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By Jaclyn Diaz
Some of the nation’s largest unions lost thousands of members from 2016 to 2017, reflecting a trend of membership decline amid the right-to-work movement and a still-struggling manufacturing sector.
Of the largest eight unions analyzed by Bloomberg Law, the United Steelworkers and AFSCME lost the most full-time, active members from 2016 to 2017. AFSCME lost more than 14,000 members, and the Steelworkers lost more than 9,500.
The steep reductions are not as bad as previous years for some unions, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the Department of Labor. From 2015 to 2016, the Steelworkers lost about 20,000, for instance.
“Unions seemed to have stopped the heavy bleeding,” Harley Shaiken, an economics professor at the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, said. “There has been some impressive gains” with the Service Employees International Union and the United Auto Workers.
The DOL requires large unions to report fiscal-year financial information and membership data annually on LM-2 forms.
It’s too early to determine whether these numbers reflect a turning point for labor in the U.S. or whether the pending U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME could throw a wrench in the progress, labor professors said.
“The wild card is the Janus ruling,” Shaiken said. The Janus case asks the justices to decide whether unions that represent public employees can force the workers to pay agency fees even if they aren’t dues-paying members. Agency fees support union efforts in organizing and bargaining.
“It’s widely expected” that the court will side with the worker who does not want to pay the fees, Shaiken said. “Unions are very aware of it and have been putting a lot of hard work for several years in preparing for it. What we don’t know is how effective that preparation will be.”
The right-to-work push prompted unions to shell out dough during election seasons, the LM-2 forms suggest. That money doesn’t go to candidates. It is spent on lobbying efforts and political action on issues that affect members.
Almost every union spent more on political activities and lobbying in 2016, a presidential election year, than in 2017. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, however, is the only union analyzed by Bloomberg Law that spent more on political activities than it did on bargaining and organizing activities. It spent $36.4 million on those representational efforts and $55.2 million on politicking.
A lot of that money was likely spent trying to curtail right-to-work efforts in Missouri and New Mexico and to reinforce the union’s strongholds in California and New York, Shaiken said.
AFSCME declined to comment.
The UAW and SEIU continued growth trends in 2017 from the previous year and reported gains of a combined 35,000 members, thanks in part to organizing on university campuses.
This was the UAW’s ninth straight year of growth, despite some high-profile losses and an ongoing federal investigation into corruption by some union executives in Detroit. Other new members came from the gaming, heavy truck, and automotive supplier industries, the union said.
The SEIU has been deeply involved in organizing adjunct staff on private and public universities since 2013, a union spokeswoman said. In 2017, more than 2,600 adjuncts came from three colleges in Florida: Hillsborough Community College, Broward Community College, and the University of South Florida. Other gains came from organizing airport workers.
The Steelworkers lost close to 10,000 members from 2016 to 2017, thanks to layoffs across multiple manufacturing sectors because of the $566 billion U.S. trade deficit in 2017, a union spokesman said.
When President Donald Trump announced tariffs in March, the union celebrated the possibility that jobs will return to its members.
Employers subsequently indicated to the union that about 2,000 members will be recalled to their jobs over the next several months, most notably at U.S. Steel’s Granite City Works in Illinois and Republic Steel in Lorain, Ohio, the union said.
While the Steelworkers struggle to rebound from a weakened manufacturing sector, AFSCME and the American Federation of Government Employees must contend with attacks on public sector unions at the state level. Right-to-work efforts are likely responsible for members jumping ship across the U.S., Shaiken said.
AFGE lost nearly 7,000 members, about half as many as the much-larger AFSCME. The AFGE did not provide a comment to Bloomberg Law.
There’s been an effort in New Mexico to establish right-to-work ordinances at the county level. The Sandoval County Commission in January adopted a right-to-work ordinance, which labor groups are currently fighting in court. Voters in Missouri will weigh in on whether to repeal that state’s right-to-work law. Unions have been heavily funding the effort to get people to vote against it.
It will be interesting to see how unions fare in the long term because of the Janus threat, Paul Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University, said.
AFSCME and the AFGE have engaged in internal organizing, membership communication, and collaboration to build on existing members, which could help stem the flow of members in 2019 and could lessen the blow if the Supreme Court bans agency fees in the Janus case, Shaiken and Clark said.
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