The unions are back. At least, that’s the consensus in the mainstream media. The New York Times speaks of a “come back.” CNBC says there is a “boomin the organization. TIME reports that unions are “spend some time.” Yahoo notes that their numbers are “on the rise.”
These reports are mainly based on the fact that more workers are trying to organize. It is true that the unions have recently tried to unionize, particularly in the Starbucks, Amazon, Google, Apple, You’re here and one host of media companies. But filing a case to try to start a union is not the same as succeeding. And the number of actual employees unionizing in the splashy campaigns is more than overwhelmed by the thousands upon thousands who reject organized labor.
The ongoing collapse is even more striking when you look at specific unions. I recently analyzed the numbers from the forms unions file with the federal government every year and found that some of the largest unions in the country are losing active members en masse.
Consider the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In the past three years alone, AFSCME has lost 10%, while AFT and NEA have fallen 8.9% and 6.2% respectively. In total, these three unions alone fell from 5.3 million active members to less than 4.9 million, a drop of more than 400,000 people who paid or dues to them.
What explains these huge falls? The simple answer is worker freedom. Prior to 2018, most teachers and public sector workers were required by law to join these unions, whether they wanted to or not. In the half-decade to 2018, the AFT gained nearly 15% of its membership through forced unionization.
Then came the Janus Decision to the Supreme Court. The judges ruled that no public sector worker in the country can be compelled to pay union dues or fees. Survey data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the ruling contributed to the losses these unions have since suffered. Today, fewer than 7 million civil servants belong to a union. This is the first time their ranks have dropped below that number in over 20 years.
Private sector unions fare little better. While the United States has added more than 100 million people since 1973, private sector unions have less than half the membership they had then – just over 7 million.
Once again, workers’ freedom is guilty. Since 2010, a series of states — including Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky — have enacted right-to-work laws. In these and many other states, public and private sector workers have the right to choose whether to join or contribute to unions.
The Janus decision and the state right to work laws may be years old, but workers are still enjoying the freedom they provide. In fact, there is reason to believe that the rush of workers for the exit door of the union will remain stable – or even accelerate – in the years to come.
In the private sector, many unionized companies have collective agreements that will soon expire; when they do, workers will find it easier to opt out of a new contract, should the need arise. And in the public sector, states continue to take steps to fully implement the Janus decision. More and more workers will learn their rights and, above all, will exercise their right to be free from union control.
The claim that unions are in a “resurgence” said for decades. But the decline in membership has not stopped and shows no signs of stopping. Remember the next time you hear that unions are “back”. This is nothing more than wishful thinking that has nothing to do with the real wishes of workers.
Jarrett Skorup is Senior Director of Marketing and Communications at Mackinac Center for Public Policyan open-market research and education institute in Midland, Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @JarrettSkorup.