Teachers Unions Claim They Are Beating Back Janus’s Threat, but It May Take More Than a Year to Really Know

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Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears Wednesdays; see the full archive.

It has been almost two months since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which eliminated the practice of public-sector unions charging agency fees to represent non-members. What has been the result so far?

To hear the unions tell it, it has brought about an upsurge in membership. Last month, New York State United Teachers President Andrew Pallotta claimed that 9,000 members recommitted to the union the first two weeks after the decision was announced, and only nine dropped out. United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl told a gathering of union activists that the number of non-members had been cut in half. Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Healthcare Professionals, said that “well over 90 percent” of his members have recommitted.

We have no independent sources of information, so it’s impossible to evaluate these claims. We do know that many unions, including the National Education Association, are cutting budget and staff, which would hardly be necessary if they truly believed their membership would increase. These reports are being met with skepticism even in some pro-union circles.

It may take more than a year for there to be reliable confirmation of what is happening now, through the means of union financial disclosure reports. In the meantime, we can only rely on recent history, which suggests that agency fees have been driving most teacher union growth for at least the past 10 years.

In the 2006-07 school year, NEA had 3,167,251 members. Ten years later, it had 2,981,200, a loss of more than 186,000 members. But if you divide its 50 state affiliates into two groups, those that had fee-payers and those that didn’t, a very different picture emerges.

To begin with, the agency fee states accounted for two-thirds of NEA’s total membership. During this 10-year period, membership in these states grew by more than 70,000 — an increase of almost 3.7 percent. This happened despite a recession that led to a substantial number of teacher layoffs.

In the non-fee-paying states, membership fell by almost 253,000, or 20.5 percent.

The membership losses in just two states where agency fees were eliminated during this time, Michigan and Wisconsin, more than erased the total gains experienced by all the agency fee states combined.

It is conceivable that a widespread spirit of solidarity will prop up membership numbers, but that wouldn’t necessarily solve the unions’ problem. Staying in or leaving the union is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime decision. Teachers and other public employees now always have that option. Can unions maintain a constant level of enthusiasm and commitment? We may have to wait awhile, but the numbers will tell.

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