The Policy Shop: What’s driving big labor’s big membership decline?

The Policy Shop: What’s driving big labor’s big membership decline?

This week’s The Policy Shop comes from Mailee Smith, staff attorney and director of labor policy at the Illinois Policy Institute. 

The subjects: People are rejecting uber-political government unions. The numbers prove it. There has been an 18.5% drop in membership across Illinois in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 since the U.S. Supreme Court restored government workers’ ability to choose in 2018 in Janus v. AFSCME.

It’s not just Illinois: AFSCME’s national affiliate has seen nearly 172,000 workers choose not to stay with the union since 2017. That represents a drop of 12% nationwide.

One of the most common reasons members leave their unions is they don’t feel well represented. Union leaders’ political agendas, the lack of resources put toward representing members and the labor strife created by strikes all get in the way of what unions are supposed to be doing. AFSCME may be an indicator of what is happening with other government unions.

The experiment: People are catching on that government unions' real ambitions are political power. These aren't your grandpa's unions, they're big-money special interests who call the shots in Illinois politics and are using unions to experiment with political spending and influence. An Illinois Policy Institute review of all 50 states’ labor laws revealed no other state gives such extreme power to government unions to override state and local laws through a collective bargaining agreement, and without limitation.

It is more common for states to do the opposite: explicitly prohibit conflicts between union contracts and state or local laws.

But that might not be the case for long. Illinois is likely Ground Zero for a push to expand the power of government unions in other states.

The data: Illinois voters passed a first-of-its-kind government union provision when they approved Amendment 1 in November 2022. Inaccurately dubbed a “Workers’ Rights Amendment,” it in truth allows government union contracts to override state and local laws and stop state lawmakers from ever curbing those powers.

Yet even before Amendment 1 passed, precedent existed for some Illinois government unions to void state and local laws simply by writing contrary provisions into their collective bargaining agreements.

At least 14 states explicitly prohibit conflicts between union contracts and state or local laws. These states include Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington. All maintain one or more provisions prohibiting conflicts between union contracts and state or local laws.

Illinois is the only state to allow, seemingly without restriction, government unions to override state law simply by demanding a contrary provision in a union contract. Plus, it now prohibits lawmakers from enacting any restrictions.

The lab: Chicago is now the laboratory for government unions to fully exercise this power and Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson is a proxy for the Chicago Teachers Union's political agenda.

With Johnson and his backers and former employers at CTU taking over, there’s no history to tell us what happens next. A teachers union has never taken control of the mayor’s office in one of the biggest cities in the U.S. But we can guess about Chicago’s future. Johnson wants to increase funding for Chicago Public Schools, even though one-third of the district’s schools are half full because CTU demanded the district not be allowed to shutter underused buildings.

What happened in Chicago is shocking to many, but to folks who follow local politics it wasn’t surprising CTU was able to mobilize and spend its way to victory. The Second City was the first to make waves with the election of a mayor who’s even farther to the ideological left than his predecessor, Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia all have mayoral elections coming up later this year. Chicago won’t be the last place where teachers unions invest heavily to get wins.

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