Unions decline again — and public-sector right-to-work may be a reason

Unions decline again — and public-sector right-to-work may be a reason
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Another year, another decline in union membership in the United States. While private-sector unions long have been shrinking, public-sector unionization rates now also are on a downward trend. In its annual union survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found a decline of 0.2 percentage points in the overall unionization rate of the workforce, from 10.5 percent to 10.3 percent. 

The unionization rate in the private sector is just 6.2 percent, down from nearly 17 percent in the early 1980s. That’s the lowest rate ever recorded. 

Until recently, the national rate of unionization had been buoyed somewhat by their gains among state and local workers. The public-sector unionization rate was steady for 40 years, with just shy of 40 percent of government workers unionized. But that rate began to decline in 2011, fueled perhaps by the passage of right-to-work laws in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia. Then, membership in government employee unions dropped — reaching 33.6 percent in 2019.


In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision affirmed the First Amendment rights of all public employees. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, state employees, local government workers and everyone else who draws a government paycheck now cannot be required to pay dues or fees, and have the ability to fully leave a union. In short, the decision extended right-to-work to all public-sector workers. 

The change in unionization rates in the largest, most heavily unionized states has been mixed over the past decade; some increased and some decreased. But since 2017, the last full year before the Janus decision, unionization rates have declined significantly in the big labor states of New York, Alaska, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey and California. 

While unions oppose policies allowing workers to leave, the usual complaints about negative effects from right-to-work laws do not appear in the government data. But a long-term look at the evidence shows that right-to-work states are gaining the most in total jobs, household income and population

The legislative fight over right-to-work is not necessarily related to public policy or economic outcomes. Unions are a key source of support for the Democratic Party, and they can help Democrats more if workers are forced to financially support them. The single largest grant from one of the nation’s largest unions — the American Federation of Teachers — went to a Democratic Party super PAC. Given the partisan realities of unions’ political activities, some politicians always will support right-to-work laws and others always will oppose them. 

The fight over mandatory union membership versus freedom of association will continue. Legislators in Virginia could be the first in decades to remove a state right-to-work law. But neighboring Tennessee is heading in the other direction, looking to enshrine the freedom of choice in union membership into its state constitution. 


In California, New York, New Jersey and elsewhere, lawmakers are passing union-backed legislation to hobble workers trying to leave. In Alaska and Florida, conservatives have pushed legal interpretations and laws making it easier for workers to know their rights about union membership, including their options for leaving it behind.

Like a business’s membership in a local chamber of commerce, union membership may help or hurt individual employees. Each situation is different and each person can weigh the pros and cons of joining. That’s the beauty of freedom of association — which hopefully will be embraced, not taken away, going forward. 

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