The percentage of government workers who belong to a union dipped again in 2018 and has hit a 40-year low. Just 33.9 percent of government workers now belong to a union, according to government figures, the lowest point since 1978, and down from a peak of 38.7 percent in the 1990s. Behind those numbers has been the failure of government labor groups to bounce back from a steep decline in government employment that began in 2009. That year, unions boasted 7.897 million government workers. Last year, however, just 7.162 million workers were in public unions, a loss of some 735,000 members, even though overall government employment has rebounded to near pre-recession levels. Perhaps most ominously for unions, the trend downward doesn’t seem to be slowing, with unions losing 50,000 members last year alone. By contrast, overall government employment in 2018 grew by 167,000.

The trend is steepest in heavily unionized, labor-friendly states. California has led the way, with a loss of more than 163,000 government-union members since 2008. The share of government workers in labor groups has declined in the Golden State from 57.3 percent to 50.3 percent, even as overall government employment has recovered. The most heavily unionized state, New York, has seen its government labor membership slip by 123,000, and its share of unionized government workers fall from 70.5 percent to 66.6 percent. Pennsylvania’s government has lost more than 53,000 union members, while Illinois, whose deep pension woes have crimped state and municipal budgets, has seen public-sector union rolls fall by nearly 48,000. Labor groups in another union-friendly state, New Jersey, have lost 42,000 government members since 2009.

Most of these declines reflect cost-cutting amid a slow recovery of state and local tax revenues and relentlessly rising employee costs, especially for pensions and health care. It took states until 2016 to recover the revenues they lost, adjusted for inflation, from the 2008 recession. Meantime, pension costs in many places have soared, and states have struggled to cut costs. In Illinois, New York, and California, legal restrictions have made it impossible for governments to reduce retirement costs for current workers, even for future work, leaving job cuts as the only option. Even as governments in these states have gradually increased hiring in the last few years, the new workers have not been part of unions. Unions have also lost members in some states after local laws limited labor’s power.  In Michigan, which passed right-to-work legislation in 2013 that gave workers the ability to opt out of unions, membership in government labor groups is down by 98,385.

A few states have seen significant increases in the number of unionized government workers, in part because their public workforces have defied the national trend and grown. In Colorado, where public-sector employment has grown by 65,000 workers since the recession, the number of union members has increased by 38,000. In Washington, the ranks of government workers have increased by 40,000 since 2008, and union membership is up by 36,000. Still, the overall trend is in the other direction, and individual unions have felt the impact. Since 2008, the National Education Association has lost about 200,000 members, or about 7 percent of its ranks. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has lost about 168,000 members, a roughly 11 percent decline.

The news is unlikely to get better for unions anytime soon. Last June, the Supreme Court ruled in the Janus case that public-sector labor groups could no longer require workers who didn’t want to join a union to pay them fees. That ruling, which effectively institutes right-to-work in government employment throughout the country, clears the way for workers to exit unions without having to continue paying dues—and for new workers to skip joining unions entirely.

The full effect of the Janus ruling is likely to be felt gradually over the next few years, as workers come to understand that they can opt out of unions. In Wisconsin, which passed legislation in 2011 allowing government workers to leave unions and pay them no fees, union membership is down by nearly half, to about 89,000 members. It’s not clear yet how pervasive an effect the Court’s ruling will have in other states, but for public unions already struggling to hold onto members, Janus represents one more hurdle to overcome.

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next