By the account of unions and their supporters, the Supreme Court struck a massive blow to public-sector unions Wednesday that will hobble them politically. Fortunately for them, the evidence is to the contrary.
By siding in favor of the plaintiffs in Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court has overturned state laws that allow unions and the government to compel employees to financially support a union. The ruling, union advocates argue, will siphon off financial support and membership for unions.
But many states already have right-to-work statutes in place that have the practical effect of Janus. And by no means are unions in those states extinct.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2017, there were 972,000 unionized federal workers, and all of them were right-to-work before the Janus ruling. Diving deeper into the BLS data indicates that there are 1.2 million more state and local employees who are union members in right-to-work states. Together, that means almost 2.2 million employees already had right-to-work through state or federal statutes, and the effect of Janus on these workers will be negligible.
Overall, that’s a relatively small chunk of total unionized public-sector workers, of which there were 7.2 million in 2017. The remaining 5 million unionized workers are in 22 states, with 11 states accounting for 4.5 million of them. (California alone has about1.3 million, and New York has 900,000.) Assuming these approximately 5 million workers pay $600 a person in dues or fees, together they represent about $3 billion annually in union revenue.
These workers will now have new options as to whether they will financially support a union, and many might leave. Consider Michigan, which became a right-to-work state in 2012. Through 2017, its largest public-sector union, the Michigan Education Association, has lost about 30,000 members, about a 25 percent decrease from its 2012 membership number. Over that same period, its annual dues revenue has slipped $14 million, or 22 percent.
In preparation for Janus, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees conducted 600,000 interviews with its members. It found that if employees could no longer be forced to support the union, 35 percent would pay dues anyway, 15 percent would not and the remaining 50 percent would be on the fence. So in light of Wednesday’s decision, we can certainly expect a good portion of employees seriously contemplating leaving unions.
Even still, the fact that public-sector unions in right-to-work environments have more than 2 million members should be comforting for union advocates. To be sure, those unions transitioning from mandatory financial support to right-to-work will likely have to modify their behavior and strategies. But this by no means makes them powerless.
Recall that unions in right-to-work environments have recently led successful labor demonstrations, such as the statewide teacher strikes this year in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. They lacked mandatory financial support yet were able to coordinate negotiations with government officials. State employee unions in Arkansas and North Carolina also lack mandatory bargaining, let alone mandatory financial support, yet in both states, more than 40 percent of state employees permit unions to take out dues from their paychecks.
In response to Janus, unions and their legislative allies are already taking steps to blunt the impact of the ruling. Tactics have included legislation limiting the dates during which employees could resign, requiring new employees to attend a union sales pitch and preventing third parties from obtaining government employee information. The legality of these roadblocks will undoubtedly be litigated.
But in the end, if unions seek to thrive, they need to demonstrate to their membership their value.
Wright is vice president for legal affairs at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner in Janus v. AFSCME.