Education Unions Report Sharp Declines in Membership, Revenue

Two Oregon chapters lost nearly $2 million in dues and fees

Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
November 12, 2019

Teachers' unions are experiencing sharp declines in membership and revenue in former union strongholds Oregon and Washington, according to new annual reports.

Two Oregon teachers' unions—the state's American Federation of Teachers (AFT) chapter and the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA)—reported drops in paying members of 35 percent and 36 percent, respectively. Both unions lost nearly $1 million in revenue as a result, with the OSEA closing three field offices and accepting a $400,000 bailout from its parent organization to help make ends meet. In Washington, the Federation of State Employees disclosed a 27 percent decline in financial supporters since June 2018.

The membership declines reflect the waning power of unions in the United States. Just 10.5 percent of American workers were members of unions in 2018, the lowest percentage in the past century. Hillary Clinton won union voters in 2016 by the narrowest margin of any Democrat since 1984, despite the fact that nearly every major union endorsed her campaign against President Trump.

A major turning point came in 2018 when the Supreme Court declared forced dues schemes for government workers unconstitutional in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Unions nationwide hemorrhaged revenue, as agency fee payers resigned. The loss of those partial dues payers caused AFT's national office to lose 4.3 percent of its total financial supporters even as it added thousands of new members.

Aaron Withe, national director of the pro-free market Freedom Foundation, said the effects of the ruling have been especially pronounced in traditional union strongholds Oregon and Washington because of outreach efforts. The foundation launched an information campaign targeted at agency fee payers and union members to advise them of their right to stop paying labor groups.

"The fallout that the unions are experiencing in Oregon and Washington are a direct result of our full-scale outreach campaign," Withe said. "We've spoken to tens of thousands of public employees at their homes and offices, and what we've found is that when they learn their rights under Janus, they opt out in droves."

Neither Oregon nor Washington labor officials responded to requests for comment.

In response, union leaders have launched a Janus counterattack, introducing hundreds of bills in state legislatures across the country to advance pro-union policies. Many of these bills unionize new workers without their knowledge or consent and provide nonmember fee workarounds in states such as Oregon.

The National Right to Work Foundation, which successfully argued the Janus case before the Supreme Court, is now fighting several legal battles to close loopholes that labor unions use to prevent workers from ending their payments. Many local and state unions have attempted to install "withdrawal windows," refusing to honor resignation requests that do not meet certain deadlines. Foundation spokesman Patrick Semmens said such policies directly reflect labor unions' fears over their waning influence.

"When you see a significant drop in membership like this when union support is finally voluntary it demonstrates just how much union bosses rely on coercion to corral workers into their ranks," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of teachers and other public employees across the country remain trapped in dues payments because of union policies that block workers from exercising their First Amendment rights."

Withe said the Freedom Foundation plans on expanding its operations to other states, including those in the Rust Belt, to bring its education campaigns in Oregon and Washington to larger audiences.

"We expect to see these results continue in the larger states that we operate in as we continue and expand this campaign," Withe said.

The success of those information campaigns could have major effects in the political landscape. Labor unions contributed more than $1.6 billion to left-wing political advocacy groups between 2016 and 2018, and top Democratic presidential candidates have gone to great lengths to secure these substantial financial and political resources. Former vice president Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) have released plans to bolster union membership and the size of union war chests in the future.

Published under: Teachers Unions , Unions