The Economist

(Steven Felgate) #1
The EconomistJuly 21st 2018 19

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VEN before the Supreme Court piled in
American unions were in a bad way. In
their heyday in the mid-1950s more than
30% of workers were members. Today just
11% are. With only a toehold in the private
sector—where they cover a mere 7% of
workers—unions have become increasing-
ly reliant on faithful public-sector employ-
ees 34% of whom are members to stay fi-
nancially afloat and politically relevant.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of
Janus v AFSCME at the end of June will
shrink the rump of union members even
further. What will the consequences of
even lower union membership be?
Unions engage in both collective bar-
gaining for their workers and political lob-
bying typically for progressive causes and
Democratic candidates. Among white
Americans blue-collar workers have had
their heads turned by President Donald
Trump even as union bosses remain stead-
fastDemocrats so thatmany members dis-
agree with their union’s politics. Opting
ou t of union membership—and its manda-
tory dues—would allow them to benefit
from negotiated pay rises and holidays
without incurring any of the cost. For de-
cades the compromise had been to make
non-members who would otherwise free-
ride on collective-bargaining agreements
pay “agency fees”—the share of union dues
that go to non-political operations and

could lose a third of their members as a re-
sult of the decision.
That may reflect some dissatisfaction
bu t it probably has more to do with the at-
tractive offer of keeping a union-negotiat-
ed contract while avoiding deductions
from already cramped pay-cheques. “It
was a way to get $800 a year in dues after
they had not gotten a raise in five years”
says David Crim an organiser for the Mich-
igan Education Association. The union lost
one-sixth of its membership after the state
became “right-to-work”—banning collec-
tion of agency fees through state law rather
than the courts—in 2012. “They’re virtually
getting something for nothing” says Kate
Martin a community college teacher and
treasurer for her local union chapter in
Cape Cod. “In the short term you can get a
bump in pay. In the long term you’re going
to lose benefits and suffer worse working
conditions” she adds.
Wasting no time organisations like the
Mackinac Centre a conservative think-
tank based in Michigan have already put
up websites encouraging workers to ditch
their unions and retain their benefits in-
cluding a helpful service which will auto-
matically write a pre-addressed resigna-
tion letter. The centre which has
long-standing ties to Betsy DeVos the edu-
cation secretary and a bogeyman on the
left has begun directly contacting teachers
on their official e-mail accounts in 11 states.
To counter these efforts union organis-
er s will have to work hard to convince
dues-paying members to stay. They are do-
ing so by suggesting that conservatives are
mounting an attack on all working people
who must stick together in the face of ad-
versity. “It’s all about defunding us” says
Randi Weingarten the president of the
American Federation of Teachers ( AFT) a

overheads. In its Janus decision conserva-
tive jurists on the Supreme Court cited the
First Amendment to hold that such
schemes violated the constitution on free-
speech grounds. All public-sector workers
covered by a union will now have to opt in
and consent before paying anything. It is
not a question of whether unions will lose
members as a result of this but how many.
Wisconsin provides one case study.
When that state passed a law in 2011 limit-
ing collective bargaining and banning
agency fees it s teachers’ union lost more
than half its members and two-thirds of its
dues within three years. Teachers’ unions
among the most powerful in the country


The god of beginnings and endings

How Janus the Supreme Court’s ruling on union dues could change American life

United States

Also in this section

20 How secure are elections?

21 Mansplaining voters

22 The flourishing Midwest
23 Lexington: A legitimacy problem

Union station

Source: Bureau of Labour Statistics

United States trade-union membership
% of employed






1983 90 95 2000 05 10 17



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