Illinois union membership shrinks by 17,000 in 2022

Mailee Smith

Staff Attorney and Director of Labor Policy

Mailee Smith
January 23, 2023

Illinois union membership shrinks by 17,000 in 2022

The drop in union membership for Illinois workers follows a 33-year downward trend, moving from more than 1-in-5 workers being in a union, to nearly 1-in-8.

While labor unions may enjoy high approval polling nationwide, approval does not appear to be the same as union membership in Illinois.

Union membership in the state dropped by 17,000 in 2022, according to a Jan. 19 release by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The drop in union membership among Illinois workers continues a 33-year downward trend for the state, which saw union membership at 20.8% in 1989 compared to 13.1% in 2022.

Nationwide, union membership is more prevalent in the public sector than in the private sector, with BLS reporting the membership rate of government workers was more than five times higher than the rate of workers in the private sector.

Yet even membership in government unions decreased nationwide in 2022. While the raw number of government employees increased, the percentage of those choosing to be union members decreased.

It’s no surprise. Illinois has seen public-sector workers leaving their unions in droves, with 38,000 government workers dropping their union ties between 2017 and 2021.

One of the most common reasons: government employees don’t feel well represented by their unions. Union leaders’ political agendas and the labor strife created by strikes get in the way of what unions are supposed to be doing. Some workers feel there are better alternatives to unions.

Benny Durbin, a public works specialist in Arthur, Illinois, had been a member of IBEW. But as Durbin explained, “I just didn’t feel well-represented, or like there was enough support from our union. They didn’t really help us when we went into negotiations. They never really asked us what we wanted.”

“I also didn’t like seeing the union give our money to political figures for their campaign funds. I don’t like that at all. I think that’s a waste of our own money.”

Others, such as Chicago Public Schools teacher Olivia Waldron, were disappointed with union strike behavior or the way unions fought to keep teachers out of school buildings during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Going into the 2020-2021 school year, I saw the lack of humility, class and focus from union leadership. They were no longer advocating for teachers’ essential labor rights but advocating more for a political agenda. And they most certainly were not concerned with the well-being of the students,” Waldron said.

Derrick Crenshaw, a teacher in Glen Ellyn, left his union and found a union alternative after the Janus v. AFSCME decision. “When [Mark] Janus won his Supreme Court case, I felt it was time to move on. I didn’t have anything in common with the national and the local union leadership,” Crenshaw said.

He added, “My local union tried to tell me there were no other alternatives, and I wouldn’t have any legal protection if I opted out. But I did my research and found the Association of American Educators, which provides professional education liability insurance and is non-partisan.”

How do Illinois government employees opt out of union membership?

Typically, Illinois government unions require members to send a written opt-out request. State and local government employees interested in joining the more than 38,000 other Illinois public employees who have opted out of their unions can obtain everything they need at LeaveMyUnion.com.

Union members can opt out of membership at any time. However, some unions only allow members to stop paying dues at certain times during the year. The best way to determine that window of time is to submit opt-out paperwork, prompting the union to respond with information on the opt-out timeline.

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