Right-to-work states see union membership, revenues drop

union labor protest

sushiesque / flickr

With Friedrichs v. CTA pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, stakeholders and spectators alike are curious to see not only the outcome of the court case, but also the greater implications tied to union membership and influence in legislative bodies throughout the country.

The Center for Individual Rights, the organization representing the 10 California teachers that filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, has listed two potential outcomes for the Friedrichs case, if the court sides with the plaintiffs:

Friedrichs v. CTA raises the fundamental question whether a state can require public employees to join a union as a condition of employment. If the Court rules that this practice violates the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and free association, it would be binding on all fifty states.  Effectively, such a decision would convert the twenty-six states that now require union membership into open-shop states.


“If the Supreme Court does not accept our argument that compulsory dues violates the First Amendment, then, as a fallback position … [w]e urge the Court to rule that the First Amendment requires the unions to employ an “opt-in” system.  Instead of requiring teachers to apply for a refund, an “opt-in” system would require the unions to secure the affirmative decision of a teacher to support union political activities before withholding dues for that purpose.”

Right-to-work effects in other states

Right-to-work movements have gained momentum across the nation. In March, Wisconsin became the 25th open-shop state, passing a law that would disallow workers from being forced to join labor unions or pay union dues in order to keep a job. “Wisconsin now has the freedom to work,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “That is one more powerful tool as we help create not just jobs but career opportunities for many years to come.”

Such laws impacted union membership significantly. AFSCME, the Wisconsin government employee union based in Madison, saw membership drop from 32,000 in 2011 to 13,000 in 2014. Union revenue was slashed nearly in half, from $10 million annually to $5.5 million.

In Michigan, where a right-to-work law passed in 2012, union membership fell sharply in 2014, the first full year after the law took effect in 2013. According to the Bureau Labor of Statistics, overall union membership of wage and salary workers declined from 16.3 percent of the population in 2013 to 14.5 percent in 2014. Michigan-based media group MLive reported in January, “Union membership dropped from approximately 633,000 Michigan workers in 2013 to 585,000 in 2014 even as the total state employment numbers grew.”

Union leaders say they have yet to see the promised economic benefits as a result of right-to-work laws. “Michigan has not been this great success story,” Amy Davis-Comstock of the SEIU in Michigan told ThinkProgress. “If businesses are doing so well, why do we have this huge budget deficit now? We don’t have new industries coming in. We don’t have employers vying for the unemployed workers we have here. We’ve been waiting to see what jobs have even been created, and a lot of them are in sectors like hospitality and retail, which are not living wage jobs, and usually have no benefits.”

But Forbes contributor Mark Hendrickson says protests about right-to-work laws are only coming from union leaders, “whose lucrative monopoly privileges are being revoked,” and Democratic politicians, “who have long benefited from the massive flow of forced-union dues into their campaign coffers.”

Union influence on a steady decline

Business leaders and academics in Michigan admit not much has changed, though they acknowledge that the influence of organized labor in the state had already been in a steady decline over the past five decades. Patrick Anderson, CEO of Anderson economic group, told Michigan Radio the law ultimately sends a message “that Michigan has become a much friendlier state for employers.” But Charles Ballard, an economics professor at Michigan State University, said there has not been evidence that “the passage of the right-to-work law has led to an increase in job creation within the state.” This is because, right-to-work was not a sudden shift, but “merely a ratification of what had been going on for a long time.”

Perhaps that is why, last year, the CTA distributed a memo highlighting plans to prepare for a future where union dues were no longer compulsory.

According to California Policy Center, California’s public sector unions collect and spend more than $1.1 billion per year, with at least $250 million of those funds going straight to political expenditures including, lobbying, campaign contributions and independent expenditures. If current law is overturned, and California union membership and revenue follow trends in other right-to-work states, union influence in Sacramento would be greatly diminished.

According to CIR, the briefing and oral argument for the Friedrichs case will be scheduled for the fall of 2015, with a decision likely delivered by June 2016.

Tags assigned to this article:
right to workFriedrichs v. CTAunion membership

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