Union mem­ber­ship, af­ter years of sta­bil­ity, re­sumes de­cline: re­port

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY DAVID ROEDER, BUSI­NESS & LA­BOR RE­PORTER droeder@sun­times.com | @Roed­erDavid

Whether it’s across the na­tion, in Illi­nois or just in the Chicago area, union mem­ber­ship has de­clined since 2017 af­ter a few years of rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity, ac­cord­ing to a study re­leased Mon­day.

The re­port said the de­cline was largely due to dips in union­ized ranks in public sec­tor jobs, a tra­di­tional la­bor strong­hold. The public sec­tor was roiled by a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion in the Janus case end­ing re­quire­ments that govern­ment work­ers cov­ered by col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing pay union fees.

In Illi­nois, the public sec­tor has seen a 7% drop in union mem­ber­ship since 2017, ac­cord­ing to the re­port by re­searchers from the Illi­nois Eco­nomic Pol­icy In­sti­tute, the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign and the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Irvine.

While sig­nif­i­cant, it’s less than some re­searchers said would be the im­pact of Janus, said UIUC Pro­fes­sor Robert Bruno, a co-au­thor of the re­port. He said unions have re­sponded by bet­ter com­mu­ni­cat­ing with mem­bers and em­pha­siz­ing the ben­e­fits of la­bor ac­tivism.

“The dam­age that’s been done has not evis­cer­ated la­bor. It has not pre­vented unions from or­ga­niz­ing in new places. It has not brought la­bor to its knees,” Bruno said.

But the re­search of­fers a La­bor Day re­minder that unions still face long-term de­clines in their share of work­ers. Added to decades-old fac­tors such as glob­al­iza­tion and job losses in key in­dus­tries are newer trends such as the gig econ­omy, con­tract work and the pan­demic’s en­cour­age­ment of re­mote work, the re­port’s au­thors said.

“The la­bor move­ment is de­clin­ing at pre­cisely the time when th­ese work­ers need la­bor pro­tec­tions the most,” said Frank Manzo IV, pol­icy di­rec­tor at the Illi­nois Eco­nomic Pol­icy In­sti­tute, a union-aligned re­search group. He said union mem­ber­ship is cor­re­lated with 10% higher wages and a much higher in­ci­dence of health in­sur­ance cov­er­age.

The re­port said in the Chicago re­gion, union mem­ber­ship to­taled 503,086 in 2019, or 12.5% of the to­tal work­force. Both num­bers are down from 2017, but the mem­ber­ship count is still up from a post-Great Re­ces­sion low in 2012 of 490,023.

Statewide, the loss in union mem­ber­ship since 2017 has been greater. The re­port said that in two years, unions have lost 7% of their ros­ters, bring­ing the to­tal to 771,465, or 13.6% of all work­ers.

Na­tion­ally, the loss has been less steep but stead­ier. Unions now have 14.6 mil­lion mem­bers in the U.S., or 10.3% of all work­ers. That com­pares with 14.8 mil­lion and 10.7% in 2017.

The de­clines have dis­pro­por­tion­ately in­volved African Amer­i­cans and fe­male work­ers, said the re­port, which is based on U.S. La­bor Depart­ment data. It also said work­ers deemed “es­sen­tial” in the pan­demic are more likely to be union­ized than those out­side that cat­e­gory.

Dur­ing the 1980s, unions ac­counted for about one-fourth of the U.S. la­bor force. The au­thors said or­ga­nized la­bor could be on the verge of a come­back, as the virus has high­lighted for some work­ers the ad­van­tages of job pro­tec­tions and other ben­e­fits in a union con­tract.

Bruno said within the public sec­tor, he’s seen signs of work­ers feel­ing a greater com­mit­ment to their union, even though the Janus case, which orig­i­nated in Illi­nois with state worker Mark Janus, has led some to leave the ranks.

“Unions went to their mem­bers and said th­ese at­tacks are meant to take away your voice. Janus re­ally re­moved all il­lu­sions about that,” Bruno said.

The Supreme Court sided with Janus, who was sup­ported by for­mer Gov. Bruce Rauner and many oth­ers, in rul­ing 5-4 that com­pul­sory fees vi­o­lated the First Amend­ment rights of public sec­tor em­ploy­ees.

Union or­ga­niz­ers face laws and govern­ment poli­cies that make the work dif­fi­cult, Bruno said. He also said be­cause the pan­demic has made some em­ploy­ees des­per­ate, there have been re­ports of more wage theft and la­bor law vi­o­la­tions by com­pa­nies. “There’s re­ally no pun­ish­ment for em­ploy­ers that break la­bor laws,” he said.

To spread their mes­sage and in­crease their suc­cess with or­ga­niz­ing, unions should work more with groups that ad­vo­cate for eco­nomic and so­cial jus­tice, the au­thors said. They cited the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union and its cam­paign for a $15 min­i­mum wage.

SEIU units and other la­bor groups have own­er­ship stakes in Sun-Times Me­dia.

Other co-au­thors of the study were Vir­ginia Parks, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Irvine, and Jill Gig­stead, Mid­west re­searcher for the Illi­nois Eco­nomic Pol­icy In­sti­tute.


Illi­nois govern­ment em­ployee Mark Janus (cen­ter) en­coun­ters sup­port­ers and pro­test­ers out­side the U.S. Supreme Court in Fe­bru­ary 2018. The court ul­ti­mately sided with Janus in rul­ing that public em­ploy­ees can­not be re­quired to pay union fees.

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