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Union membership resumes its decline, report says

After several years of stability, the drop has accelerated since 2017, the report said. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision may be a factor.

Illinois government employee Mark Janus (center) encounters supporters and protesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2018. The court ultimately sided with Janus in ruling that public employees cannot be required to pay union dues.
Illinois government employee Mark Janus (center) encounters supporters and protesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2018. The court ultimately sided with Janus in ruling that public employees cannot be required to pay union fees.
AP

Whether it’s across the nation, in Illinois or just in the Chicago area, union membership has declined since 2017 after a few years of relative stability, according to a study released Monday.

The report said the decline was largely due to dips in unionized ranks in public sector jobs, a traditional labor stronghold. The public sector was roiled by a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Janus case ending requirements that government workers covered by collective bargaining pay union fees.

In Illinois, the public sector has seen a 7% drop in union membership since 2017, according to the report by researchers from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California, Irvine.

While significant, it’s less than some researchers said would be the impact of Janus, said UIUC Prof. Robert Bruno, a co-author of the report. He said unions have responded by better communicating with members and emphasizing the benefits of labor activism.

“The damage that’s been done has not eviscerated labor. It has not prevented unions from organizing in new places. It has not brought labor to its knees,” Bruno said.

But the research offers a Labor Day reminder that unions still face long-term declines in their share of workers. Added to decades-old factors such as globalization and job losses in key industries are newer trends such as the gig economy, contract work and the pandemic’s encouragement of remote work, the report’s authors said.

“The labor movement is declining at precisely the time when these workers need labor protections the most,” said Frank Manzo IV, policy director at the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a union-aligned research group. He said union membership is correlated with 10% higher wages and a much higher incidence of health insurance coverage.

The report said in the Chicago region, union membership totaled 503,086 in 2019, or 12.5% of the total workforce. Both numbers are down from 2017, but the membership count is still up from a post-Great Recession low in 2012 of 490,023.

Statewide, the loss in union membership since 2017 has been greater. The report said that in two years, unions have lost 7% of their rosters, bringing the total to 771,465, or 13.6% of all workers.

Nationally, the loss has been less steep but steadier. Unions now have 14.6 million members in the U.S., or 10.3% of all workers. That compares with 14.8 million and 10.7% in 2017.

The declines have disproportionately involved African Americans and female workers, said the report, which is based on U.S. Labor Department data. It also said workers deemed “essential” in the pandemic are more likely to be unionized than those outside that category.

During the 1980s, unions accounted for about one-fourth of the U.S. labor force. The authors said organized labor could be on the verge of a comeback, as the virus has highlighted for some workers the advantages of job protections and other benefits in a union contract.

Bruno said within the public sector, he’s seen signs of workers feeling a greater commitment to their union, even though the Janus case, which originated in Illinois with state worker Mark Janus, has led some to leave the ranks.

“Unions went to their members and said these attacks are meant to take away your voice. Janus really removed all illusions about that,” Bruno said.

The Supreme Court sided with Janus, who was supported by former Gov. Bruce Rauner and many others, in ruling 5-4 that compulsory fees violated the First Amendment rights of public sector employees.

Union organizers face laws and government policies that make the work difficult, Bruno said. He also said because the pandemic has made some employees desperate, there have been reports of more wage theft and labor law violations by companies. “There’s really no punishment for employers that break labor laws,” he said.

To spread their message and increase their success with organizing, unions should work more with groups that advocate for economic and social justice, the authors said. They cited the Service Employees International Union and its campaign for a $15 minimum wage.

SEIU units and other labor groups have ownership stakes in Sun-Times Media.

Other co-authors of the study were Virginia Parks, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and Jill Gigstead, Midwest researcher for the Illinois Economic Policy Institute.