Buffeted by Covid-induced economic lockdowns and a Supreme Court ruling that lets government workers decline to join or pay a fee to a union, membership in government labor groups plunged last year. Continuing a trend that began after the 2008–2009 recession, public-sector unions lost 191,000 members in 2021, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The number of government workers enrolled in a union has now fallen below 7 million for the first time since 1998, and 33.9 percent of all government workers are now unionized, down from a high of 38.7 percent in 1994.

Government unions have lost members in eight of 12 years since the 2008–2009 recession, and total membership has declined by some 915,000 workers.

The news is only slightly better for private-sector labor groups. After losing an astounding 426,000 union members in 2020, private-sector union losses slowed to just 50,000 in 2021. But unlike in the public sector, where the total number of jobs fell last year, private industries rebounded in 2021, adding more than 4 million positions—even as labor groups lost membership. Plagued by steep declines in manufacturing, where unions lost 99,000 members, and in health care and social services, which saw a drop of 69,000 members, the share of private-sector workers belonging to a union has shrunk to just 6.1 percent, down from 6.3 percent in 2020 and from a quarter of all workers in the early 1970s. In manufacturing, an industry where employment grew by nearly 250,000 jobs last year, just 8.5 percent of workers are in unions, down from nearly 40 percent 50 years ago. Many of the newest manufacturing facilities are non-union shops located in states where workers are free to opt out of union membership.

One explanation for private-sector union struggles is that the states experiencing some of the biggest rebounds from the Covid recession of 2020 are not traditional strongholds of labor groups. Right-to-work states like Texas, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho—where local laws allow workers to decline to join or pay a fee to a union—have been the first places to recapture all the jobs lost during the Covid recession. Even in spots where unionization is more entrenched, many returning jobs appear to be non-union. In California, for instance, the 27,000 new union members the state registered in 2021 account for just 6 percent of all new employment in California last year. As a result, the share of workers in unions declined in the Golden State to 15.9 percent, from 16.2 percent.

While the slow decline in private union membership is a long-term story, the losses for public-sector unions have been more dramatic. In 2009, membership in public-sector unions reached an all-time high of 7.9 million, surpassing private-sector labor groups in numbers for the first time. Over the next four years, though, government unions lost nearly 700,000 members amid a steep decline in state and local revenues. On an inflation-adjusted basis, many state and local budgets didn’t recover the lost revenue until 2016 or 2017.

Then came the Supreme Court’s June 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which held that no state could compel a government worker to join a union or pay it a fee. Though the biggest impact of Janus was probably on the number of non-members who were freed from their obligation to pay fees to labor groups, public unions also lost 50,000 members in 2018 and 103,000 in 2019. Unions bounced back in 2020, with a gain of 109,000 members, thanks in part to increases in the number of federal workers in unions, but last year they reversed those gains and more.

One reason for the membership declines may be an accelerating growth of lawsuits by workers objecting to obstacles to resigning from these groups. New laws in union-friendly states like New York, New Jersey, California, and Connecticut, for instance, require those who wish to resign from a government union to do so during a narrow window of time each year. Some unions, with the help of friendly state governments, have also been slow to process workers’ requests to stop having fees deducted from their paychecks. Such maneuvers have prompted an unprecedented slate of legal actions. Workers have filed some 160 lawsuits in federal courts related to the Janus ruling. The most recent action involves six professors at CUNY who object to the political stances of the union representing them and contend that the union has refused to stop deducting dues from their salaries even after they left the group.

“I decided to resign my union membership and naively thought I could leave the union and its politics behind for good. I was wrong,” Professor Avraham Goldstein recently wrote. “Union officials refused my resignation and continued taking union dues out of my paycheck.”

Unions’ ongoing membership losses also suggest that the Biden administration, heavily backed by labor in the 2020 election, has yet to make a significant difference in their fortunes. Much of Biden’s labor agenda has been stuck in neutral, as Republicans and moderate Democrats continue to resist his most radical legislation. The administration, for instance, supports the so-called PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act, which would do away with the sections of the Taft–Hartley Act that allow states to pass local laws enabling workers to decline to join a union, even if their workplace is organized. Right-to-work states now number 27, including five that have become so in the last ten years alone, but the administration has yet to make headway in assembling a majority in favor of the PRO Act.

One paradox of the last decade has been that public approval of unions has rebounded from the losses sustained after the 2008 recession, even as union membership has plunged. One explanation may be that, while many Americans still approve of unions, they resent the idea of being forced to join one.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


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