In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that all workers employed by a government entity, no matter their location in the U.S., have right-to-work protections. As a result, these workers cannot be forced to financially support a labor union in order to hold a government job. This decision had a significant effect on unions, costing them at least hundreds of thousands of members and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
A union official disagrees. In an article published by the American Bar Association, the associate general counsel for AFSCME says the decision had only a minimal effect on public sector unions. AFSCME was the losing party in the Janus decision, in which the Supreme Court held that Mark Janus had been forced to contribute money to an inherently political organization against his will, in an unconstitutional act.
The article is long and often devoted to ancillary topics, but Artz wrote that the decision and subsequent efforts to inform workers of their right to leave a union — “drop campaigns” — had only a weak impact on membership numbers:
The “drop campaigns” failed to make a significant dent in public sector union membership numbers… The numbers reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) demonstrate just how weak the Janus impact has been. For example, from 2018 when Janus was decided to the following year 2019, local (cities, counties, and other local jurisdictions) public sector union membership went down about 1 percent from 40.3 percent to 39.4 percent… . Overall, the decline in the union membership rate in the public sector from 2018 to 2019 was a paltry .3 percent (about 100,000 members), about on par with the private sector decline at .2 percent. The slight decline also correlates to the decline in the total number of public sector jobs available. … Per the BLS year-end 2022 report, public sector union membership declined by only .8 percent from 2021. And according to internal union reports, the rate of fair share fee payers becoming full-fledged dues-paying members outpaces those dropping membership at a rate of five to one.
His evidence relies almost entirely on the federal government’s BLS survey data. The article also cherry-picks the years, which minimizes the extent of union decline. Let’s analyze the flaws.
There are multiple ways to measure union membership, including the BLS survey, union membership reports and public records data from government entities. The BLS survey, which Artz uses, is the weakest source. It has multiple problems, which the federal government acknowledges. While it’s reasonable to use the survey as a source for the number of people who are union members, it is not designed to analyze year-over-year changes. (For a full analysis of the flaws in the BLS survey, click here.)
Even with its flaws, the BLS survey does show a decline in public sector union membership. From 2017 (the year before the Janus decision) to 2022 (the latest survey), the number of government union members in the states affected by the court ruling fell by more than 60,000, despite an increase in public employment. The percentage of public sector workers who are union members is now 33.1%. That’s down from 34.4% in 2017 and is the lowest since the 1970s. (It is unclear where Artz’s 39.4% number comes from.)
So even the flawed BLS numbers show that public sector unions have declined and are at the lowest percentage of the workforce in 45 years.
More suitable data sources show even greater union declines. Public records requests to government entities show that more than 20% of workers nationwide have withdrawn from union membership. In short, around 1 million people who work under collective bargaining agreements have exercised their First Amendment right to decline union membership.
We can also look at membership and financial forms unions submit to the federal government. Artz is the general counsel for AFSCME, which must, by law, submit an LM-2 form each year. Schedule 13 shows the number of dues and fee payers for the union.
From 2017 (the last report filed before the Janus decision) to 2022, AFSCME has lost more than 200,000 dues-paying members and fee-payers. Every active membership category has declined. In total, this is a 16.3% drop in active workers contributing to the union. This sure looks like a “significant dent.”
The results are clear on their face.
These are the numbers for 2017, pre-Janus:
And here is what happened five years after the Janus ruling:
The question posed by the Janus decision was not “What will happen to the number of union members?” It was about whether government employers should be able to force people to contribute money to political organizations against their will. Regardless of where one stands politically, we should all agree that people have the First Amendment right to support or refuse to support the causes they believe in.
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