In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mark Janus in Janus v. AFSCME. Mark was a child-support specialist in Illinois who didn’t like how the union he was forced to financially support was spending his money. The court ruled that collective bargaining was political activity and that forcing workers to contribute to unions violated their First Amendment rights.
The ruling essentially provides all government workers across the country “right to work” rights — even in states such as California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois where this was unlikely to happen legislatively. No public employee can be forced to pay money to a union in order to hold a job.
In the months leading up to the court decision, unions showed they were worried about what the decision could mean for their budgets. The three-million-member National Education Association cut their budget by $28 million, or 7.5 percent. The largest union for state employees, AFSCME, did internal polling that found 15 percent of current members would leave if given a choice and another 50 percent were on the fence. During the case arguments, the union’s attorney warned justices of “an untold specter of labor unrest throughout the country.”
The unions and their allies ultimately pushed legislation in several states to make it harder for public employees to exercise these new rights. California requires public employees to sit through a union seminar and New Jersey limits public workers’ ability to opt out of their union to a narrow 10-day window. These policies are being challenged by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation and others.
But today, most unions are singing a different tune. State chapters of the American Federation of Teachers say they “see a level of enthusiasm and engagement” never seen before and several of the largest unions say their “recommit” strategies have been successful. Early data show unions losing only a small percentage of their members after the first few months the Janus ruling has been the law of the land, but it will take time to see the true effect, especially as the related legal battles continue.
Time will ultimately tell how much the decision will affect national unions. But in Michigan, which passed a right-to-work law in 2012, giving workers a choice has significantly impacted the state’s largest public sector unions.
Much like what is happening at the national level, the effects of worker freedom were gradual at first. The unions put roadblocks in front of members, including opt-out windows, bullying and public pressure, and ignoring members who wanted to leave. After the first year of right-to-work, Michigan’s NEA affiliate bragged of losing fewer than 1 percent of its members while the state AFSCME branch said only about 100 workers would leave.
That optimism turned out to be wildly off-base.
Today, Michigan’s four largest government unions — representing teachers, school employees and state and local workers — have all lost a massive amount of members and revenue.
The Michigan Education Association is down 32,000 members — 33 percent off its peak — since the right-to-work law went into effect. And despite hiking dues for the first time in decades, revenue is down more than $20 million. Despite the 2016 presidential election being much closer than when Barack Obama won by 10 points in Michigan in 2012, direct political spending by the MEA declined from $4.8 million to $2.5 million.
The other largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, is down 22 percent of members to only a little more than 18,000 people. Revenue is down and debt is way up.
State employees in Michigan are represented by four main unions — all have lost significant membership. These unions, which are branches of the UAW, SEIU and AFSCME, now represent only 65 to 86 percent of their bargaining bodies.
The main Michigan AFSCME affiliate, representing local government workers, has lost 33 percent of its members and is spending 90 percent less on political activities in 2016 as it did in 2012 (though that year included a series of ballot proposals supported by the union).
It’s too soon to tell how workers across the country will react to this new freedom. Many unions have thrived in environments where members have long had a choice. But that requires being hyper-focused on what the bulk of the membership wants, prioritizing the union’s activities and being less directly politically involved.
Jarrett Skorup is the director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. The center led the campaign to inform union members of their rights in Michigan and is working with groups across the country to do the same through the My Pay, My Say campaign.
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