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.
Have postal unions figured out how to survive in a post-Janus world? I worked for the USPS as a letter carrier back in the early 80’s and even then you didn’t have to be a union member (NALC) if you didn’t want to. Peer pressure to join was high. The union was also the only way to have some influence on local work rules which impacted post office part-time regulars like me significantly. It wasn’t a bad job for a transitionary college kid, but it was an organization where leadership was not very strong, and where the union was probably needed. Who knew they could also be the future model the rest of the public sector 35 years laters.
The Supreme Court is expected soon to rule, perhaps as early as Tuesday, in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that challenges so-called fair-share or agency fees that public employee unions charge union nonmembers to cover their share of collective bargaining costs.
The addition of Neil Gorsuch likely means that the high court will rule nonmember fees illegal, an outcome that labor experts say will deal public employee unions a terrible financial blow. Because the unions must by law represent nonmembers in collective bargaining, these experts say, barring nonmember fees will not only keep the unions from recouping that expense; it will also prompt a stampede out of the unions by dues-paying members once they discover they can enjoy the benefits of union representation without paying dues or fees.
Nonsense, Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued before the Supreme Court in February. “In the Postal Service,” Francisco said, “about 94 percent of employees who are subject to collective bargaining agreements are members of the union even though you don’t have agency fees.”
The Postal Service example is striking because its unions resemble the state and local government unions at issue in Janus more closely than they do unions that represent other federal employees.
Indeed, postal workers aren’t precisely federal employees at all, because since 1970 the Postal Service has been a run as a quasi-government corporation, with revenues derived solely from the fees it charges customers. (President Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on what he calls preferential post-office treatment for Amazon seldom acknowledge that the Postal Service is not tax-supported.)
Like most state and local unions but unlike most federal unions, postal unions are permitted to bargain collectively over wages and benefits. “The federal government, other than a few agencies, doesn’t have true collective bargaining,” noted Phil Tabbita, a negotiator at the American Postal Workers Union, which represents technicians and mail processors.
As is the case with other federal unions, however, postal unions are barred from charging nonmember fees — a constraint that Janus is expected to extend to state and local unions.
But if Francisco sees postal unions as forerunners to post-Janus public-employee unions, that isn’t how postal unions see themselves. “I don’t really agree with that conclusion,” said Jim Sauber, chief of staff for the National Association of Letter Carriers. “There are more differences … than meets the eye.”
The main difference is that postal unions have been around much longer than most other government unions, and therefore are much more entrenched institutionally. State government unions date only to the 1960s (Wisconsin was the first state to allow them, in 1959). Postal unions trace their origins to the 19th century. NALC was the first, founded in 1889 by Civil War veterans.
“The difference is that [we’re] over a 100 years old,” Tabbita said. “Virtually everybody that has not been in management are in bargaining units and have been for their entire careers.”
Postal union officials also dispute any suggestion that not being able to collect nonmember fees poses little problem. They are quick to complain about so-called free riders who refuse to join the union, but still reap the benefits of collective bargaining.
“It’s not fair because you have a percentage of scabs who are sucking off the people who are paying the union dues,” said Bob Losi, legislative and political director at the National Post Mail Handlers Union, which represents the workers who load, unload and sort mail.
Postal unions’ successes, Losi and others said, came in spite of, not because of, the absence of nonmember fees.
A recent study by Boston University’s James Feigenbaum, Columbia University’s Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Brookings’ Vanessa Williamson found that private-sector unions in right-to-work states tend to become less influential in national politics precisely because they must allocate scarce resources to internal organizing. Still, postal unions say public sector unions should double down on reaching out to members anyway, as the best long-term strategy for survival.
“It does come down to educating your members,” Losi said. “That’s the only way you’re going to survive.”