- - Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2018, Janus v. AFSCME, was a landmark ruling, but also a simple one. It means just that forcing workers to pay money to a union is an unconstitutional infringement on their First Amendment rights.

The ruling should act as a catalyst for union leaders to be more responsive to member needs and interests. Indeed, unions in some right-to-work states, where membership has been an employee’s choice for years, have found that transitioning from out-of-touch political bodies to service-based, member organizations has expanded their ranks. Many seem to be missing this point, as evidenced by mainstream newspapers that recently relied on internal union numbers to support their claims of growth in membership and activism since the Janus decision.

Maybe. Color me skeptical for the following reasons.

This decision is only 7 months old and few unions have had to report membership or financial numbers. Unions across the country are ignoring members who are trying to leave, feeding them disinformation about when they can do so and working with friendly lawmakers to impose financial and legal obstacles to them exercising their rights. We have heard this all before in states like Michigan. Despite the anecdotes, brand new survey data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that union membership again slightly declined, to 10.5 percent from 10.7 percent.

Only one of the major public sector unions has had to report any membership and financial data — the National Education Association — and while there was a small uptick in the member’s category, the total number of workers paying the union declined by 2.4 percent. The NEA filed its federal LM-2 report at the end of 2018 and while it only incorporated two months of information, the union was down 87,000 fee payers and, reportedly, 17,000 members.

These numbers are incomplete snapshots of activities that will not remain static. Some workers must wait for arbitrary state “windows” of time when they can opt-out. At the encouragement of union lobbies, several states have introduced or already implemented union-friendly legislation in attempts to undermine the Janus decision. These various proposals include limiting a union member’s ability to resign to “the 10 days following each anniversary date of their employment, as regulated by the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act in New Jersey.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order making it more difficult to contact union members to inform them of their rights under Janus. And in California, a new state law protects unions from legal challenges for the fees they collected before the Supreme Court’s decision despite the fact that the court deemed such collections unconstitutional. If unions are so confident in their membership, why are they working so hard to erect barriers to members leaving?

The Mackinac Center, a state-based think tank in Michigan, helped educate thousands of workers of their rights after the Great Lake State went right-to-work and is doing so again after the Janus decision. It has long maintained that “freedom is not self-executing” and has seen this script before. After the first year following Michigan’s passage of right-to-work, unions bragged of losing only a few members and predicted that to be the final case.

However, since then, Michigan’s largest public sector unions have lost a massive amount of members and revenue. The Michigan Education Association is down 32,000 members, or nearly 33 percent since its peak when the right-to-work law went into effect. The American Federation of Teachers-Michigan lost 22 percent of its membership. In addition, the main Michigan AFSCME affiliate, representing local government workers, has lost 33 percent of its members and is spending 90 percent less on political activities in 2016 as it did in 2012.

If the national landscape mirrors what occurred in Michigan, there is much more yet to unfold. It would have been a mistake to judge the impact of right-to-work based on less than a year’s assessment of post-membership trends in Michigan. It would be a mistake to make similar assumptions about the national impact of Janus seven months out. The seeds of change are still being planted, but historical evidence and perspective is on the side of worker freedom.

• Michael Reitz is executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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