How Many People Have Left California Unions?

By Will Swaim
June 23, 2021

Some 300,000 Californians have stopped paying membership dues or fees to California’s government unions since 2018, the year the Supreme Court of the United States, in Janus v. AFSCME, ended mandatory union membership requirements for state and local government workers. 

The 20 percent drop in membership has allowed California workers to keep approximately $240 million of their hard-earned money each year, rather than send it to unions.

The just-published analysis is produced by data analysts at the California Policy Center (CPC) and Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy. They reviewed three years of monthly payroll records provided by California state and local government agencies that employ a total of 800,000 workers.

The research is the most comprehensive measure of the impact of the Janus decision on California’s government workers. 

OTHER STUDIES OF UNION MEMBERSHIP

In the past, researchers relied on the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual survey and federal LM-2 filings. The Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys U.S. households for their responses to work-related questions, two of which focus on unions. The bureau’s national sample size is just 15,000 households; the most recent BLS survey included just 1,734 union households in California. In addition to the small sample size, confusing questions and self-reporting (or reporting on behalf of family members) make the BLS survey extremely unreliable. In California, this survey showed total government union membership of 1.37 million in 2017 (the year before the Janus decision) and 1.22 million in 2020. That’s an 11 percent drop. 

There’s reason to believe that the BLS data doesn’t capture the reality. Consider the Michigan example. There, every major Michigan union, covering virtually every union member in the state, files a state form that allows researchers to track union membership. A review of those documents shows that union membership fell 31 percent, from 222,000 to 153,000, after 2012, the year Michigan’s government workers won the right to choose whether to join a union. By contrast, the BLS survey shows a decline of just 16.5 percent during the same period, from 254,000 to 212,000. While both reports show the numbers moving in the same direction, the federal survey likely overstates the number of union members and understates the drop. 

The federal government provides another snapshot of union membership, the Department of Labor’s LM-2 form. Any union that represents even one private-sector worker must file the LM-2, which gives researchers data on union revenue, spending, membership, and more. Seven unions of significant size file these forms with the federal government – letter carriers, firefighters, the smaller of the teachers unions, and four branches of the Service Employees Union (SEIU). In total, LM-2s show a decline in these unions, from  about 395,000 in 2018 to 345,000 in 2020 – an overall drop of 12.7 percent. Six of the seven unions have lost members, ranging from a modest 3 percent decline to a dramatic 23 percent decline.

The LM-2 forms provide important information, but have several drawbacks. First, only some government unions file them; in California, unions representing about one-third of government workers do. Second, by definition they cover at least some private-sector workers, and Janus did nothing to expand workplace freedom for private-sector union members. Third, the LM-2 filing deadline is based on the fiscal year on which these unions run; because each union runs on a different fiscal year, these forms represent different periods and may lag for up to a year. 

OUR METHOD: CALIFORNIA PUBLIC RECORDS ACT REQUESTS

Besides tracking the BLS survey and LM-2 forms, CPC and Mackinac file hundreds of public records requests to the state of California, universities, school districts, cities and counties. These give us the truest results of what is happening with union membership. 

Since 2018, we have submitted multiple records requests to 175 different public entities in California, agencies representing 800,000 workers – a sample size 461 times larger than the most recent BLS survey. Our research shows a 20 percent decline in union membership in the sample. Because of our large sample size, we are confident the decline in union membership for all California public employees is around that rate, meaning approximately 306,000 public workers have either dropped union membership or chosen not to rejoin. 

Typical dues in California are $800 per year (though they can be higher than $1,000 for many employees), which means Californians are keeping approximately $240 million each year in earnings they were forced to send unions prior to the Janus decision giving them a choice in membership three years ago.

Of course, there are drawbacks with every method. With public records, it’s impractical to file requests with every one of the thousands of public entities in California. And despite the law, some California agencies simply do not respond to our request for records. (COVID has been a common explanation for slow or non-response.) Because we must therefore use a sample of public employees to estimate what’s happening with all California government workers, it’s possible our sample public entities skew toward those with higher or lower percentages of union opt outs – meaning that the actual number of opt-outs may be higher or lower. 

Still, our years of researching this issue have shown public records are the most reliable source of data, which is why we will keep doing the hard work of contacting California government employers to track union membership trends. Relying on LM-2 and BLS data would be easy, but we know the information isn’t accurate. 

No matter how you look at it, a significant number of people have stopped paying dues or fees to their unions. The best estimate is hundreds of thousands of people taking hundreds of millions of dollars and spending it somewhere other than union coffers.  

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