Opinion: Unions Enjoy Big Clout in California, But Membership Declining

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An AFSCME 3299 protest in September 2017. Courtesy of the union

By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist

The 2016-18 legislative session, which ended last week, provided more proof of the symbiotic relationship between California’s labor unions and the Legislature’s Democratic majority.

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While they didn’t get everything they wanted from the Legislature, unions — particularly those representing state and local government workers — won far more skirmishes than they lost.

The record was a testament to the central role that union leaders play in recruiting and financing Democratic candidates for the Legislature, many of them union activists themselves, and in the unparalleled clout that union lobbyists enjoy when legislation is being drafted behind closed doors.

That said, Labor Day 2018 finds California unions seeing a downward trend in membership that could accelerate now that the U.S. Supreme Court has decreed that workers who don’t belong to unions cannot be compelled to pay even partial dues.

Even before the landmark Janus decision was issued this year, California unions were seeing membership erosion, from a peak of 18.9 percent of California’s workers in 1989 to 15.5 percent in 2017, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Numerically, the state’s 2.5 million union members are virtually unchanged in the last decade, meaning that membership failed to grow as public and private payrolls expanded by 1.5 million workers during that period, the BLS reported earlier this year.

Union members are also graying, with just 8 percent of workers aged 18 to 24 covered by union contracts, but 22 percent of those over 55, according to the pro-union Labor Center at the University of California-Berkeley.

Dan Walters

Roughly half of the state’s unionized workers work for federal, state or local agencies, which may explain why Californians with college degrees are substantially more likely to be union members than those with high school or lesser educations.

Unions leaders fear — and anti-union groups hope — that the Janus decision will not only allow thousands of nonmembers to stop paying what are called “fair share” dues, but persuade many members to drop out.

It seems unlikely that public workers who are, in relative terms, well educated and well paid — such as teachers, engineers or police officers — will drop out in large numbers because they have obvious stakes in their unions’ clout. However, that may not be true of lower-paid government workers to whom union dues may represent a greater share of living expenses.

This year, unions successfully pressed their friends in the Legislature to make it more difficult for workers to stop paying dues under Janus, including blocking access to workers’ contact information by anti-union groups.

They also played a prominent role in the Legislature’s highly controversial decision to end money bail for criminal defendants and substitute individual assessments of their likelihood to show up for court.

That decree would eliminate the jobs of thousands of private bail bond agency workers and create thousands of new civil service jobs in the court system for evaluating defendants.

Looking forward, another court decision could spell trouble for the state’s public worker unions.

The state Supreme Court is weighing several cases stemming out of a mild reform of public employee pension enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Several unions have challenged portions of the reform, and those challenges could backfire were the court to eliminate the so-called “California rule” that prevents pension benefits, once granted, from being modified.

Local governments, particularly cities, are facing very steep increases in mandatory “contributions” to cover pension costs and repealing the California rule would open the door to reductions in pension benefits for future work.

That would be a huge setback for California’s politically powerful unions.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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