Union membership in public sector trades drop to ‘record lows’ after Janus ruling



Union membership in public sector trades drop to 'record lows' after Janus ruling

Public sector unions may have the ear of the White House under President Biden, but they’re also shedding members in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision.

A newly released report found that the four largest public sector trade unions lost an average of 10% of their membership in the five years since the 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which ended the requirement for non-union government workers to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment.

“The declines have brought membership in some unions to the lowest levels on record and show no signs of abating,” said the union watchdog in its June report, “Janus v. AFSCME at Five: Government Union Membership at Record Lows.”



The court’s decision wasn’t the death knell that some had predicted, but enrollment in the “big four” government unions – AFSCME, SEIU, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers – has plummeted in the last five years by a combined 733,745 members.

The foundation traced union membership and dues since the Supreme Court’s decision in AFSCME v. Janus, which struck down laws in 22 states that obligated government workers to pay fees to labor unions and required unions to seek affirmative consent for membership.

Figures from the LM-2 financial reports filed with the Department of Labor found that AFSCME – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – disclosed 1,051,671 members as of Dec. 31, 2022, a decline of 16.3% from its last report prior to Janus.

“This is not only the steepest decline of the four unions, but places AFSCME’s membership at the lowest on record,” said the report. “If recent trends continue, AFSCME could drop below one million members by the end of 2023.”

Membership dues “declined 20 percent from $186 million in Dec. 2017 to an inflation-adjusted $148 million in Dec. 2022,” said the report by Maxford Nelsen, the foundation’s director of labor policy.

The NEA saw its membership fall by 7.6% to 2,463,976 from 2017-22, while the AFT’s enrollment dropped to 1,192,252 during that period for a decline of 9.5%.

“AFT membership is now at its lowest level since 2014, erasing the additional growth AFT experienced following its string of mergers with NEA affiliates,” said the foundation.

Both teachers’ unions also experienced drops in dues. The NEA’s annual dues collected from local affiliates fell by $310 million, or 16%, while the AFT declined by 9% to $180 million.

The SEIU, or Service Employees International Union, reported 1,790,376 members, a decline of 10.1% from 2017, representing “the fewest working members the union has reported since 2006.” Revenue fell 29% adjusted for inflation from $281 million in 2017 to $199 million in 2022.

Union enrollment has been on the downswing for decades, but the report said membership stabilized following the 2008 Great Recession and the pre-Janus passage of collective bargaining reforms in states like Wisconsin.

Since Janus, however, membership has “steadily declined,” the report said.

The Freedom Foundation isn’t neutral on Janus: It submitted an amicus brief in favor of the plaintiff, Illinois government worker Mark Janus, and has tangled for years with unions like AFSCME.

In 2020, AFSCME called the foundation “the same billionaire-funded group that was behind the Janus v. AFSCME case in 2018, seeking to destroy workers’ rights and derail labor unions while taking away workers’ freedom to demand a voice on the job and a seat at the table in the workplace.”

Despite the drops in membership and revenue, labor unions remain politically influential. They have a powerful ally in President Biden, an unabashed “union man” who calls himself the most pro-labor president in U.S. history.

“Joe Biden is the most pro-worker president of our lifetime,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders in his June 16 endorsement of Mr. Biden’s 2024 reelection bid. “He respects and protects working people – especially front-line public service workers – and the essential work they do.”

Even as their membership dwindles, labor spending on political campaigns has increased.

Public sector unions contributed $83 million to overwhelmingly Democrat and liberal candidates and causes in the 2022 midterm campaign cycle, a 48% increase from the $56 million spent during the 2018 midterms, according to Open Secrets.

The government unions spent $93 million in the 2020 election, which saw most labor groups, including the “big four” public sector unions, back Mr. Biden.

Shortly after taking office in 2021, Mr. Biden began overhauling the National Labor Relations Board, firing Trump-era general counsel Peter Robb and appointing two pro-union members to give the board a 3-2 Democrat majority.

He also formed the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, which seeks to find “new ways the executive branch can facilitate the organizing of workers.”

As dismal as the enrollment and dues numbers look for unions, they may actually be worse than reflected on the LM-2 forms, which are only required to be filed by unions that represent some private sector workers unaffected by the Janus decision.

“Further, 27 states already had right-to-work laws on the books at the time Janus was decided, so union membership was already optional for public employees in those states,” the report said. 

“Consequently, for the unions’ nationwide membership to decline by 10 percent, membership among the portions of its public-sector members affected by Janus would have had to plummet even further.”

In addition, the number of government employees at the county, state and federal level has continued to grow overall in the last five years, meaning that the unions are both losing members and failing to sign up new workers.

Government-employee unions like the NEA have reacted by doubling down on “partisan politics,” the foundation said.

The NEA was the biggest campaign spender of the public sector unions in the 2021-22 election cycle, contributing $23 million almost exclusively to Democrat and liberal candidates and committees, followed by the NEA Advocacy Fund at $16 million.

“While such tactics have softened Janus’ impact in the short-term, whether this turns out to be a sustainable long-term strategy remains to be seen,” the report said.




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