Back in early 2010, the big news in the labor movement was that the number of workers in government unions had surpassed the total in private-sector unions. Experts declared the public sector, where more than 37 percent of employees were organized, the most influential part of the labor movement, and predicted its dominance would expand given private-sector unions’ struggles. But the 2008 recession and the resulting squeeze on municipal budgets prompted governments rapidly to shed jobs and union members. Leadership struggled to rebuild their ranks, especially after a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME that allowed workers to opt out of public unions.
Government labor groups have never recovered from those twin blows, which the pandemic shutdowns compounded even further. Last year, even as government hiring rebounded from pandemic lows amid stimulus cash from Washington, public-sector unions lost nearly 52,000 members, per the latest data. That is the ninth year-over-year decline since 2009; in that time, government unions have lost nearly 900,000 members. Today, some 7 million workers are enrolled in government unions, and the public sector’s unionization rate has fallen to 32.5 percent, the lowest since the mid-1970s.
Unlike government unions, private-sector labor benefitted modestly from an expanding economy last year, adding nearly 200,000 members, according to the latest Department of Labor data. The private-union movement now boasts about 400,000 more members than government-labor groups. Even so, private unions’ growth last year was only a small portion of the total jobs created last year, and the private sector’s unionization rate remains at an all-time low of just 6 percent. In all, just one in 10 American workers across the public and private sectors are union members, also a record low since the government began collecting data in the 1970s.
As states rebuild their workforces after pandemic cuts, one problem for government unions has been that the returning jobs are not primarily unionized. Illinois, where state and local governments have amassed significant debt and are straining to pay off deeply underfunded pensions, shed some 50,000 jobs during the pandemic. As local governments have slowly hired government workers back, union ranks nevertheless have shrunk by about 19,000 since the pandemic. Washington State’s governments have similarly recouped the 30,000 positions lost during the pandemic, but public-union membership still runs 10,000 below pre-pandemic levels.
Much of this shortfall, especially in heavily unionized states, likely is a result of the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling five years ago, which held that governments can’t require workers to join a union, even if their workplace has been organized by labor. That decision, combined with pandemic cuts, means that a new generation of government workers now being hired has the option not to join unions.
Data from several states illustrate Janus’s impact. Employment in California’s public sector grew modestly last year, for example, but its unions still shed membership, and today have fewer members in California than they had in 2009. Michigan similarly added 20,000 government jobs last year—but lost 7,000 union members. (Twenty years ago, nearly six in ten Michigan government workers belonged to a union; today, fewer than four in ten do.) In New York State, government jobs increased by 21,000 in 2023, while union membership grew by only 15,000—an expansion that doesn’t compensate for massive earlier losses in the Empire State. Overall, statewide union membership is down some 250,000 in more than a decade. Since 2009, the share of public-sector workers in a New York union has plunged from 72.4 percent to 63.7 percent.
Population growth drives government expansion, and thus boosts government-union membership. Unions have struggled in part because population growth has happened in states without strong labor movements. States like South Carolina, Texas, and Georgia grew their public sectors robustly last year in response to economic and population gains but did not see a corresponding surge in union membership. Meantime, Florida, Utah, and Tennessee all saw their government-union membership continue to decline even though public-sector employment increased. In fact, the 20 states with the most growth in their public sector last year added just 56,000 new union members—not nearly enough to offset significant losses elsewhere.
Public-sector labor leaders can thank a friendly Biden administration for dishing out hundreds of billions in stimulus dollars to schools and local governments. That money has supported a government hiring spree that drove public-sector job rolls to record levels last year. But the cash infusion hasn’t proved a boon to government union membership—a fact that can’t be comforting to labor leaders and their political allies.