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The UNLV campus on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Faculty across the state’s higher education system are pushing for a new law this year that would expand the state’s nascent public collective bargaining infrastructure to include professors and other professional staff — a sharp break from years of control of the process by the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).

Though faculty already maintain bargaining rights under NSHE code, they have long complained that any bargaining structure led by their employers — administrators, the Board of Regents and the chancellor — necessarily creates a power imbalance that has favored institutions in the long term. 

“That means that management writes the rules for collective bargaining and interprets the rules,” Kent Ervin, vice president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA) and UNR chemistry professor, said. 

Faculty, largely through the NFA, have spearheaded a push to create a “level playing field” through SB373, which would expand collective bargaining laws for public employees to include professional staff employed by the Nevada System of Higher Education.

The measure passed through committee early this month in a 4-1 vote, and now, having been waived through legislative deadlines, awaits a vote on the Senate floor. 

Ervin says the push to move collective bargaining out of the hands of the system and under the umbrella of state law comes after years of stop-and-start bargaining from faculty at the College of Southern Nevada that, he said, could have been avoided through a third-party labor board. 

“It took them three years to come to contract negotiations with their administration,” Ervin said. “And then with NSHE, it became apparent that the very limited rules which you can find in NSHE code are just not adequate. If either side thinks the other side is not bargaining fairly, there's nobody to go to.”

However, where many collective bargaining fights center in part on issues of salaries and pay equity, faculty who spoke to The Nevada Independent said the primary utility of a measure such as SB373 would be injecting fairness into dispute arbitration and adjudication that is, as of now, handled exclusively by the employer. 

“It really provides better due process for the faculty member involved, but also ultimately reduces the possibility of litigation and things escalating to where litigation is a possibility,” Ervin said. “I have seen the Board of Regents when they talk about settlement packages, how much money they're spending every year on settlements. Well, if you nip some of those issues in the bud and work out amicable solutions between the employee and their supervisors, you often could avoid those things.” 

Doug Unger, a UNLV English professor and the president of UNLV’s NFA chapter, said that these disputes have become even more common in the wake of the pandemic, and that core of the issue comes in redistributing some of the lingering power that has been entrenched in administrative hands since the very inception of the first universities in medieval Europe. 

“You have this medieval authority established in the universities, it’s why we have the names we have — chancellors, deans, provosts, regents — and the idea to elect a regent, someone who has absolute power over a system,” Unger said. “This idea of a medieval authority of an administrator is entrenched in the university system; they don’t want to give it up.”

Expanding the collective bargaining process, Unger said, would serve to chip away at that “medieval” authority by democratizing the process itself.  

And though salaries may not be the central issue behind the push for SB373, they still remain top-of-mind for faculty members who have gone more than a decade without a merit-based pay raise outside of promotions. 

“The only way to get annual raises is to threaten to leave,” Jeffrey Waddoups, a labor economist and chair of the UNLV economics department, said. “And if you threaten to leave, and it's a credible threat, and they want to keep you around, then they'll give you a raise. And the reason for that is because there's no system set up to give annual raises, and we have no power to establish such a system.”

Efforts to allow merit-based raises through a 1 percent pool of institutional funds have continued outside of efforts to pass SB373. But, Waddoups said, without bargaining power and without a union, efforts to return to pre-Great Recession pay raises would be hampered “because there’s no real way to do it.”  

Nevada’s system — where final rules-making authority lies with the higher education employer — is relatively rare in the U.S., according to Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel for the American Association of University Professors.

“Where a state law provides for collective bargaining for public employees that would normally state who's covered, you know, what employees and so if faculty are covered by the state, faculty in the State University are covered, they would either be under that general law, or there could be a separate law, but it would be most unusual to see that the collective bargaining system is controlled by the employer.”

Lieberwitz, who is also a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell and testified in favor of SB373, said that consistency in the way public sector bargaining agreements are carried out generally would broadly “enhance the stability of relationships” between administrators and faculty.  

In testimony so far, NSHE has remained formally neutral on the bill. In testifying on the measure on April 7, system General Counsel Joe Reynolds reiterated to lawmakers that NSHE code already provides for collective bargaining, and that they were “still reviewing this complex bill” and “do have questions about its scope, reach into board governance over personnel matters and costs.” 

Though Chancellor Melody Rose was unavailable for an interview before publication, she said in a statement late Tuesday that the board's position had not changed from neutral, and that it maintained the same concerns raised by Reynolds two weeks ago.

Still, the issue has so-far been inseparable, among some legislators, from broader issues of higher education governance and funding. 

“I think NSHE needs some major, major financial overhauls,” Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) said during a committee vote on the measure. “I think those guys have been spending money like drunken sailors with no oversight for decades … I realize this has to do with individuals, but the whole collective bargaining process, especially for those guys — financially, it’s out of control. I think we need to do some serious reining in of how they behave, so I’ll be a no.” 

Hansen’s remarks come as multiple legislators have expressed skepticism of the governance of NSHE by the Board of Regents, as well as of a renewed push to approve a constitutional amendment, SJR7, that would remove the board from the Constitution entirely. 

Though a similar measure, Question 1, was narrowly rejected by voters last year, legislators have so far broadly approved of SJR7. The measure was passed unanimously out of committee before being passed by the full state Senate, 20-0, last week

Hansen was opposed to SB373 on the grounds that collective bargaining does not “represent the taxpayer,” saying in an initial hearing on April 7 that the measure — like all public bargaining measures — creates a system in which one government agency collectively bargains with another government agency. His concerns were echoed by the Vegas Chamber, which testified against the bill on the grounds that it would create an undue tax burden, a complaint first leveled against public employee bargaining laws by the group during the 2019 session. 

Ultimately, Hansen was alone in opposing SB373 in the Senate Government Affairs Committee, whose three Democratic members all voted in favor. Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) — the committee’s only other Republican — also voted for the bill, though only with a reservation of his right to change his vote when it comes to the Senate floor. 

Outside committee Democrats, the bill also found support among a handful of other unions, including the public employee’s union AFSCME, the state teacher’s union NSEA and the service employee’s union SEIU.

Having been waived through legislative deadlines, it is not clear when SB373 will receive its first floor vote in the Senate. Delaying the bill in part: outstanding fiscal notes totaling $1.7 million through the next biennium for the attorney general’s office and the Department of Administration. 

Ervin said Tuesday that those notes will likely be removed, however, through a forthcoming amendment that acknowledges NSHE already bears the cost for bargaining infrastructure, and therefore no new costs would be created for the state.

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