There’s no union boom — there’s just a union bust

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People rally against public sector unionization on Feb. 26, 2018, four months before the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that public sector unions cannot require non-member employees to pay agency fees covering the costs of non-political union activities.

Unions are back. At least, that’s the consensus in the mainstream media. The New York Times talks about a “comeback.” CNBC says there is a “boom” in organizing. TIME reports unions are “having a moment.” Yahoo notes their numbers are “on the rise.”  

These reports primarily rely on the fact that more workforces are attempting to unionize. It’s true that organized labor has made recent unionization attempts, including at Starbucks, Amazon, Google, Apple, Tesla and a host of media companies. But filing to try to start a union is not the same thing as succeeding. And the number of actual employees getting unionized in the splashy campaigns is more than swamped out by the thousands and thousands who are rejecting organized labor. 

Here is the truth: Unions aren’t back. They’re going backwards. In fact, on net, unions lost 240,000 members last year alone. 

The ongoing collapse is even more stark when you look at specific unions. I recently crunched the numbers from the forms that unions file annually with the federal government and found that some of the biggest unions in the country are losing active members in droves.

Consider the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In the last three years alone, AFSCME has lost 10 percent, while the AFT and the NEA are down 8.9 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. In total, these three unions alone have gone from 5.3 million active members to fewer than 4.9 million — a drop of more than 400,000 people who used to pay them dues or fees. 

What explains these tremendous drops? The simple answer is worker freedom. Before 2018, most teachers and public sector workers were required by law to join these unions, whether they wanted to or not. In the half-decade before 2018, the AFT gained nearly 15 percent of its members from forced unionization.

Then came the Janus decision at the Supreme Court. The justices ruled that no public sector worker in the country can be forced to pay dues or fees to a union. Survey data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that ruling helped contribute to the losses these unions have experienced ever since. Today, fewer than 7 million government workers belong to any union. That’s the first time their ranks have dropped below that number in more than 20 years.

Private sector unions are hardly faring better. While the United States has added more than 100 million people since 1973, private sector unions have fewer than half the members they did then — just over 7 million. 

Once again, worker freedom is the culprit. Since 2010, a spate of states — including Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky — have enacted right-to-work laws. In these states and many others, both public and private sector workers have the right to choose whether they want to belong or contribute to unions. 

The Janus decision and state right-to-work laws may be years old, but workers are still taking advantage of the freedom they offer. In fact, there’s reason to believe the worker rush toward the union exit door will stay steady — or even accelerate — in the years ahead. 

In the private sector, many unionized companies have collective bargaining agreements that will expire soon; when they do, workers will find it easier to opt out of a new contract, if one even happens. And in the public sector, states are still taking steps to fully implement the Janus decision. More and more workers will learn about their rights — and crucially, avail themselves of their right to be free of union control.

The claim that unions are in a “resurgence” has been said for decades. But the decline in membership has been unabated and shows no signs of stopping. Remember that the next time you hear that unions are “back.” It’s nothing more than wishful thinking that has nothing to do with workers’ actual wishes.

Jarrett Skorup is senior director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research and educational institute in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @JarrettSkorup.

Tags Janus v. AFSCME Right-to-work laws unionization Unions

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