Anticipating that the U.S. Supreme Court might end mandatory union fees for public employees, some labor-friendly states enacted laws last year to protect membership rolls while unions redoubled their recruitment efforts.
Those steps appear to have paid off, at least initially.
Union membership among public employees has fallen only slightly in the nation’s most unionized states since the Supreme Court ruled a year ago that government workers no longer could be required to pay union fees, according to an analysis of federal data conducted for The Associated Press.
The decline in union membership rates has been larger in states that had previously allowed mandatory fees to be deducted from the paychecks of public school teachers, police and other government workers than in states that had not. Yet the drop has been less than what some labor leaders had feared following the high court decision, which reversed a 41-year-old legal precedent.
“People were saying that we were going to be buried, that this was going to be our death knell, that this was going to destroy public-sector unions in this country. And it did not do that,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “As a matter of fact, I believe that we have a much more engaged membership.”
Reinvigorated union membership drives may have staved off some of the anticipated losses. The court ruling came amid a multi-year effort by AFSCME to improve one-on-one communication with current and potential members to build a stronger, more loyal membership. Other public-sector unions undertook similar efforts.
“We went back to basics, re-creating community, engaging with our members,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “By and large, they stayed with the union.”
The Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that AFSCME could no longer deduct mandatory fees from Illinois child-support worker Mark Janus, who had declined to join the local union. More broadly, the high court said it violated the First Amendment free-speech rights of public employees to force them to subsidize unions that might push policies they disagree with during contract negotiations.
The ruling struck down what were known as public union “agency fees,” which were levied on non-members at rates of around three-quarters of full union dues.
Those fees were required of at least some public employees in about half of all states and the District of Columbia. They were intended to compensate unions for their collective bargaining representation, not their political activities.
Reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor show AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union lost a combined 209,000 agency fee payers after the Supreme Court ruling. Teachers unions also lost tens of thousands of agency fee payers.
The big question was whether the court ruling also would lead to an exodus of regular union members.
At the request of the AP, economist David Macpherson analyzed state-by-state labor force data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey. He compared average public-sector union membership rates after the Supreme Court ruling, from July 2018 through May of this year, to the same 11-month period before the ruling.
States that previously allowed mandatory agency fees for at least some public employees had a significantly higher union membership rate — about 53 percent — before the ruling, compared to a 16.6 percent unionization rate in states that did not allow such fees. Since the high court’s decision, that average membership rate fell by about 1 percentage point in agency-fees states while dropping just a quarter of a percentage point in the other states.
The decline in the agency-fee states might have been larger except that “some states made it very hard to drop union membership,” said Macpherson, chairman of the Department of Economics at Trinity University in San Antonio and co-creator of the website unionstats.com.
In anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Hawaii repealed the ability of union members to halt dues deductions at any time — instead limiting them to a 30-day window before the anniversary of when they signed up.
A New Jersey law narrowed its wide-open revocation window to 10 days each year while also guaranteeing that unions could get the home addresses and personal cellphone numbers of new government employees.
Hawaii’s public-sector union membership rate rose almost 2 percentage points since the court ruling while New Jersey’s remained relatively flat, declining by less than 0.2 percentage points.
“When Janus was first coming out, people were projecting enormous losses of membership, especially for the public sector. We wanted to make sure that unions had equal footing and access to membership, and obviously it’s worked,” said New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, a vice president of the international ironworkers union, which does not represent public-sector workers.
New York also acted preemptively with a law increasing unions’ access to public employees. On the same day as the Supreme Court ruling, California’s then-governor, Democrat Jerry Brown, signed a law requiring public employees to follow the terms of their union agreements when seeking to revoke their membership.
That means Cara O’Callaghan, a University of California, Santa Barbara, employee who joined a union less than a month before the Janus ruling, will have to wait until 2022 to stop her automatic dues deductions.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “I think anybody should have the choice to be able to join and pay if you wish, and then if you feel at another point that they’re not working for you, I think you should be able to quit and not have to pay at any time.”
O’Callaghan had been paying agency fees before she said the union enticed her into full membership by explaining that the costs weren’t significantly different and that she would also get a life insurance policy. She regretted the move after the Supreme Court decision and has since filed a federal lawsuit seeking to immediately halt her membership dues. It’s backed by the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center, the same group that represented Janus.
The Janus ruling specifically applied to union fees paid by non-members. But O’Callaghan’s case is one of several citing the ruling while contending that regular public-sector union members also should be able to immediately quit paying dues, despite signing membership agreements that limited their revocation window.
“We’ve got people all across the country that are in the process of trying to resign from the unions, and the unions are not allowing that to happen,” said Janus, who now works for the Liberty Justice Center.
In Illinois, Janus’ home state, union membership rates have fallen from roughly half of the public-sector workforce to about 43 percent since the Supreme Court ruling, according to the analysis done for the AP.
The specific union that Janus sued, AFSCME Council 31, lost about 7,000 agency fee payers but has gained nearly 2,000 regular members since the ruling, including some who had previously been paying agency fees, said Anders Lindall, the council’s public affairs director.
Despite losing the court case, “We’re stronger than we were a year ago,” he said.