The Future of Public-Employee Unions
after remaining dormant for three decades, the issue of labor unions in state and local government erupted onto the national stage in 2011. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker introduced legislation to reduce the scope of public-sector collective bargaining, end government collection of union dues from employee paychecks, and require unions representing public employees to hold annual elections to legitimate themselves. Tens of thousands of people descended on the state capitol in protest. Democratic legislators fled the state in an effort to prevent a vote on Walker's "Budget Repair Bill," known as Act 10. After much wrangling, Walker prevailed, and Act 10 became law.
In the ensuing decade, government-labor relations has been a subject of intense political controversy. It has been at the top of many state legislative agendas and the subject of litigation in state and federal court, including the Supreme Court. Republicans sought to roll back what they saw as overly powerful public-sector unions in hopes of reducing the cost of government, improving its performance, and weakening a key organizational supporter of progressive causes. Democrats fought these initiatives because they believe well-paid public workers are a bulwark of the middle class, and because public-sector unions are among the biggest contributors to the party and are deeply embedded in its network.
Between 2011 and 2018, more than a dozen states passed laws to constrain public-employee unions. These developments shook up the status quo in public-sector labor law, which had endured for 30 years. By the late 1970s, state laws provided the majority of the nation's public employees with collective-bargaining rights. These laws required government employers to negotiate with unions regarding pay, benefits, and working conditions. They also compelled nonmembers to pay fees to the union for its representation, and government employers to collect the dues and fees paid by workers in a bargaining unit.
Then in 2011, New Jersey eliminated health benefits as a subject of collective bargaining. Wisconsin passed Act 10 the same year. Over the next few years, several states enacted "right-to-work" laws, which prohibit both public- and private-sector unions from collecting fees from nonmembers. Indiana and Michigan passed such laws in 2012, Wisconsin in 2015, West Virginia in 2016, and Kentucky and Missouri in 2017 (though voters in Missouri later struck theirs down). A number of states also enacted "paycheck-protection" laws, which require government workers to opt in to the withdrawal of part of their dues for political purposes. And some states prohibited public employers from deducting union dues from workers' paychecks and sending those funds to the unions.
To cap things off, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 in June 2018. The Court ruled that state laws obliging non-union employees to pay "agency fees" to the unions that are their "exclusive bargaining representative" are unconstitutional; the laws violated the First Amendment rights of such employees by "compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern." The decision overturned a 41-year-old precedent set by Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which permitted compulsory union fees for non-union public workers. No longer can a state- or local-government employee be forced, in order to take or keep a job, to pay anything to a union unless he "affirmatively consents" to do so. Public-sector agency fees are now illegal in all 50 states.
The last decade has been a critical juncture for public-sector unions, one that will likely have lasting political and economic effects. Liberals argue that public unions' membership will fall and their political power will decline, which will harm the Democratic Party. But there are compelling reasons to be skeptical about these claims. And they overlook conservatives' principled reasons for seeking the changes, as well as their already tangible benefits in reducing the costs of government.
MONEY AND MEMBERSHIP
Debate persists about many of the possible effects of these recent changes in public labor law. One thing is clear: The Janus decision deprives public unions of nearly all of their agency-fee revenue, as workers who are represented by the union but refuse to join it can no longer be compelled to pay into union coffers. This is a significant blow to union finances. Consider that in 2017, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) reported to the Department of Labor that it had 112,233 agency-fee payers and 1.3 million members; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said it had 104,501 agency-fee payers and 2 million members. In 2018, AFSCME reported 2,200 agency-fee payers, and SEIU had 5,800 — a 98% and 94% drop, respectively.
Insofar as agency-fee payers contributed between 60% and 100% of the dues charged to union members, these declines mean AFSCME and SEIU, as well as other unions representing public employees, have lost tens of millions of dollars in revenues. Ken Girardin of the Empire Center for Public Policy estimates that, in New York state, which boasts the most heavily unionized public workforce in the country, public-employee unions will lose approximately $100 million in agency-fee revenue — out of an average annual haul of union dues and agency fees of nearly $1 billion prior to Janus. Such losses explain why the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, cut its annual budget by $28 million and eliminated 40 people from its 400-person staff in 2018.
The effect of the Janus decision on public-union membership is less clear-cut. Despite constituting less than one-fifth of all full-time workers, public employees comprise almost half of all union members in the United States — 7.1 million workers in the public sector versus 7.5 million in the private sector. This is because union-membership rates are higher in the public than the private sector. From 1979 to 2018, public-employee-union membership held steady at between 33% and 38% of all state- and local-government workers. That percentage, however, masked wide variation among the states. New York has the highest public-union-membership rate, approaching 70%, while a number of states in the South and Southwest, which passed right-to-work laws in the wake of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, have membership rates in the single digits. The post-Janus question is what will happen to public-union membership in the handful of populous states with large public workforces and high membership rates — especially New York, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts.
Prior to Janus, 22 states, covering 5.9 million state- and local-government employees, had laws on the books that allowed agency fees. These provisions required workers who did not join the union to pay it anyway for acting as their "agent" in collective bargaining and contract administration. The aim was to solve the unions' free-rider problem for them, by preventing workers from receiving the benefits of union representation without paying for them. Charging agency fees incentivized union membership. For most workers without an ideological axe to grind, the question was simple: If I have to pay the union anyway, why not just join it? In Janus, however, the Court voided agency fees as a form of compelled speech. Agency-fee payers were subsidizing speech with which they disagreed because all union advocacy in the government context was inherently political. The Court's ruling allows union members to revoke their union membership and cease being shaken down for fees, while retaining some or all of the benefits of union representation.
Organized labor and its supporters predicted that the Court's ruling would "destroy" public-sector unions, as members would opt out en masse. The prediction that membership losses would disrupt state and local government was central to Justice Elena Kagan's dissent in Janus. There are a number of reasons to doubt such claims, however. First, supporters and opponents of public-sector unions have looked to Wisconsin for lessons about the future of public-union membership. But the Wisconsin case is misleading, because legislation there went further than just eliminating agency fees. The precipitous drop in public-union membership there was not driven exclusively by the loss of agency fees, but also by the end of dues deductions, the constriction of the subjects of collective bargaining to wages (with an inflationary cap), and the requirement that public unions hold annual certification elections. Reducing the subjects of collective bargaining weakened the incentive to remain a union member. Paying someone a lot when they don't do much for you doesn't make sense. Meanwhile, certification elections proved costly and cumbersome for many unions. Many therefore decided to convert themselves into associations that could advocate for workers but no longer enjoyed collective-bargaining rights. Wisconsin also eliminated agency fees for private employees in 2015 with a right-to-work law.
Second, as Maxford Nelsen of the Freedom Foundation has ably documented, attempts to quantify union-membership losses as a result of the Janus decision have produced much confusion. While the available data sources on public-sector unions have their strengths and weaknesses, none are especially good for tracking short-term fluctuations in membership figures. Those sources are the Current Population Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union financial reports filed annually with the Office of Labor-Management Standards in the Department of Labor, and payroll records compiled by state- and local-government employers.
Looking at all three sources, the best conclusion that one can draw today is that unions in the states affected by the Janus decision have experienced modest to significant declines in public-union membership. Consonant with the experience of states that passed right-to-work laws in recent years, the declines in membership, depending on the union, range from as small as 5% to as much as 30%.
Yet it should be noted that, amid these general trends, there are a few unions that have slightly increased their membership through campaigns to convert agency-fee payers into members. It is equally important to know that most membership increases have come not from organizing new workers but from enlisting public employees who were already represented by union contracts but were not union members. These factors partly explain why the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a drop of less than one percent in public-union membership from 2018 to 2019.
Absent further legal changes at the state level, membership declines are likely to continue gradually for the next few years, as some existing union members decide to opt out and some new hires refuse to join the union. The decline in membership will likely vary across states affected by Janus (for reasons discussed below) and across unions representing different types of workers. Public-union membership will eventually level off at a lower point than it was pre-Janus.
But while the membership losses are significant and politically very important, they are unlikely to be catastrophic for public-employee unions. These unions will remain important players in Washington and in some parts of the country. The idea that there would be a mass exodus of union members once agency fees were eliminated was always an overstatement, one that supporters and opponents of public unions both frequently made prior to the Janus decision.
The reality is that many public workers like their union, especially their local affiliate. Distaste for union politics increases, surveys suggest, as one moves up from the local to the national federation. It is also important to recall that public unions in the 22 states affected by Janus are starting from a position of strength — their membership is large and has been stable for decades. Their task now is to preserve membership, which is easier than trying to build it up. To remain important political players, the unions need only to hold on to as many of their current members as possible and do a respectable job in recruiting new hires.
Another reason membership declines are likely to be gradual is that public workers are poorly informed about their rights under law. Many public employees say they do not support agency fees, but many also do not know that they have been eliminated. According to a 2018 poll by Education Next, only 34% of teachers supported agency fees. Yet, according to a YouGov poll of 1,000 teachers in 2019, more than 75% of the teachers hadn't heard of the Janus case, and 52% didn't know that this ruling ended agency fees for public-sector workers. In many workplaces, the general supposition is that if it is unionized, everyone must be a union member. Human-resource departments often just hand out union cards to new hires to be signed with other benefits materials. The complex legalese of agency fees, exclusive representation, chargeable expenses, and other terms governing public labor relations are foreign to many workers.
Furthermore, if public employees are hearing any talk about their legal rights, it is usually coming from the unions. Public unions had ample warning that agency fees were in jeopardy. Prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000 in 2012 and Harris v. Quinn in 2014, and a 4-4 tie in a nearly identical case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association in 2016, strongly indicated the direction the Court was likely to go after Neil Gorsuch replaced Antonin Scalia on the bench.
Public unions mobilized to reinforce solidarity within their ranks and convert as many agency-fee payers to full members as possible before the Court ruled. Prior to Janus, AFSCME conducted 600,000 face-to-face meetings with workers it represents. Other unions updated their membership records, polled public workers to learn their concerns, and encouraged members to sign "enhanced" union cards, the fine print of which made it more difficult for members to opt out of paying dues. Such efforts paid off, at least in the short run. While the unions lost agency-fee payers, they increased their membership in some cases. SEIU president Mary Kay Henry said that "Janus was seized on by us and other parts of the labor movement as an opportunity to re-educate and activate our members in a much bigger fight that we're all committed to having." Indeed, the wave of teacher strikes since the decision has been interpreted as a method of recruiting and retaining members.
The Janus case resulted in a flurry of legislative activity: At least 30 states have considered more than 100 bills touching on public-employee unions in the last two years. Many new state laws have sought to bolster public-sector unions and shield them from Janus. Statutes in New York, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington, and other states now assure unions' access to new employees so that they can make the case for union membership. New York's statute specifies that unions can speak to new hires on the job for up to an hour and gives them access to existing employees' contact information. In California, Washington, and New Jersey, it is now illegal for public employers to discourage union membership.
Simultaneously, other groups sought to explain to workers their constitutional and legal rights with respect to union membership and fees. This effort was spearheaded by the Freedom Foundation and driven by organizations affiliated with the State Policy Network, a collection of state-based right-of-center think tanks, which traveled to Oregon, Washington state, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to inform workers of how to opt out of union membership and paying dues.
These efforts by center-right groups were soon cut short in a number of places, however. New laws, court rulings, and gubernatorial orders blocked public employers from sharing public employees' contact information, which made identifying and contacting workers much more difficult. The result is a largely one-sided messaging environment, wherein government workers are unlikely to hear clear statements of their rights under law or perspectives other than the unions' regarding the costs and benefits of public-union membership.
Not only do new state policies facilitate public-sector union organizing, but they also help stabilize and even encourage union membership. A number of states have capitalized on a little-noticed part of Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion in Janus, where he stated that "[i]ndividual nonmembers could be required to pay for [a] service or could be denied union representation altogether." To make union membership more attractive, some new state laws stipulate that public-sector unions can offer services exclusively to members and limit those provided to nonmembers.
For example, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union has stripped all workers they represent of the life insurance, eye and dental coverage, and other goods it provides, unless they join the union. New York also now allows unions to refuse to represent nonmembers covered by union contracts in grievance and arbitration proceedings. To receive such legal services, workers would either have to join the union or pay for a private attorney. Similarly, Massachusetts now allows public unions to charge nonmembers for representation in grievance and arbitration cases. Such provisions incentivize existing union members to remain in the union and provide an attractive recruiting tool to enlist new members.
New state laws also make it harder for union members to revoke their membership by explicitly setting the terms by which they can exit. Those terms, sometimes enshrined on new union cards, include specific windows of time each year when workers can opt out and include the detailed steps they must follow to do so. Many of these statutes limit union members to opting-out periods of just 10 days a year following their date of hire. In some cases, workers can leave the union at any time, but dues are still deducted from their paycheck until the opt-out period is reached. These policies are currently being challenged in state and federal courts by plaintiffs represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and other legal organizations. Their long-term prospects remain uncertain.
A few state laws, notably in Washington, also reset the balance of how a dues deduction can be started or stopped by a public employee. Under the new rules, dues deductions from a worker's paycheck can be authorized by email, over the phone, or by letter, but a letter to the union is required to discontinue such deductions. The clear aim of such policies is to facilitate union collection of dues and make it more onerous for workers who want to exit the union to stop payment.
Other legislation designed to buttress public-sector unions continues to be enacted. Delaware passed a law that makes compensation a mandatory subject of collective bargaining. Nevada granted collective-bargaining rights for all state employees. Oregon now requires public employers to grant paid release time to employees participating in certain union activities. Finally, California and Washington have passed measures to insulate public-sector unions from class-action lawsuits seeking retroactive refunds of agency fees taken from state employees who were not union members prior to Janus. While many of these cases have not succeeded in court so far, they still pose a threat to union treasuries.
Bucking these trends, a few states such as Montana, Kansas, and Pennsylvania have proposed legislation to restrain union enrollments by allowing workers to opt out at any time, or requiring government employers to notify workers that union membership is optional. Alaska has gone the furthest in trying to extend the logic of the Janus decision; an administrative order, which is currently tied up in court, holds that state employees must go through a two-step procedure on an annual basis to have their union dues deducted from their paychecks. The fate of this order remains to be seen.
In short, the general satisfaction of many workers with their union, the lopsided communications environment in the government workplace, and the new legal tools unions have to retain existing members and enlist new ones, all counteract the temptation of current union members to opt out and of new hires to refuse to join union ranks. While union membership will decline as the impact of the Janus decision and other state legislation takes effect, it is unlikely to decimate union ranks. But that doesn't mean weaker public unions won't have a major impact on the politics and finances of America's states and localities.
UNION POLITICAL POWER
Though these recent policy changes and court rulings have not destroyed public-union power, they have put a significant dent in it. In that respect, the last decade has been a sort of victory for the right. But equally important, for the first time, conservatives have successfully stitched together a set of organizations that can compete effectively with unions' political organizations at the state and local level. The American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network, among other groups, have created a network of organizations dedicated to advancing conservative policy ideas and arguments.
Public-union political power is likely to decline more in some states than others. Prior to Janus, public-sector unions were, arguably, among the most influential interest groups in American politics at all levels of government. Surveys of state political insiders found that teachers' unions were consistently ranked first or second among the most effective lobbying groups. They were major players in elections, in initiative and referenda processes, and in lobbying. They were a bulwark of the Democratic Party and provided it with members, money, and electoral expertise. In 2000, nearly a third of all delegates to the Democratic National Convention were union members.
Research by Patrick Flavin of Baylor University and Michael Hartney of Boston College has shown how state laws organizationally support public unions and increase their members' political activity. Supports include encouraging employees to join unions, government-employer collection of union dues, and allowing for the use of a workplace's resources to conduct union business. In addition, government employers often underwrite the local union president's salary through a practice called "release time." In other words, state and local governments underwrite a political activist. These organizational advantages have aided the Democratic Party, which receives the vast majority of hard-money campaign contributions from public-sector unions, as well as in-kind contributions for get-out-the-vote operations.
While many government subsidies remain in effect, the problem for public unions is that, with the loss of agency-fee revenue, they must now cover more of the costs of collective bargaining and contract administration with dues monies, which reduces the funds available for political advocacy. The big change then is that although public-sector unions still receive benefits from government that other interest groups can only dream of, they will no longer receive an organizational subsidy from workers who never wanted their services.
As a result, public-union political power is almost certainly set to decline. The loss of agency-fee revenues has big implications for the organizational model of public unions in the United States. American labor unions (public and private) are organized as federations. That means local affiliates channel a percentage of the membership dues they collect up to state and national federations. As noted above, variations in state labor laws created gradations of union strength or weakness. In the pre-Janus world, national federations obtained money from states where public unions were strong and transferred it to states where they were weak. In that way, national union federations smoothed the variation in public-union strength across the states, making weak-union states stronger.
New research by Hartney and Leslie Finger of Harvard University, however, finds that Janus will weaken national federations' ability to support locals in weak-union jurisdictions because agency fees are now illegal in all 50 states. The upshot is that the "political power of federated unions in the United States will be narrowed, especially geographically." Put differently, states where unions were weak or under threat prior to Janus will have less ability to call on the national federation for help. Hartney and Finger suggest that those unions will get weaker over time, while public-union power will be increasingly concentrated in states such as New York, California, New Jersey, and Illinois.
This contraction of union power has implications for party competition. Public-sector unions are a core constituency of the Democratic Party: They have long provided campaign cash, organizational savvy, and boots on the ground in election campaigns. Some fear that any weakening of the unions' political muscle will sap the Democrats' electoral strength. There is evidence for that claim. In 2018, public-employee union PACs gave $15.6 million to federal candidates, according to Open Secrets, compared with $17.9 million in 2010.
Furthermore, scholars James Feigenbaum, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Vanessa Williamson found that the passage of right-to-work laws in some states, which eliminated agency fees for both public- and private-sector unions, reduced Democratic vote shares in presidential elections by 3.5% and decreased voter turnout by 2% to 3%. Even such small reductions in union political power are highly salient in competitive Midwestern states. As the authors note, in 2016, "Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by less than a percentage point each."
The loss of agency fees, however, may not hurt the Democratic Party as much as some fear and others hope. Public-union membership declines are unlikely to significantly alter the politics of California, New Jersey, New York, or Illinois in the short term. Recall too that Janus applies only to public-sector unions, so its impact on Democratic vote shares or turnout in isolation would be even less than right-to-work laws, which also apply to the private sector. Furthermore, research has shown that private-sector unions have a greater effect on mobilizing their members to vote than do public-sector unions, whose members tend to be more white-collar and likely to vote anyway. So the effect of the elimination of public-sector agency fees on Democratic vote shares may be minimal. Finally, public unions can raise dues and devote more money to politics — a strategy taken by many private-sector unions as they have confronted declining membership in recent decades. Increasing dues now has an upper bound, however, because workers can drop their membership if costs become too high.
Although the get-out-the-vote operations public unions provide are nearly impossible to match, the Democratic Party no longer needs to rely on union dollars to fill their war chests. While it will remain rhetorically supportive of organized labor, the party may fare just as well or perhaps even better electorally by relying on campaign contributions from the wealthy. A spate of recent studies show that Democrats have dramatically increased their support from tech billionaires and other members of the Forbes 400 and are virtually tied with Republicans in winning votes from households earning more than $100,000 a year. So they are well-positioned to keep pace with GOP fundraising.
COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AND GOVERNMENT COSTS
Public-sector unions don't just exercise influence through electioneering and lobbying. They also shape public policy through channels that are largely out of sight; they are consummate insiders. One of those channels is collective bargaining, where unions and management negotiate pay, benefits, and work rules. At the bargaining table, public-employee unions can shape the policies they are tasked with carrying out. Another is through service on pension boards. Pension boards are obscure but important institutions; they determine pension funds' investment decisions and their expected rates of return (the discount rate), which determine their funding ratio and annual required contributions. The boards thus have a significant impact on the fiscal health not only of pension funds but also state and local budgets.
Many union supporters worry that without agency fees, unions will be weaker at the collective-bargaining table. But once again, the likelihood of this outcome is unclear. It can be said with some confidence that it is unlikely that public-sector unions will be more effective at negotiating contracts. But whether they will become less so is hard to determine because there is no easy way to gauge the costs of contract negotiations.
Critics contend that unions' fears about collective bargaining are unfounded because most contracts don't change very much on a contract-to-contract basis. As Justice Alito noted in Janus, neither AFSCME nor any of the 39 amicus briefs supporting it "explained why the duty of fair representation causes public-sector unions to incur significantly greater expenses than they would otherwise bear in negotiating collective-bargaining agreements." In other words, it is unclear why the costs of negotiating a contract for 100 workers, for example, are necessarily greater than the costs of negotiating one for 90 workers or 75 workers who perform the same duties.
One of the main criticisms of public-sector unions is that they increase government costs. A longstanding finding regarding the effects of unionization is that it increases employer costs in the form of higher salaries, more generous benefits, and more restrictive work rules. Most studies find that unionized public employees earn 10% to 14% more in salary than comparable non-union public workers. In a detailed study, Terry Moe of Stanford University and Sarah Anzia of the University of California, Berkeley, found that collective bargaining increased the pay and benefits of firefighters and police officers and boosted fire and police employment in cities with unionized departments. In short, unions drove up the costs of these services. Any attempt to establish more parity between the benefits of union and non-union workers over time will be a long, hard slog in contract negotiations, which take place every two to five years in most jurisdictions.
Yet weakened public-employee unions may make the reduction of such pay and employment premiums possible. For the first time in decades, states and localities, especially in states that are politically competitive, may be able to begin to save taxpayers money. Wisconsin shows what can happen. The state has been able to save more than $5 billion by holding the line on salaries, trimming employee benefits, and requiring public employees to contribute more to their retirement. The result is lower property and other taxes. Even though the state recently elected a Democratic governor with a progressive agenda, he has not called for repealing Act 10; doing so would require unpopular tax increases.
A more constrained public-sector union movement may also give states the flexibility they will need to address the slow-moving crisis of unfunded public-pension and retiree health-care obligations. To date, public unions have been an obstacle to reform. But a future recession and a constrained labor movement may enable politicians to do things they previously couldn't.
As of 2017, state and local pensions for public employees had accumulated $8.3 trillion in liabilities but had set aside only $4.3 trillion in assets, according to the Federal Reserve. In addition, the unfunded retiree health-care liability is estimated at $1.1 trillion. The rising costs of paying for pensions and retiree health care constrain what government can do to address other pressing issues. The problem, in short, is that many state and local governments have shown themselves incapable of prudent fiscal stewardship of these plans.
Public-sector unions have not helped. New research suggests that their role on pension boards has weakened the fiscal health of many public-pension plans and increased the costs we must now face. Anzia and Moe have found that union representatives on pension boards did not seek to impose more realistic assumptions about the funds' expected rate of return on their investments. Nor did they encourage government employers to consistently make the full annual required contribution to make the funds whole. In fact, the opposite was the case. Pension systems with more plan participants on the board and stronger public unions were associated with more fiscally irresponsible decisions. Discount rates were higher, and a lower percentage of the government's required contributions were paid. One possible underlying reason is that unions want to free up more dollars today for salary increases rather than save for tomorrow, especially when employers are contractually obligated to make good on their pension promises.
Transitioning to defined-benefit pension plans would restore some fiscal discipline to retirement funds, benefiting both public employees and taxpayers. It would also have the salutary effect of eliminating pension boards.
Many of the recent legal changes that cut against public-sector unions will continue to be felt for years to come. Wisconsin's Act 10, for instance, enabled state and local governments to secure significant savings. Because unpalatable tax hikes would be required, Democrats are unlikely to roll the law back even if they regain control of the entire state government. Right-to-work laws might be overturned in some states, as some Democratic governors have called for. But given the fact that Janus declared public-sector agency fees unconstitutional, reversals would impact only the private, not the public sector.
While Republicans have expressed near-uniform opposition to strengthening public-sector unions, the Democratic side presents its own, perhaps surprising, obstacles. Bernie Sanders's and Elizabeth Warren's extravagant campaign promises to revive unions aside, the Democratic Party has never been all in with organized labor. That seems unlikely to change. According to a Pew poll, while a majority (58%) of Democratic voters have a favorable view of unions, nearly a quarter (23%) have an unfavorable view. Similarly, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia University surveyed state legislators and their staffs and found that, while 70% of Democrats supported agency fees, 30% did not. The party lacks a consensus on whether it wants to champion organized labor or not, which helps explain why a labor revival is rarely at the top of the party's agenda. It is not for nothing that scholars have called the alliance between organized labor and the Democratic Party a "barren marriage."
Recall too that Democrats have long expressed support for "card check" legislation, which allows unions to organize a worksite just by getting a majority of workers to sign a card saying that they want a union. But when they controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2009, the proposal could not find enough Democratic support in the U.S. Senate. Newer proposals on the left, such as making union organizing a civil right, or requiring that employers hold periodic elections for workers to decide whether they want union representation, or passing a constitutional amendment to reform campaign finance, are unlikely to gain traction in Congress.
At the state level, a leading proposal to enhance public unions would expand the scope of collective bargaining to include the entire organizational structure of a given workplace. The Chicago Teachers Union recently tried to do this without enabling legislation when it went on strike in October 2019 to advocate for affordable housing, manageable class sizes, and more support staff. Another idea, suggested by Hertel-Fernandez, is to have public unions sell more goods and services to their members as a way to increase their revenues. These could range from workshops and training opportunities to health-insurance policies or retirement-savings plans. Such proposals may gain traction in New York or California, but in more politically competitive states, they will likely find more obstacles in their way.
None of these policy changes, however, is likely to return public-sector unions to their erstwhile glory. Meanwhile, conservatives and Republicans are likely to chip away at many of the various benefits and subsidies that public-sector unions continue to enjoy.
The most likely future is one where public-sector unions remain forces to be reckoned with in a handful of states with large public workforces — including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey — but have diminished influence elsewhere. The politics and policies of these states will increasingly appear as outliers in the area of public-sector labor relations.