Public sector union membership dips after Janus

  • January 22, 2020

The proportion of government workers who were union members fell slightly in 2019, the first full year after a Supreme Court decision canceled a crucial stream of fee-based revenue, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released today.

The percentage of government workers who belonged to unions was 33.6 percent in 2019, down from 33.9 percent in 2018. Workers for county and city governments were the most likely to be union members (39.4 percent), followed by state government workers (29.4 percent) and federal workers (25.6 percent).

The dip in union membership was predicted widely after the Supreme Court’s June 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision, which barred unions from collecting mandatory fees from union nonmembers to cover their share of collective bargaining costs, creating what economists call a “free rider” problem.

The Janus decision, in a manner similar to state right-to-work laws, incentivized government workers in unionized workplaces to quit the union or never to join in the first place. That’s because the union must, under current law, represent them even when they don’t pay union dues or a non-member “fair share” fee.

In 2019, the proportion of government workers who were represented by a union, a figure that includes union non-members in union shops, remained the same, at 37.2 percent.

The Janus case involved a state worker in Illinois, Mark Janus, who after winning his case quit his job and became a senior fellow at the Liberty Justice Center, a conservative nonprofit. Interestingly, the percentage of state workers who were union members rose in 2019 to 29.4, up from 28.6 in 2018, even as the percentage of federal and county and city governments fell.

Federal unions have long operated under right-to-work rules that create the same free rider problem as that created for other government unions in 2018 by Janus, so the ruling had no particular impact on them. But the Trump administration in 2018 issued three executive orders restricting federal unions in various ways. The executive orders were blocked by a district court judge, then later reinstated by an appeals court in July.

Membership rates for unions overall, public and private, ticketed down to 10.3 percent from 10.5 percent in 2018, continuing a decadeslong trend. The proportion of all workers who were represented by unions remained unchanged at 12.8 percent. In 1954, nearly 35 percent of all American workers were represented by unions, and as recently as 1983 representation was at 20.1 percent.