A common argument made by unions and their allies is that workers want to belong to unions but that big business uses all manner of dirty tricks to prevent this. Yet when workers get the opportunity to walk away from their unions, many grab it.
A recent study by the Freedom Foundation to mark the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision bears this out. The study found that membership in the four largest public sector labor unions had fallen by more than 733,000 people since the court’s ruling. That’s not quite the deathblow for public sector unions that some predicted at the time, but it does indicates a pent-up desire on the part of many workers to be free of their supposed protector.
The court’s Janus ruling said that public sector workers (i.e., government employees) could not be forced to join or otherwise support a union as a condition of employment. Prior to Janus, governments could and often did sign collective bargaining contracts with workers forcing any person hired by the entity to join or contribute to the union. Usually, the money was automatically deducted from their paycheck. After Janus, workers had to affirmatively consent to such deductions.
According to progressive, pro-union rhetoric, the Janus ruling shouldn’t matter. Workers are eager to engage in collective bargaining and contribute to unions. If anything, they’re being held back.
“At a time when there has been a significant increase in the desire of workers to join unions, we cannot allow large corporate interests to continue to break the law, and deny their employees the constitutional right to organize,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee earlier this month.
And yet in the five years since Janus, four of the largest public sector unions have seen significant losses as workers opted out of joining, according to their federal LM-2 filings. The National Education Association lost more than 203,000 members, about 7% of their total membership. The American Federation of Teachers lost more than 125,000 members, about 9% of their membership. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees lost more than 204,000 members, about 16% of its total and the Service Employees International Union lost 200,000 members, about 10%.
These are just the declines that we know about. Most public sector unions don’t have to report their membership numbers. NEA, AFT, AFSCME and SEIU are required to report theirs because they include some private sector workers as well, which makes them subject to federal disclosure rules.
There’s also the fact that that unions scrambled after the Supreme Court’s decision to shore up their numbers by getting friendly states to pass special pro-union legislation. The Freedom Foundation’s report indicates that those efforts have their limits. If workers want to be free of their union, they’ll take advantage of their Janus rights sooner or later.