Are Private Sector Unions Passé?
Union membership is way down; here's what the future holds.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on union membership in January, and the results were not pretty for organized labor. There are 50,000 fewer union members in the private sector than in 2020, even though the economy added 4,225,000 new salaried workers. In typical style, the unions pointed fingers elsewhere for their loss of stature. In a press release, the AFL-CIO complained that “American labor laws are unquestionably broken.” Other union acolytes fell over each other with comments along the line of, “Yeah, but wait till next year!”
Looking at the big picture, however, the optimism is not supported by reality. As Mike Antonucci notes, the U.S. economy has added 48.1 million jobs since 1983, but unions have lost 3.7 million workers. Taking an even longer view, private sector union membership stood at 35.7% in 1953, but by 2021 that number had sunk to just 6.1%.
These numbers should not be surprising. Generations ago, unions indeed served a positive function. There were often hazardous working conditions, untenable hours, and low wages. But that’s not the case today. There are many laws on the books that protect workers from abuses, and due to a competitive capitalist system, employers realize that protecting worker health and safety, and paying good wages, especially in a tight labor market, is good business.
In a desperate attempt to stanch organized labor’s bleeding, Rep Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced H.R. 842 in 2021. The “Protecting the Right to Organize Act,” – popularly known as the PRO Act – would have advanced the cause of unions, but at the expense of workers. One particularly egregious aspect of the bill would have repealed “right-to-work” status in 28 states that have such laws, which give workers the choice as to whether or not they want to join a union. (The PRO Act would have no effect on public sector unions, which the lost the power to collect mandatory fees from workers as a result of the Janus decision in 2018.) The measure would have also brought back “card check” which would make public a worker’s decision on whether or not to authorize a union. Additionally, this abysmal bill would enshrine California’s AB 5 into federal law. So-called “gig workers,” freelancers who enjoy the freedom of being independent contractors, would have to be classified as fulltime employees, and be ladened with a load of unwanted baggage.
Also worth noting, the Institute for the American Worker reports that if the PRO Act became a reality, even under the most conservative estimates, unions could make $20 billion per year in dues and fees – almost double the $11 billion per year the unions already rake in.
While the bill made it through the House, the Senate, with its filibuster rule intact, would not allow passage, so Democrats in the lower chamber are currently trying to rejigger the measure and work some of its darker elements into a reconciliation bill, which Economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth points out deals with taxes and spending, and thus needs only a simple majority. “So via a massive reconciliation bill, congressional Democrats are trying to move some labor union provisions of the PRO Act by arguing they are actually revenue raisers.”
While the unions and their Democratic pals are busy trying to force totalitarian laws on workers, Tim Scott (R-SC) is introducing a bill that puts workers, not unions, first. His new effort, the Employee Rights Act (ERA) of 2022, is based on legislation that he introduced in the House in 2011. As Scott explains, the original bill was written to “protect workers from overbearing union bosses and small business owners from unelected bureaucrats in Washington.” ERA updates the original version to include provisions that “protect gig workers, contractors, franchisees, entrepreneurs and anyone seeking flexible work options.” At this time, Scott’s bill has support from 27 Senators, while the House has not weighed in yet.
As former CEO of CKE Restaurants Andy Puzder suggests, the ERA would bring American labor law into the 21st century, stressing that the bill would “restore the voice of workers who want unions to be accountable to them. It guarantees the right of workers to secret-ballot elections. It requires that union members opt in before their dues can be used for political causes and allows them to opt out of sharing personal information with unions. It prohibits unions from coercing or intimidating workers opposed to the union, and it criminalizes threatening behavior.”
While the PRO Act and ERA deal with private employees only, there is also rumbling in the public employee union arena. Back in 1905, the National Education Association was accorded a Congressional Charter because its stated purpose at the time was “to elevate the character and advance the interests of the profession of teaching, and to promote the cause of education in the United States.”
Now Reps. Jim Banks (R-IN) and Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) have introduced H.R. 7510, legislation which would repeal NEA’s charter. Banks explains, “I was happy to partner with Rep. Fitzgerald on this important piece of legislation. There is now no daylight between the NEA’s agenda and the radical left’s agenda. Worst of all, the NEA strongly supports teaching 5-year-old children about adult sexual behavior. Their mission used to be education, now it’s indoctrination and pitting American children against their parents’ values.”
Additionally, NEA’s political spending could alone disqualify it. Per Americans for Fair Treatment, NEA spent a total of $374 million during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, 18% of which went to political activities, while just 9% was spent on “representational activities,” or member support. Another 32% went to “contributions, gifts, and grants,” spending that is mostly political in nature.
If passed, H.R. 7510 wouldn’t directly affect the union’s day-to-day operation, but it could serve to wake teachers up to the fact that their union is not all it pretends to be. So many teachers think that the bulk of their $1,000 plus yearly dues payments go to their local union to fight for them – pay and working conditions, for example. But nothing could be further from the truth. Depending on the state, a good 80% of teachers’ dues payments are funneled up to the state and national union affiliates where a great deal of the money goes into politics – almost exclusively to left wing candidates and causes.
Hence, if NEA’s Congressional Charter is revoked, it could inspire a union exodus. However, with a Democratic majority in the House, the bill has little chance of passage this year. But come the election in November, that can all change.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.