Nevada teacher union eyes
new priority for ‘organizing’

Approach downplays services for members, aims at advocacy, ultimate militancy

LAS VEGAS — Following years of dwindling membership in the Nevada teacher union, its officials are pushing to shift resources away from member representation and toward new recruiting campaigns instead.

The result is that teachers who see themselves as educational professionals, rather than rank-and-file laborers in a government-school industry, are finding themselves increasingly sidelined by the union, the Nevada State Education Association.

It’s a pattern emerging not only in the Silver State but all over the U.S.: Teacher-union brass, confronted with declining membership, are seeking to transform the nature of their unions, despite resistance from existing members.

“But adoption of the organizing priority is itself fraught with problems,” writes Cornell labor scholar Richard Hurd. He notes that union members themselves “continue to demand representation. They are mostly pragmatists and it is difficult for them to accept the argument that devoting substantial resources to organizing will pay off eventually …”

Moreover, noted Hurd in his 2004 paper, “The Rise and Fall of the Organizing Model,” American union members do not find appealing the approach’s ultimate goal of converting union members into hard-core leftwing “movement” activists.

“It seems that at least in the U.S. members do not have a taste for continual warfare, preferring stability rather than on-going class struggle,” he wrote.

In Southern Nevada, one of the first public signs of the change was the 2011 hiring of a controversial California union militant, John Vellardita — found guilty, in federal court, of several counts of wrongdoing — to be the executive director of the local teacher union, the Clark County Education Association.

Significantly, the CCEA press release that announced Vellardita’s hiring said he “looks forward to leading the Association from a service to an organizing model.”

This distinction — between “service model” unionism and “organizing model” unionism — is long-standing in American labor history and marked the early 20th century especially. Depending upon the times, each approach — and with the advocates of each scorning the other — has waxed or waned.

Still, as the American Federation of Teachers notes in a leadership handbook, “Service model unionism is by far the most widely used model of union organizing past and present.”

The service model union has been compared to purchasing insurance from an insurance company. Members pay a fee for an “insurance policy” in case they ever experience disciplinary problems on the job. In the most severe examples, the only interaction members have with their union is if they need workplace representation. Staff and elected leadership solely handle the activities of the union, including contract negotiations and grievance proceedings…

Service-model unionism is frequently also called “business” unionism. A Wikipedia entry describes this as characterizing “a type of trade union that is opposed to class or revolutionary unionism and has the principle that unions should be run like businesses.”

Business unions are believed to be of American origin, and the term has been applied in particular to phenomena characteristic of American unions…. [A]ccording to Hoxie, business unionists were advocates of “pure and simple” trade unionism, as opposed to class or revolutionary unionism.

Organizing-model unionism, on the other hand, is typically more militant, ideologically left-wing and adversarial in its relationship with employers. To sustain this approach, union organizers must work intensively within the union membership to “educate” and “organize” members into the militancy, solidarity and combativeness needed for successful confrontations with management.

An explicit goal of this organizing process, however, is for most members to come to believe that the union is “theirs” and that they “run” it — even though they effectively do not, at least in the early years, and perhaps not even years afterward. Yet, as the AFT manual explains, members must be “involved in the decision-making process” and “ultimately take ownership of their union.”

That “ultimately” reveals the real challenge: Successful implementation of the organizing model entails significant modification of members’ attitudes, behavior and even sense of personal identity in order for them to eventually become fused into a single organizational mass, ready to act as desired by union leadership.

So, will Nevada school teachers respond positively to Vellardita’s prescription for how “their” union should change? According to one teacher acquainted with the issue who requested anonymity, while some members will, many will not — potentially leading to an even weaker and more divided union.

One difficulty, Nevada Journal was told, is that the organizing model requires that grievances — widely acknowledged to be a grueling part of a union’s responsibilities — be handled by members, teachers who are union-building reps, rather than the UniServ business agents who’ve traditionally performed that job.

“The problem,” said the source, “is that most teachers don’t have time for that. The average teacher just doesn’t have time to specialize in grievances. … The average building rep in the ‘70s or the ‘80s was probably pretty passionate in the beginning … [but] that’s not so much true anymore.”

Vellardita’s prescription is not only being pursued in Clark County but it’s also being pressed on the statewide leadership of the union, the Nevada State Education Association. In addition, it’s being pushed by the union’s national leadership, the National Education Association.

Ironically it appears that the whole question may well be decided by union higher-ups, rather than rank-and-file teachers, despite them being told it’s an issue of union democracy.

That’s because of something not well understood by most union members: While they naturally assume the representatives they elect are obligated to speak for them, the rank and file, the NEA Board of Directors Handbook tells those representatives it’s not that simple. Board members, it informs them, are also required to sell the national organization’s views to the rank and file.

The relevant passage in the manual is:

Conversely, directors must represent NEA to affiliates and members and must assume responsibility for facilitating their understanding and encouraging their support for the positions and policies of the Association.

The NEA — like much of organized labor — sees the organizing model as a way to reverse shrinking union membership.

“Orchestrated attacks on labor unions and a prolonged recession have resulted in unprecedented membership losses throughout NEA affiliates,” said an NEA report released in January.

“If we are to emerge from these challenges stronger and better-positioned to advance the cause of public education,” continues the report, “we must chart a different path and utilize different strategies…”

The report, from an NEA committee tasked with coming up with updated job responsibilities for the union’s UniServ business agents, was initially confidential but was leaked to Mike Antonucci, who runs the Education Intelligence Agency website.

“The report reiterates a theme that has been emanating from NEA in recent years,” writes Antonucci. “The union wants to shift from ‘service delivery’ to organizing.” He then quotes from the report:

NEA recognizes the need to fundamentally reorient the work of our essential state field staff —the UniServ director — from one of representative and legal advocate to one of organizer.

“The national union is perturbed,” Antonucci writes, “that many, if not most, members see it as a group that provides collective bargaining and legal defense for a fee. NEA would much rather be seen by its members as the leader of a movement...”

However, there’s a problem with this approach, he notes, especially in states where the NEA affiliates receive agency fees: “[Y]ou can’t insist on being a mass movement bound together by a common belief, and then under penalty of law and job dismissal, demand payments from employees who don’t share that belief.”

Another hurdle Vellardita’s campaign faces in Nevada is the CCEA executive director’s own personal history.

“I don’t trust him,” one union officer — promised confidentiality — told Nevada Journal.

One source of that distrust is no doubt Vellardita’s leading role in what a Northern California federal jury in 2010 held was a conspiracy by him and other insiders to make ungovernable a union they were being compelled to exit — by destroying its files and property, violating many union bylaws and breaching their fiduciary responsibilities to both union rank-and-file and the local’s parent union, SEIU.

The background of the conspiracy was a decision by SEIU’s national board to consolidate its three unionized California long-term healthcare union locals into one. United Health Workers (UHW) — the local of which Vellardita was a high officer — opposed the decision, and he and others began actively fighting it.

That eventually led the SEIU executive board to begin moving to place UHW in trusteeship — a process that replaces local leadership.

“The jury found that the defendants did not take these developments kindly,” noted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in March of 2013. And what the “evidence at trial showed,” the court continued, was that UHW officials turned to sabotage, seeking “to create an ungovernable situation” for new incoming trustees.

Outgoing UHW leadership did so in several ways, including:

  • Blocking access to UHW buildings to prevent the SEIU-appointed trustees from entering;
  • Removing UHW property from UHW buildings, including office equipment, computers, and employee grievance files;
  • Instructing lower-level UHW officials and rank-and-file members not to recognize the authority of the trustees;
  • Harassing SEIU staff by storming SEIU’s Alameda, California, office; and
  • Terminating UHW collective bargaining agreements with California employers.

All this occurred in 2008 and 2009. In 2011, when Vellardita was hired by the CCEA, the Las Review-Journal reported on his well-documented legal troubles and his leadership role in the conspiracy. The R-J noted that, of the 17 defendants ordered by the federal jury to pay damages to SEIU, Vellardita had been ordered to pay the most: $77,850 — even more that the amount required of the local union president, Sal Rosselli: $70,600.

Those damage awards were appealed by the defendants all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, they were upheld at every level.

At the Ninth Circuit, in 2013, that court highlighted evidence that distrust of the defendants was entirely warranted:

The first skirmish in this case [wrote the Court] centered on the issuance of a temporary restraining order requiring the defendants to return any and all UHW property to UHW. The defendants opposed the order, insisting to the district court that they did not possess any UHW property. After the district court issued the order and we upheld it, Serv. Emps. Int’l Union, 598 F.3d at 1072, the defendants returned more than sixty boxes of material to UHW. Then, shortly before trial, the defendants deposited seventeen more boxes with their counsel, who turned the property over to UHW.

The district court found, and the trial record shows, that some equipment remains missing. The court justly considered the defendants’ obvious lack of credibility and wisely concluded that “there is reason to expect yet more missing files will turn up. There is still a need for an injunction.”

Having previously cried wolf in the federal courts before, only to have their cry exposed, the defendants merit no trust when they cry again. The district court properly issued the permanent injunction. (Emphasis added.)

The Ninth Circuit also highlighted a recurring assumption in the arguments made by Vellardita and his fellow defendants on appeal: that, because they supposedly had the highest motives, provisions of long-established federal labor law did not apply to them, nor did their previous commitments to obey the SEIU and UHC constitutions:

The UHW defendants posit that they owed [a fiduciary] duty to only the rank-and-file members of their local union. Because they subjectively believed their actions assisted those members by establishing a more democratic union with localized control, they maintain they have done no wrong under [Section] 501 [of the federal Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act]. Their argument ignores the fact that they diverted union resources to weaken their own union and form a rival union merely because they did not agree with the constitutionally permissible decision of the international union. Because no construction of the LMRDA allows such conduct based merely on the defendants’ subjective motives, we reject the defendants’ argument. ...

Now, after engaging in a pattern of conduct aimed at weakening the very union they represented, the defendants assert that, under the plain language of § 501, this extra-legal strategy nonetheless deserves the law’s protection. They argue that Congress intended that the LMRDA ensure that unions are “internally democratic,” and yet they also seek judicial exoneration for their decidedly anarchistic methods of opposition. (Emphasis added.)

In a footnote to this paragraph, the court noted that former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, when “recommending that SEIU impose a trusteeship on UHW, properly observed” that:

No democratic labor organization can permit local unions to nullify international decisions reached through the democratic processes specified in their Constitution and Bylaws. (The Court’s emphasis).

The court added:

Even if the defendants believed they were acting in the best interest of the union’s members, they needed to consider their actions in relation to the interests of the union as an institution. The UHW constitution “shall at all times be subordinate to” the SEIU constitution, which prohibits local union officers from engaging in dual unionism or assisting in efforts to disaffiliate. The defendants’ actions directly contravened the constitutional provisions of the union they represented. “Expenditures by union officers that violate the union’s constitutions represent the classic case of breach of fiduciary duty under section 501.” Guzman v. Bevona, 90 F.3d 641, 647 (2d Cir. 1996). We find no reason to change course merely because the union officers believed their actions indirectly benefitted rank-and-file members. The text of the LMRDA does not suggest a defense of “Trust us, we know what’s best for our members.”

Steven Miller is the senior vice president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute and managing editor of Nevada Journal. For more, visit NevadaJournal.com.

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