Public unions search for silver lining as dues nose dive
Oregon's largest public employee unions have seen double-digit declines in the number of state workers paying dues, state data show.
Together, SEIU 503 and AFSCME Council 75 represent about 29,000 workers employed by state agencies. A shrinking share of those workers have chosen to be members, though, according to data maintained by the state Department of Administrative Services and provided to the Oregon Capital Bureau through a public records request.
Until last year, unions representing workers in the public sector divided workers into two groups: members and "fair share" dues-payers. Workers who wanted to pay full membership dues could do so, and could vote and run for leadership positions in the union. Workers who didn't want to support the ideological stances or political work of the union had another option. They could pay "fair share" dues instead.
That arrangement changed in June 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Janus vs. AFSCME that government workers couldn't be required to pay any fee to a union representing them, including "fair share" assessments.
Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, has an analogy for the Janus decision. "I always think of this as, if the city of Eugene told me that the part of my tax that goes to pay for the fire department is now optional, but they'll still come and put out the flames if my house catches on fire," Lafer said.
You may not opt out of paying the tax necessarily because you're against the fire department, but because "times are tough and one of your bills just became optional," he said.
The Supreme Court's decision means that the unions representing public sector workers no longer receive "fair share" payments. Separately from that, the number of state workers who are full union members declined since mid-2018, the data from the state show. Together, the two phenomena mean the number of state workers paying dues has dropped, by nearly 26 percent to SEIU 503, and by about 16 percent to AFSCME Council 75 since June 2018. For SEIU 503, that has meant that 5,555 fewer state workers are paying dues, and for AFSCME Council 75, about 1,009.
As of Sept. 30, about 70% of the people SEIU 503 represents in state government are members of the union, while about 80% of AFSCME state workers are members. The unions contend those numbers are just one plot point in a different story. They say public employee unions have bounced back in the face of what many observers had opined would be a major hit to unions' income, and by extension, their power.
"The Janus decision was supposed to be the death knell of the labor movement," said Ben Morris, a spokesman for SEIU 503. "That was the narrative that was put out there around that. And we are just not seeing that happen."
Morris acknowledged that there have been challenges. "Losing fair share fees is a hit," he said. "No doubt. But the resiliency of the membership at a time where, you know, we have organizations like the Freedom Foundation going to people and saying 'drop your union' every single day and we're just not seeing that happen, is a really big deal."
Lafer also says that the drop in union membership since Janus has been less than the unions and their detractors anticipated. "People on both sides were talking about (a) 30% to 40% fall-off in the six months or year before the Janus decision came down," Lafer said.
Although the overall trend in the year and three months between June 2018 and September 2019 has been downward, Morris points to a recent bump — between June and the end of September — of about 900 new SEIU 503 members in state government. He ties that bump to the July settlement of a new two-year contract that secured raises of 10% to 15% for state workers represented by SEIU 503.
"There's a story to tell here that despite historic challenges to public sector unions, at least, our union is coming through strong," Morris said.
David Kreisman, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 75, also emphasized that union's growth. "While we've seen impressive growth elsewhere in our public sector organizing, as well as in the private sector, we recognize that there will always be a small number of people who don't see the intrinsic value in being active members in their union," Kreisman said in a written statement. "At the same time, there are newly hired state employees who simply haven't signed up yet."
In the year and a half since Janus, AFSCME Council 75 has been organizing new groups of workers, including graduate researchers and house officers at Oregon Health and Science University.
The Freedom Foundation, which urges public employees to quit their unions, has claimed credit for a membership decline among unionized government workers. It has organized drives and publicity campaigns to urge workers to leave.
But it's unclear to what extent its activism might have caused the decline in full membership. The number of Americans represented by unions has declined significantly because of the erosion of union membership in private business.
In 1983, about 20% of American workers were union members, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2018, about 11% of U.S. workers and 14% of Oregon workers were in unions. Research on the decline of organized labor has often pointed to external factors such as legal cases, economic conditions, and public policy.
Ryan Cram, who investigates fraud in the Office of Payment Accuracy and Recovery at the Oregon Department of Human Services, left his union about a couple of years ago, he said. Cram has been a vociferous critic of the union, starting a blog at the height of his frustration with the union.
"The main part for me was just how non-transparent the union was," Cram said.
Cram, who became a "fair share" dues payer in early 2018, quit paying after the Janus decision rendered those fees unconstitutional. He was a full member of SEIU 503 for years, until he started looking into how the union was spending money, he said. He didn't care for its role in state politics and thought the union should just advocate for its workers.
"I'm not anti-union," Cram said. "I'm anti-bad leadership. And I'd just like to see the union get back to a state where they actually put members first."
Labor groups gave about $3.67 million to Oregon legislative candidates in the two years leading up to the 2018 election, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics, which tracks campaign donations.
Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU 503, said that state workers are just one component of their total membership, which she says has been growing. The union also represents thousands of workers in local government, higher education and home care workers. She says Janus hasn't meant major cuts.
"As a union, we haven't really had to make significant cutbacks," Unger said. "We definitely continue to adapt. A law was set up, and we followed that law for 30 years and it changed. And so now we have to continue to adapt to the legal landscape, like any organization does when (the) legal landscape changes. And I think we really have done that."
The gains the union made during the legislative session and in bargaining new contracts for its workers, Unger said, show that their workers "still have a voice" and that the union can still bargain effectively.
"We've continued to be able to do the work that we need to do," Unger said. "That doesn't mean we haven't had to make adjustments, but we haven't had to make significant cutbacks either."
For SEIU 503, before Janus, both agency and fair share fees were the same: 1.7 percent of a worker's salary plus $2.75 every month.
The union's political action committee operates separately. Workers who want to donate can do so like other donors — by writing a check — or can choose a deduction from their paycheck. Morris, the SEIU 503 spokesman, said the union has seen "no impact" on contributions to the political action committee since the Janus decision.
AFSCME Council 75 dues in 2018 ranged from $15 to $69 per month, according to disclosure forms the union filed with the federal government. The local affiliates of that union vote on membership dues, spokesman Kreisman said.
Diminishing union influence
With the backing of the Freedom Foundation and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, 12 public employees in Oregon sued several unions in U.S. District Court for a return of their fair share dues. In mid-November, an appeals court in the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected a similar argument, saying that the union couldn't be forced to refund the "fair share" fees paid by the plaintiff in the Janus vs. AFSCME case, Illinois child support specialist Mark Janus.
Lafer, the University of Oregon professor, cautioned against reading too much into short-term changes in membership. He points to Michigan, where, he says, union membership among auto workers grew after the federal government bailed out General Motors, Chrysler and Ford during the depths of the recession. Implementation of the bailout, starting in 2008, ran smack into Michigan lawmakers who passed a "right to work" law in 2012, declaring that private sector workers didn't have to support the unions that represented them.
Some observers claimed that the right-to-work policy helped boost unions. "Sometimes the data does things that it's easy to misinterpret," Lafer said.
In anticipation of Janus, many unions have conducted "more intentional and rigorous outreach" to their members and frame their work as for the public good, he said.
Lafer said the declining share of people who are paying dues might mean unions are taking in less money, which means they could afford fewer employees to negotiate contracts and handle workers' grievances. That, in turn, could diminish contract terms and snowball into dissatisfaction with the union that causes more people to leave.
"They're more thinly stretched, and then more people feel like, 'Well, what am I paying dues for?'" Lafer said. "And the things, slowly over time, can snowball like that. From a union's point of view, that's the danger."
Reporter Claire Withycombe: firstname.lastname@example.org or 971-304-4148.