As we marched back to work after the three-day weekend, it was easy to view the break as a last gasp of summer before the temperature starts to drop, schools begin and days shorten. But, just like every other federal holiday, there are more historical reasons for this annual break: to remember and celebrate the working people of America. For this, and many other reasons, now is an excellent time to check in on the status of labor and unions in our country.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 11.1% of all American workers belong to a union. This is a 0.2 percentage point drop from 2013 and nine point drop from 1983, when these numbers first became available. In other words, the percentage of union members in the American workforce has dropped nearly by half in 32 years. Whether this trend is a positive development for the economy is up for debate, but recent events show that the death of unions might come even sooner than trends indicate.
On June 28th, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that it would hear the case of Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Assn., a constitutional challenge to mandatory representation fees that many unions charge all employees, even those who do not formally join the union. For example, a teacher in California who joins a union pays about $1,000 per year. But, a teacher in the same state who declines to join the union still must pay about $650 in “fees” that are meant to cover the expenses involving collectively bargaining the benefits and salaries all the teachers employ, whether they are in the union or not. The case before the SCOTUS, which will be heard in the fall and decided in the early summer, could be a huge blow to all unions if it rules that these fees are a violation of the First Amendment, thus setting a precedent that could affect all public unions. How the Court will decide is unclear, but the very act of electing to hear the case at all is a significant blow to the stability of labor.
Of course, the role of unions has been in the news lately not just because of the Supreme Court, but also because of the actions of Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. In 2011, he took away collective-bargaining rights for many public unions and eliminated tenure and seniority in education unions. Despite two attempts to oust him, Governor Walker remained in office and campaigned on the strength of these reforms. While this seemingly points to support of anti-union legislation, Walker has not found similar success on the national level. He is currently only polling at 8% in the GOP primary and is having problems transferring his state level success to a national stage.
With the decline in union membership, pending decisions aimed at foundational tenants of unions, and the varying success of Governor Walker, the future of unions is cloudy. In order to make the best possible decisions about labor, we as a country must come together and have a thoughtful debate about the most effective course of action to take. Please download and use the EAGLE app to join the conversation and #beheard.