union officers personally could suffer $1,000 daily fine and can even be jailed for up to six months. Employee participants in a strike could (and should) be fired. Those dollar figures were meant to be punitive, too – adjusted for inflation, the daily union fine would be over a third of a million dollars.
It’s hard to imagine how this plays in the union’s favor with the public. Said public includes plenty of voting, taxpaying parents who are probably generally predisposed to be sympathetic to teachers. But now they will see the spectacle of teachers rejecting a substantial (historic, even) salary raise because it isn’t even bigger, and that’s going to be hard to swallow. There will be little patience for the technical distinctions between “column movement” raises and more general increases. Fair or not, to a large portion of the electorate, teachers will look ungrateful and petty after a banner legislative session for them.
Tens of thousands of families will be directly and negatively affected. Depending on how many teachers walk off the job, the sudden daycare needs alone will dent family budgets and worse. If the schools still manage to gather enough substitute teachers to keep things moving along, the quality of education will suffer mightily – who is doing the long term lesson planning? Parents won’t like feeling like their kids’ time is being wasted, especially as their taxes are still being collected. Come the next election cycle, a teachers’ union endorsement may wind up being pretty poisonous to such parents.
Citizens, after all, have a legitimate expectation that they have some control and accountability over the government officials who work for the public. Even a “successful” strike leading to pay increases will tell the public that a large number of government employees feel above the law. There is plenty of public support for education reform and improving the lives of teachers, but ironically, the union’s actions could (and likely will) reduce rather than increase such support.
Union officials are trying to have their cake and eat it too by blaming the Clark County School District instead of the Democratic politicians who actually allocated the allegedly insufficient funds. I have little doubt that there is plenty of room for improved leadership, and fat to be trimmed on the administrative side of that district to free up funds for the actual classrooms. But on the heels of recent and well-publicized union pressure to not reduce administrative bloat in the district, at some point voters start throwing up their hands and asking what, if anything, will satisfy union bosses.
The people I feel the sorriest for, though, are the rank-and-file teachers who take their obligations to the public seriously, and are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Enormous pressure will be put on them to break the law and join the strike. Those who do risk being fired. Those who don’t will be lumped in with any negative public reaction against the strikers, and will be doing double the work for their colleagues who have abandoned their posts. I’m sure that will help address the growing problems recruiting and retaining teachers in CCSD!
Incidentally, whether you’re a parent looking for public education options without so much chaos, or a teacher looking to teach kids without having to navigate so much political drama, this sorry spectacle once again highlights the positive contributions to public education that school choice policies would be generating if these same unions hadn’t done everything they could to strangle those common sense programs in their infancy. Once again, an education headline makes me profoundly grateful that my kids had the opportunity to go to a high quality public charter school. The CCEA might wind up being the most effective universal school choice advocates in the state…
I hope Sgt. Kassebaum is paying attention to what’s happening with the CCEA, and education generally. Aside from the philosophical objection (elucidated so well by FDR back in 1937) to public employees unionizing, practically speaking, the unions have done nothing to improve the lot of the professionals they claim to represent.
The rest of us should pay attention, too. It’s still possible a strike can be negotiated away by the time this column is published. But if the CCEA profits from even the threat of an illegal strike, with no consequences to the threatening strikers, what does that tell police or prison guards? A month of public school disruption is an awful thing, but as important as teachers are, there are even more critical points of failure when it comes to public safety. If teachers can walk away from those in their charge, so can employees tasked with keeping dangerous felons behind bars.
Gov. Sisolak and other politicians who take a lot of donations from public employee unions are in a tough spot, but have an obligation to stand tough against illegal negotiating tactics like this. Sisolak has already unfortunately invited more of the same by not condemning the union the second the word “strike” started being bandied about.
I don’t doubt that our teachers deserve better treatment by their leadership in our largest school districts. But even more fundamentally, our schoolchildren – and Nevada citizens at large – can’t afford for non-publicly accountable and lawless organizations like the CCEA to dictate what happens in our schools and in our government institutions as a whole.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]