Union Report: Janus Isn’t NEA’s Only Problem — State Affiliates Have Been Losing Membership Since Long Before the Supreme Court Ruling

National Education Association headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

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

Updated Aug. 23

We have seen an unprecedented level of media interest in union membership numbers since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus ruling in 2018, which banned the practice of public-sector unions charging representation fees to nonmembers. The common conclusion, which I share, is that the court decision has not had the devastating effect on teacher union membership that Janus supporters hoped or that unions feared.

Its full effect may not be known for several years, but predictions about future membership, particularly in the National Education Association, have to account for trends that were present prior to Janus.

Between the 2008-09 and 2017-18 school years, NEA’s active membership — that is, members working in public schools and universities, excluding retirees and students — declined by 9 percent.

That’s bad, but it is measured from NEA’s high-water mark, before the lingering effects of the 2008-09 recession that led to teacher layoffs across the country. Even so, the average effect on membership nationally tends to disguise the very wide variation in trends among NEA’s 50 state affiliates.

I have put together a table comparing the union’s membership numbers for each state from 2008-09 and 2017-18 to show what was going on prior to Janus. It shows that 14 NEA state affiliates increased active membership during those years and 36 lost members. Of those affiliates that lost members, 14 lost more than 30 percent.

2008 17comparisonsCORRECTED (Text)

The big winners were Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and Washington. They all increased active membership by double digits. Maryland, Massachusetts and Minnesota also had significant growth. Montana and North Dakota benefited from mergers with other public employee unions. The rest are all former agency-fee states that should continue to grow despite the Janus decision outlawing the fees, as there is no indication of mass resignations after the ruling, but there are friendly legislatures and steady teacher hiring.

A middle group saw moderate gains or losses. These included former agency-fee states California, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Without a strong trend present before Janus, any new trend in membership can probably be attributed to the decision.

Finally, there were the affiliates that were bleeding members at a disturbing rate. The biggest losers were Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Each was a right-to-work state or became one during this period.

NEA’s challenge is not only to mitigate any losses that might occur in the former agency-fee states but also to solve the much more difficult problem of reversing the downward spiral in the right-to-work states. These two things are interconnected, since the national dues from healthy affiliates subsidize operations and organizing in sickly ones.

NEA isn’t worried that the agency-fee affiliates will dwindle and die. There is no evidence that is happening, and it would take decades even if it did. Instead, the weak affiliates may continue to fade, making NEA similar to the American Federation of Teachers — a teachers union confined mostly to blue states.

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