Drop in Union Rolls Portends Drop in '20 Political Donations

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The 2020 presidential election should be another close one, with every vote and dollar supporting the Republican and Democratic candidates having heightened importance. One factor so far left mostly unexplored is what influence public sector unions, which have been subject to significant policy changes, will have.

New data shows the nation’s largest unions have suffered significant losses in membership and revenue as a result of the Supreme Court's 2018 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The ruling gives public employees First Amendment rights to opt out of funding unions.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, a combined 340,000 workers have left the following unions since the Janus decision: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); the Service Employees International Union (SIEU); the National Education Association (NEA); and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Specifically, active workers contributing to these unions fell by 2.9% for the SEIU, 3.9% for the NEA, 6.2% for AFT and 7.8% for AFSCME.

While the reports do not provide a state-by-state breakdown, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s own research into state payroll data shows that in some of the largest unionized states, the drop in membership may be even larger for state and local unions. In California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, the typical government union lost about 15% of those paying union dues or fees.

During the 2016 election cycle, unions — public and private combined — spent $1.7 billion, which increased to $2 billion in 2018. The latter is an astounding amount, considering there was no presidential race. Union political support of federal candidates saw a 300% increase in recent decades, with 90% going to Democrats. And the SEIU alone just announced a $150 million campaign to unseat President Trump. 

For most of the past 30 years, the unionization rate of government workers hovered around 40%. Over the past decade, however, a number of states got rid of the requirement that their workers financially support unions. This includes right-to-work laws passed in Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky and West Virginia. Then came the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus.

No surprise then that over the past decade, public sector unions have lost about 800,000 members, and the unionization rate fell to 34% nationally. That’s the lowest it’s been since the 1970s, which is the decade most states began legalizing public sector unionization. 

The Janus decision appears to have accelerated the decline in union membership. According to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, broken down at www.UnionStats.com, the number of union members among public sector workers — school employees, police officers, firefighters, city bus officers, state employees, etc. — was 7.21 million in 2017. That dropped to 7.16 million in 2018 and to 7.06 million in 2019. Figured in percentages, the first year after Janus saw a drop in union membership of 0.7%, which doubled to 1.4% in year two. It’s not hard to see how the freeing of every public sector worker to make up his or her own mind about union membership, including in deep blue states like California and New York, could have a massive effect. 

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics data is likely undercounting to some extent. It is based on surveys, often with small sample sizes and with no guarantee that responders provide accurate information. The BLS survey can certainly capture long-term trends, but measuring year-to-year is not reliable.

However, other measures show an even larger drop in the number of government employees financially supporting a union.

As part of our work educating public employees across the country about their First Amendment rights, the Mackinac Center has also gathered its own data. We have sent public records requests to public employers — states, counties, cities and school districts — covering approximately 2.5 million union members. This data is based on payroll records kept by employers and is probably as close to the source of this information as one can be. The average decline in union membership one year after Janus based on this data is even higher: 11%. 

The two-year anniversary of the Janus decision is coming up this summer, and it’s still hard to know exactly what the effect has been on unions. But an accounting of the available data suggests a loss of $150 to $300 million in annual revenue. That’s a big deal in an election year many unions consider their most important yet. 

Jarrett Skorup is a labor expert at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and its initiative, www.MyPayMySay.com.

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