Report claims union support is increasing, but not for Illinois government unions

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
September 15, 2023

Report claims union support is increasing, but not for Illinois government unions

A recent report by a pro-union Illinois organization claims nationwide support for unions is increasing, including in Illinois. The Illinois part is wrong, at least for government unions. Here are three things you need to know about Illinois unions.

In theory, unions may appeal to Americans to level the playing field between labor and management, but that’s not necessarily the case among those who are in unionized workplaces – the people with the most experience dealing with union leaders and their agendas.

That’s particularly true among government workers in Illinois. Over 36,000 workers since 2017 have chosen not to associate with some of the largest and most politically active government unions in Illinois, according to the unions’ own reports with the U.S. Department of Labor.

A recent report from a pro-union organization in Illinois downplays these losses. What’s more, one of the report’s co-authors partially attributed the decrease in government union membership to job vacancies caused by government wages not keeping pace with wages in the private sector. That’s false.

Instead, it’s dissatisfaction with government unions that is driving workers away from membership.

Here are three things you need to know to set the record straight.

1. Thousands of Illinois government workers are refusing to associate with their unions

Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that government workers cannot be forced to fund a union in order to keep their jobs. In the months before and after the decision, government unions in Illinois held membership drives, pushing nonmembers to join their ranks.

That doesn’t appear to have helped. The unions failed to recoup those workers who weren’t members before the Janus decision, and even more have left their unions since then – a combined 36,000 workers.

But the number of government workers rejecting union leadership is even higher than the unions have reported in their federal filings.

Take the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois-Indiana, or SEIU HCII, which appears to be the only major government union in Illinois that has gained members since 2017.

SEIU HCII reported just under 60,000 members and fee payers in its 2022 federal report, filed in March 2023. But on its website, it claims to represent “more than 91,000 workers” in four states.

That means at least one-third of workers represented by SEIU HCII have chosen not to be a part of the union, if the unions’ own claims are accurate.

AFSCME Council 31 has fared even worse. Its website claims the union represents 90,000 active and retired employees in Illinois. Its most recent federal report lists just over 53,000 members and fee payers, which can include retirees. That means 41% of the people it represents have chosen not to associate with the union.

So more than two of every five workers AFSCME Council 31 represents have rejected union membership.

And while there is a difference between the government unions listed above and unions in private workplaces, both have experienced a loss in membership in Illinois in recent years.

Instead of using the unions’ own numbers as reported in their federal filings and websites, the report utilized survey data from the Current Population Outgoing Rotation Groups. While that data is commonly used for research purposes, the sample sizes are fairly small on a state-by-state basis and are subject to sampling error. Looking at the unions’ own numbers makes it clear government workers are fleeing their unions in Illinois.

2. State employee compensation has grown 37% faster than private-sector compensation

One of the report’s authors told the media the decrease in union membership in the public sector is at least in part because of vacancies that occurred after the Janus decision. He claimed wages in the public sector have failed to keep pace with those in the private sector.

That definitely is wrong when it comes to state employees represented by AFSCME Council 31.

As of 2021 – the most recent year available – the average state government employee received compensation of $96,263, while the average private-sector worker in Illinois received compensation worth just $65,057. Since 1998, state employee compensation has grown 37% faster than private-sector compensation.

In fact, Illinois state workers have historically been the highest paid state workers in the nation.

Then there are teachers. Illinois public-school teachers make, on average, $72,315 a year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. Illinois private-school teachers, on the other hand, average $18.31 an hour – or at most $38,084 for 52 weeks – according to ZipRecruiter.

3. Dissatisfaction with government unions is leading workers to reject membership

One common reason given for leaving union membership: workers 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.

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 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 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.

So while the generic perception that unions are good for workers may be gaining attention in the U.S., that’s not necessarily the case when you ask the union members themselves.

Government workers interested in opting out of their union can learn more at

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