Government-union membership fell again in 2019, continuing a decade-long decline. Workers in public-sector unions now number 7.066 million, representing a drop of nearly 100,000 in one year and the smallest government-organized labor membership in 20 years. Since 2009, when the ranks of government-union members peaked at 7.896 million, public-labor groups have lost more than 10 percent of their membership. The percentage of government workers belonging to unions has dropped to 33.6, the smallest proportion of the government workforce since 1978. The most recent numbers illustrate how government unions continue to suffer from the hangover of the recession of 2008-2009, in part because of a slow rebound in government employment during the economic expansion that began in 2010. The numbers may also reflect some losses that unions have suffered in the wake of the 2018 Supreme Court Janus decision, which gave public-sector workers the right to opt out of joining a union or paying fees.

The trends are particularly ominous for public unions because 2019 should have been the year that they started bouncing back. In the tenth year of an economic expansion, state tax and local collections grew robustly, increasing by 9 percent in the second quarter and 5.6 percent in the third quarter, according to government surveys. States and municipalities subsequently hired more workers. The number of local government employees, for instance, jumped by nearly 100,000 in 2019, to 14.573 million. But these gains haven’t translated into increases in union membership, particularly in municipal government, the largest segment of public-sector employment. The total government workforce in America has returned to its pre-financial crash levels, but union headcount has failed to follow suit.

Even the most heavily unionized, labor-friendly states have seen sharp declines in unionization. Government-union membership in California fell by 164,000 between 2009 and 2018, though the state has as many public-sector jobs as it did before the crash. About half of all government workers in California now belong to a union, down from more than 57 percent. New York has lost 123,000 union members over the same time period. Government-union membership has shrunk by 45,000 in Illinois, by more than 42,000 in New Jersey, and by more than 13,000 in Connecticut.

One reason the rebound in public employment has been so slow (the private-sector economy had recaptured all of its lost jobs by 2014) may be the impact of huge unfunded employee-retirement costs, which have forced governments to devote more money to pensions and health care at the expense of other priorities, such as hiring. Despite the upward surge of the stock market in recent years, unfunded pension liabilities grew to $1.2 trillion in 2018, from $138 billion in 2007, according to Wilshire Consulting.

Though the stock market’s strong gains in 2019 may have reduced that debt somewhat, most states and cities continue to spend more on their pension systems and will have to do so for years. In the last decade, state and municipal contributions into pension systems have doubled to $162 billion annually, an average annual growth rate of 7 percent—well above the increase in the rate of tax collections over that period. One result has been a crowding out of other spending, including money devoted to hiring. A study of government-pension costs across the country by a University of California researcher estimated that governments whose pension costs doubled over the last decade cut employment on average by 65 workers per 100,000 residents.

In the wake of the High Court’s Janus ruling, public-sector unions have lost most of their so-called agency-fee payers—people who didn’t want to belong to the union but were forced by state law to pay the union a fee anyway. One report estimated that The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union together lost 210,000 workers who stopped paying their agency fees, which often totaled up to two-thirds of union dues. Those declines are not reflected in union membership figures, but they represent tens of millions of dollars of lost revenues.

Unions have moved to stop a similar exodus of dues-paying members. They’re getting help in union-friendly states like California, New York, and New Jersey from new laws making it more difficult to exit a union. Conservative groups have fought back with campaigns to inform employees of their rights and lawsuits challenging the new restrictions. The Pacific Legal Foundation, for instance, is representing two employees at the University of California in San Diego who say they have been thwarted by a law that forbids university administrators from explaining to workers their options for leaving the union. The suit attempts to overturn the law’s gag-rule clause.

At the same time, union leaders must face the prospect of the next downturn in the economy, inevitable after such a long expansion, especially since they made so little progress regaining lost ground in the last decade. A 2019 survey by the National League of Cities found that municipal budget officials are already reporting signs of weakness in their local economies amid growing fears of a recession. Whenever it comes, a recession is likely to set off new waves of membership losses.

Under any circumstances, the future does not look bright for government unions.

Photo by Scott Olson/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