Union Report: When It Comes to Messaging Around Membership and Janus, Unions Get an F in Math & History

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

Unions are advocacy organizations. We should no more expect them to present a full and complete picture of a situation than we would look to a defense attorney to publicly admit that a prosecutor has a strong and compelling case against his client.

Nevertheless, I am struck by how often union claims are presented without corroboration, or even a caveat that they may be only half the story.

The most recent example is a column by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post headlined “So much for the labor movement’s funeral.” It’s an opinion piece, which gives it leeway regarding objectivity, but Milbank also cited a bunch of statistics. Some are creatively worded, and taken together they don’t make much mathematical sense.

Milbank wanted to show how unions have fended off the threat posed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus ruling, which ended the practice of public-sector unions charging agency fees to non-members. So he went to the leaders of three of the five largest public-sector unions in the United States.

He reported that the National Education Association has almost 14,000 more members, that the American Federation of Teachers added 88,500 members since Janus, and that AFSCME — the union that was the defendant in the Janus case — has gained seven new members for every one it lost.

Neither Milbank nor I have any idea if these are accurate numbers, but let’s assume they are. It would mean that among these three unions, membership rose by at least 102,500 — more, if we interpret AFSCME’s claim as a total membership increase.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported that public-sector unions lost 49,000 members in 2018, reducing their unionization rate to 33.9 percent, which is a record low dating to 1983. If we accept all these numbers, it would mean that SEIU and other much smaller public-sector unions lost a combined 151,500 members.

That would be big news, except SEIU also claims it dodged a bullet. So which unions lost members? We’ll wait a very long time if we expect the unions to tell us.

Milbank also reported that AFSCME has converted 310,000 former agency-fee payers to full membership since 2014. Again, there is no independent verification, but we do have access to the union’s financial disclosure reports to the U.S. Department of Labor.

AFSCME’s 2014 report shows it had 125,255 fee payers. At the end of 2017, it had 112,233. Even if we accept the union’s claim, it was adding new fee payers almost as fast as it was converting others to full membership.

What makes this completely ridiculous is that the people who predicted the labor movement’s funeral were almost all supporters of the labor movement. In fact, the apocalyptic prophecies were an integral part of the unions’ arguments before the Supreme Court.

Justice Elena Kagan utilized them in her Janus dissent, writing that the ruling “wreaks havoc on entrenched legislative and contractual arrangements,” that contracts would have to be renegotiated and new laws enacted, and that unions might not be able to fulfill their roles as exclusive bargaining agents.

We saw headlines in the liberal press like “A Future Without Unions Is a Terrifying Dystopia” and “SCOTUS Ruling for Janus v. AFSCME Crumbles Labor Unions.”

Now, the same people who were utterly convinced the sky would fall are utterly convinced the sky is expanding.

If only we had some previous experience of unions being dealt a political blow, only to respond with mass demonstrations, walkouts, and vows that a new era had begun.

Oh, wait. We do. Wisconsin in 2011. Five years later, membership in the Wisconsin Education Association Council was down 53.6 percent.

If only we had some previous experience of union leaders telling us that the loss of agency fees had little or no effect on membership numbers and that members were banding together as never before.

Oh, wait. We do. Michigan in 2013. Five years later, membership in the Michigan Education Association was down 21.5 percent, according to the union’s latest disclosure report.

Perhaps this time is different. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. But over time, it’s the best way to bet.

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