Giving Workers a Choice

by Jillian Kay Melchior

Summer is usually a sleepy time for educators, but in the first two weeks of July 2012, the Clark County Education Association was facing a crisis. Union membership had already been on the decline, but during that two-week span alone, the Clark County teacher’s union lost more than 7 percent of its members.

Nevada has been a right-to-work state since 1952, but teachers’ ability to leave a union is tightly restricted. In the Clark County district, they had to submit written notification between July 1 and July 15, or else they’d be stuck paying more than $750 in dues for another year of membership. And many teachers didn’t even know that was a possibility — until the Nevada Policy Research Institute decided to run an educational campaign about how they could opt out.

That effort was wildly successful, costing the Clark County Education Association alone more than 800 dues-paying members. And this week, the campaign goes national.

“We thought, if this is happening in one school district in a small state, how many other workers are out there who would love to leave their union but don’t know how?” says Victor Joecks, communications director for National Employee Freedom Week. Joecks also helped with the 2012 Nevada campaign.

The Freedom Week campaign, which runs from June 23 to June 29, will reach workers in 31 states. Led by the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Association of American Educators, the coalition includes 45 state-based organizations and ten national groups. The organizers describe this as a grass-roots effort. Joecks says they’ve put aside a modest $25,000 for the national campaign, though state-level groups will probably spend more disseminating information in their jurisdictions.

The goal of National Employee Freedom Week, Joecks says, is to inform millions of workers of their rights regarding union membership. In right-to-work states, the campaign will send out information about how to quit a union. Elsewhere, it will inform workers of what options they have. For example, union members can pay an agency fee but drop their membership, or they can claim a religious objection, sending the money that would have been paid in mandatory union dues to a nonprofit instead.

If the Clark County experience was any indication, National Employee Freedom Week has high potential. The coalition commissioned a study, released today, claiming that more than 33.4 percent of unionized workers would leave if they could. Now, that poll surveyed only 500 union households nationwide. Nevertheless, there’s reason to believe the coalition’s message will be heard by eager ears. Already, union membership is at its lowest level as a percentage of the U.S. population since 1916. In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that organized labor lost 400,000 members in 2012 alone, a decline of more than 4 percent.

And, Joecks says, National Employee Freedom Week is “going to kind of come out of left field,” making it harder for unions to respond to the campaign. “It’s kind of amazing when you think about all the people these groups can reach,” he says. “Millions of people are going to find out [for the first time] what their options are.”