All Commentary
Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Unions Play Politics While Membership Tanks

Cut the games and intimidation, and maybe people will want to join.

Union memberships keep declining. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union membership found the trend has not changed. This time, it’s declined to the lowest point in United States history since the agency began keeping track.

In 2015, the public and private sector union membership rate was 11.1 percent of the combined workforce. It dropped to 10.7 percent in 2016, a loss of 240,000 union members.

For some perspective on the staggering losses unions have suffered, in 1983, the first year comparable data is available, labor unions had 17.7 million members. In 2016, there were only 14.6 million members. The hollowing out of union membership would be much worse if not for the public sector, where the membership rate is five times higher than the private sector.

Why the Decline?

Unions need to switch up the playbook on how to attract members.

Why is union membership, especially in the private sector, on a continuous decline? In part, many labor unions, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have become appendages of the Democratic Party and reliant on government to ease union organizing rather than provide value to workers.

For example, the SEIU spent tens of millions of dollars worth of membership dues on politics in the past couple of election cycles, with nearly all the contributions going to Democrats. Such political bias is a turnoff to many union members. A large minority of union members vote Republican every election, and that was no different in this past election.

Additionally, if union membership continued to fall during the Obama administration, which did everything in its power to help unions at the expense of worker choice, then it’s obvious something is wrong. Unions need to switch up the playbook on how to attract members. Perhaps use more membership dues on activities that directly benefit workers, like training and education, instead of politics and corporate campaigns.

Unions need to stop seeking government privilege to force themselves on workers.

But so far, the SEIU and their ilk have chosen to double down on politics and smear tactics.

Over the last several years, the SEIU spent millions of dollars funding the “Fight for $15,” a union front group, and paying high-profile consulting firms like Berlin Rosen to attack companies they wish to organize. While its primary purpose is to advocate for a $15 an hour minimum wage, its second purpose is to smear companies that the SEIU wants to organize.

Instead of organizing with the intent of gaining worker support, the SEIU applies public pressure and attempts to intimidate employers into signing card-check neutrality agreements, which take away workers’ right to a secret-ballot election.

Focus on the People

Politically minded unions should heed the advice of one of their own, United Auto Workers Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel:

This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right-to-work hurts unions … To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong,’ versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”

Unions need to stop forcing themselves on workers and seeking government privilege to do so. The only way to reverse Big Labor’s downward spiral is for unions to prove their worth to workers, something unions generally seem unwilling to do.

Reprinted from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

  • Trey Kovacs is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on the economic impacts of labor policy.