Public-sector Union Membership Is Slowly Shrinking
We need better data collection, but the trend is clear.
Both progressives and conservatives have sound reasons to support better data collection on public-sector unions, whose members constitute half of the American labor movement. Progressives believe that public-sector unions can uplift workers, push back against big business, and ensure a more equal society. Conservatives believe that they impose excessive costs on taxpayers and induce bureaucratic sclerosis.
The trouble with these contending views is that, without good data, it’s hard to apply the tools of social science that might help settle the debate—if indeed such ideologically charged issues can be settled. As things stand, much of the data cited in the press to support one side or the other is misleading.
Consider the basic issue of public-sector union membership. We can assess many important questions only if we know how many people belong to unions in state and local government. Do most public workers actually want union representation? How representative are the unions with which government employers negotiate contracts? Does having a large membership cause a union to spend more on political activity? Does high membership increase political influence and lead to higher taxes, lower inequality, or other policy outcomes?
Four years ago, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME stipulated that public-sector unions in 22 states could no longer force those who did not want to be members to pay into union coffers. The ruling stripped these unions of a powerful tool to build membership. With unions no longer able to require nonmembers to pay so-called agency fees, the question became whether existing members would opt out of membership altogether because they could now receive union representation for free.
Answering that question turns out to be harder than one would think. Government does not collect good data on even the simple question of public-union membership. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a federal agency, conducts the Community Population Survey (CPS), which asks public employees whether they are union members. Looking over the past four years since Janus, the BLS reports relative stability in membership.
But the CPS is not a good instrument for measuring short-term trends in public-sector union membership. The results provide only a total union membership estimate, undifferentiated by public and private sectors. In addition, many respondents don’t know or are unsure about their membership status, which muddies the results.
Breaking down the CPS data by state and sector, as the website UnionStats.com does, yields very small sample sizes. As a result, UnionStats sometimes reports large swings in membership or public employment overall in some states when there’s no evidence that such changes occurred.
Another public source of data comes from union financial reports, called LM-2s, filed annually with the Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS). These show modest declines in public-sector union membership, but this information source has problems, too. The numbers are not compiled systematically, and it can be hard to sort out which pertain to private- and which to public-sector union membership in the total figures. These reports are also not comprehensive because not all public-sector unions must file—only those with one private-sector employee in their ranks. (This is because federal law governs private-sector unions, while state law governs public-sector ones.) Finally, these reports are only as reliable as the union itself makes them; many have entries of round numbers and no change shown year-over-year, which is hard to believe.
The best data available are state- and local-government payroll records. They detail exactly which public employees are having union dues deducted from their paychecks. Where they are collected, these figures show substantially steeper declines in public-sector union membership—but these records are not made easily available to the public. One must file a Freedom of Information Act or similar public-records request to secure the data. Furthermore, many states use different reporting methods, and figures are not typically available for all government employers.
All that said, the data that does trickle out gives a strong, albeit impressionistic, picture of recent trends. More accurate data would likely show an even bigger decline in union membership than the official public sources.
We know this thanks to the heroic work of at least four organizations covering some 21 states that have filed thousands of public-records requests to secure this data. The Freedom Foundation has done this work in Washington and Oregon; the California Public Policy Center in the Golden State; the Mackinac Center in Michigan and some 20 other states; and the Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania.
Their work shows that public-union membership has indeed declined more sharply than other sources suggest. Across 21 states and some 620 government employers—states, cities, counties, and school districts—the Mackinac Institute found an average 13 percent decline in public-sector union membership since Janus. This means a decline from 2,835,313 public-sector union members in 2018 to 2,461,221 in 2021. In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation found a decline of 14,362 members across the state’s six largest public-sector unions since Janus. The California Public Policy Center also found a 20 percent drop in the Golden State, from 751,929 public-sector union members in 2018 to 598,358 in 2021.
Given that public-union membership was inflated thanks to a government policy that was eventually declared unconstitutional, the membership decline seems altogether fitting and proper. Prior membership numbers never reflected the “strength” of the public-sector labor movement, in the sense that all those members truly wanted to belong to their unions. Rather, it reflected the incentives created by government policy, which, in 22 states, put its thumb on the scales to encourage greater union membership.
We should be grateful that these policy organizations have stepped in to promote transparency and secure important data, but in the future, the federal and state governments should require much better data collection on the unions with whom they negotiate on behalf of the public. Collecting better data would increase transparency for government employers and the broader public—and help protect workers’ constitutional rights.
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