Unions in 21st century politics

I began my active involvement in politics when I was in college in the late 1960’s. A lot has changed since then. Here are a few things that come to mind:

  • From what I hear from some party leaders, it is harder than it used to be to recruit members for their committees
  • In Buffalo and other places we paid attention to the local news cycle, which meant that in major campaigns in days gone by we had to have separate press releases each day for the News and the Courier
  • And last, but not least, we checked nearly everything that was going on for reaction or comment from leaders of organized labor

Things are different now.

There are certainly many actively involved members of party county committees, but the bulk of electioneering now comes in the form of those over-sized postcards without envelops to stuff or open, with attention-getting headlines filling the front and back. Almost no one hand labels mailings anymore. Everything seems to be done by mailing houses. Campaign literature drops are also rare.

We have had only one newspaper in Buffalo for the past thirty-six years, so there are no worries about whether the editors at One News Plaza will get ticked off because you gave the other guys down the street the release first. TV and radio news pretty much take their cues from the newspaper.

And the unions – they are still here, still vocal, but carrying less political weight than they used to. They have influence, but so do many environmental, social, ethnic, religious and geographic groups in the community.

Here are some statistics:

  • Nationally the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, as of January 2018, 10.7 percent of the work force was unionized. There were 7.2 million workers in public sector unions plus 7.6 million in the private sector; plus another 1.6 million people covered by the benefits of a union contract without being members of the union.
  • In 2017 nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 80 percent of the earnings of workers who were union members.
  • 34.4 percent of public employees are union members, compared with 6.5 percent of private sector employees. Teachers dominate the public employee union membership.
  • The state with the highest rate of union membership is New York, at 23.8 percent. In South Carolina less than three percent of workers are in unions.

In 1980 I worked in Michigan for about three months as the coordinator of the Ted Kennedy for President campaign. The United Auto Workers were strongly in control of the state party, and we spent a lot of our time dealing with union representatives, from national President Doug Fraser on down. The Michigan party that year chose its convention delegates by caucus, which was simpler to organize than a primary election. We carried the state for Teddy, one of his few wins that year. The UAW has always had strong leadership in Western New York, including folks like Jim Duncan and the late Tom Fricano.

But as a national force, the UAW’s influence has diminished along with its membership. Union contracts with the auto makers have resulted in many concessions over the years. UAW membership totaled 1.5 million in 1979, but was at 430,871 in 2017. The UAW’s total membership, however, has grown eight straight years as the union has branched out to represent non-auto or industrial employees.

The economic world as a whole has changed a lot in the past three or four decades. The economies of China and Europe and the United States are more intertwined than ever before. “Foreign” cars are built throughout the southern United States in plants with no unions. We’ll see what Donald Trump’s tariffs against foreign automakers, in the name of national security, do about that.

Scott Walker built his campaign for governor and his short-lived campaign for president around his fights to reduce union influence in Wisconsin. John Kasich also tried but was less successful in challenging unions in Ohio. In other states, including Michigan, Republican governors and Republican-controlled Legislatures have in various ways cut back on union rights and, directly or indirectly, union membership.

Now comes Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The decision of the United States Supreme Court on June 27th has dealt a major blow to the union movement, in the form of public employee unions. Janus changes many things.

Since a Supreme Court ruling in 1977 (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education), public employee unions have had the ability to charge an “agency shop” fee for people they represent even if the employees did not technically join the union. Unions were required to calculate the portion of their dues that related to political activities and to refund that amount to non-members. The theory of the 1977 case was that political activities of public sector unions were a form a free speech, and that therefore requiring nonmembers to contribute to the political activities was a violation of the non-members’ First Amendment rights. The Court in 1977 also felt that their decision provided a measure of labor peace for public employers.

The Janus case turned that approach on its head. The Court, in its 5 to 4 decision, determined that all public employee union activities, including its contract negotiations, are a violation of non-members’ First Amendment rights if the member does not agree with the activity. By the way, that great “centrist” jurist, Anthony Kennedy, voted with the conservative majority in the Janus decision, just as he did in all 5 to 4 decisions favored by Republican-appointed justices in the recently completed term of the Court.

The Janus case will have a far-reaching impact on public employee union membership, bargaining and activities. While it would be hard to pinpoint all of the significant issues that union members will weigh in deciding whether or not to stay in the union or to opt out, one of the most tangible issues will be the amount of dues that they will be willing to pay by continuing their membership, or conversely, the amount of money that they would like to save by opting out. Union memberships usually come with dues that annually total hundreds of dollars.

Estimates of how many public union employees might opt out of their unions are all over the lot, ranging from lost dues of ten percent or more of current receipts to substantially higher amounts. A recent survey of teachers, being the biggest block of employees in public unions, suggests that more than 60 percent of teachers would consider opting out.

The truth is, of course, that no one at this point in time really knows the true impact. Some unions have limited opt-in/opt-out windows that will mitigate the immediate impact of the law. The unions have known for many years that this Court decision was likely and they have been aggressively courting members to continue their membership. Many members will still value their unions. A few states, including New York, have passed legislation that makes it easier for unions to recruit and retain membership.

The bottom line, however, is that the impact will be substantial. Republicans are happy that union funds to political candidates, parties and related organizations will be reduced, knowing that that result will mostly hurt Democratic candidates. Given the political world we live in after the 2010 Citizens United case, campaign money is even more important than it used to be. Shoe leather door-to-door campaigns will, for many candidates, become even more critical than in the recent past. Maybe that is a good development.

Janus is yet another reminder, as if we needed any more reminders, that elections have consequences. It is likely to be another driving force in what is building up to be one of the most momentous mid-term elections in the history of the United States.

3 thoughts on “Unions in 21st century politics

  1. Could not agree more with Rick. There has to be a way to protect civil servant rights aside from making them a voting bloc.


  2. I have no problem with private sector unions like UAW. However, the public sector should not be unionized. While all union members are also taxpayers, not all taxpayers are union members. It is an inherent conflict of interest for union members to have their dues used to lobby and help elect Democrats who then negotiate for better wages and benefits for public sector union members the next time the contract is up. Sure, my spouse who is a NYSUT member can get a refund of the political portion of the dues in theory, but the practical reality of that is essentially non-existent because of the severe lack of transparency the union bosses shroud the money in. If you wrung your hands over Citzens United, you should have been wringing your hands all along about the power of other organizations that used the First Amendment protections to lobby government: Public Unions. Turn-about is fair play. Organizations are not people, be they corporations or unions. Neither should have influence in DC, states, counties, cities, towns or villages.


  3. Oh for the days of the UAW’s Tom Fricano, the Machinists union, the Ironworkers and other strong, progressive labor organizations, now, our Nation turns its lonely eyes to……who?


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