The Janus effect: Public sector unionization rate is slightly down

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released new data on union membership; it showed a steady decrease in union membership both in the private and public sector. Overall the unionization rate declined by 0.2 percent to 10.5 percent of employees. (In Minnesota, the rate declined from 15.2 percent to 15.0 percent.)

The private sector unionization rate has been dropping steadily the last several decades. According to BLS, the unionization rate has dropped from about 20 percent in 1983 to 10.5 percent today:

The union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions–was 10.5 percent in 2018, down by 0.2 percentage point from 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.7 million in 2018, was little changed from 2017. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.

Over the same period, however, the public sector, had grown steadily—at least until now. According to BLS, “The union membership rate of public-sector workers (33.9 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.4 percent). (See table 3).”  It is much higher in Minnesota.

Recall that public sector unions were not recognized by state laws prior to about 1960; though unions existed, they were not made official in Minnesota until 1971 with the passage of PELRA (Public Employee Labor Relations Act).  The rate of unionization in Minnesota for state-level employees is now about 98 percent; the rate for municipal employees is about 54 percent, one of the highest rates in the nation.  According to Union Facts, over the last year, the rate of unionization in the public sector dropped by just .5 percent:

While public-sector union membership has only declined by .5 percent, this number will likely continue to decrease as the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME plays out.

In the eight months since the Court handed down their decision—which ruled unions could no longer deduct “fair share” fees from worker’s paychecks without consent—unions have implemented every tool in their war chest to mitigate membership declines. This includes imposing controversial opt out windows and working with politicians to pass laws that hinder workplace democracy.

But as more current and new employees realize what Janus means for themthis slow decline in public-sector union membership will almost certainly pick up speed.

One thing is for sure, workers who are tired of watching their dues go to support an increasingly left-leaning political agenda have finally been given a way out—and they’re taking it.

I would add that the Janus decision requires a lot more than just the end of “fair share” fees for non-members. Janus requires every public employer to inform public employees of their Janus Rights, and then ask every public employee who is forced to accept the exclusive representation of a workplace union whether they wish to waive their First Amendment right to decline union membership and stop paying union dues. And employers need to get the waiver in writing.

The State of Minnesota and government unions have not done either of these things. The Janus meter has been running since June 27, 2018: should unions be ordered to refund past dues taken since Janus was decided, they are running up a large liability tab. It remains to be seen what kind of liability will be assessed against employers for non-compliance.

Let’s also acknowledge that employees do not appear to be rushing for the door in large numbers. But we did not expect to see any significant drop until three to five years after Janus was decided. Why?

Many employees have never heard of the Janus decision, and those who have heard of it are told they cannot resign except during a narrow window, often based on the anniversary date of signing a union card (a date not known to the employee). Other employees are still thinking through what they want to do, and some like their union and plan to stay.

I got an email from a guy represented by AFSCME; he sent a letter resigning from the union. The union responded as follows:

We are in receipt of your request to revoke your membership. Based on the Membership card you have signed, this cannot be completed at this time as you are not within your revocation period. To view your card, please access your records by logging into MemberLink using the MemberLink button from our website:

For teachers, the union only allows resignations during a seven-day window at the end of September.

Government unions are making it really hard for members to leave, in defiance of Janus and the Constitution. That is why the Center is looking for a few terrific plaintiffs to blow these restrictions down.