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Where Public Sector Union Membership Is Shrinking and Growing

Educators rally as a strike against the Los Angeles Unified School District entered its fifth day outside City Hall in Los Angeles Friday, Jan. 18, 2019.

Educators rally as a strike against the Los Angeles Unified School District entered its fifth day outside City Hall in Los Angeles Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. AP Photo

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Newly released employment numbers show a small decline last year in the rate of public sector union membership.

Public sector union membership dropped very slightly last year, mirroring a broader trend in union membership across the country.

Numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday showed that public sector membership was at 7.2 million in 2018, with the share of workers in unions declining by .5 percent from the previous year to 33.9 percent of government employees.

But the local government sector actually saw union membership grow last year to 4.2 million, which corresponded with a gain in the total number of jobs in those agencies. About 40.3 percent of the 10.3 million people employed in local governments in 2018 were union members, the BLS data shows. 

The decrease in public union membership came from state government, where the share of workers in a union dropped from 30.3 percent in 2017 to 28.6 percent last year. The number of federal workers in unions rose to 977,000 in 2018, but the share dropped very slightly to 26.4 percent of that workforce because the number of jobs also climbed. 

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a news release that the numbers show conservative attacks on labor haven’t succeeded and organizing efforts are working. “Educators, nurses, grad workers and so many others are joining unions because they see them as vehicles for a better life, a voice at work and a vibrant democracy,” she said.

Last year was an active one for teacher unions, with walkouts and marches on state capitol buildings that sought higher pay for teachers, as well as improved spending on schools. Right now, teachers in Los Angeles are on strike, calling for smaller class sizes and more support staff like counselors, as well as better pay.

But 2018 also saw a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that many feared could eventually deal a crippling financial blow to public sector unions. The court’s 5-4 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31 prohibited public sector unions from requiring workers who choose not to join the union to pay “fair share” fees that cover operational costs for collective bargaining, but weren’t supposed to go toward political activities.

The BLS data doesn’t indicate whether employees have stopped paying fees, only if they are members of a union or represented by a union.

Critics of the “fair share” fees said they violated the First Amendment because the required employees who disagreed with unions’ political or collective bargaining activities to financially contribute to the organization. At the time, Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said the decision amounted to a “massive step forward in the fight to protect American workers from forced unionism.”

But labor advocates and the dissenting justices disagreed, saying the fees were necessary to guard against “free riders,” or people who didn’t want to give to the union but still benefit from the contract negotiations with management.

After the decision, union organizers said they expected that conservative groups that had fought the fees would next encourage members to drop out of their unions.

Michael Merrill, director of the Labor Education Research Network at the Rutgers University, said any possible Janus impact in actual union membership won’t be clear until the summer, when there is a full year’s worth of data to look at.

In New Jersey, the state legislature in anticipation of the Janus decision passed legislation seeking to support unions by requiring public agencies to release employee data, such as contact information, to unions, Merrill said. This would enable them to contact workers directly to pitch them on joining and ensure they have accurate information, he said.

A report by Merrill’s organization, released this month, found that almost 16 percent of New Jersey’s workers—or 665,000 people—belonged to unions, with more members in the public sector. Public sector membership grew 25 percent in the state between 1988 and 2018, while private unions saw a 43 percent drop in members, the analysis found.

This trend was seen in the recent BLS report, which showed—as in recent years past—that the rate of union membership in the public sector was much higher than for employees working for private companies. The overall union membership rate was 10.5 percent in 2018, or a total of 14.7 million workers, BLS said.

Laura Maggi is Managing Editor of Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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