Recently, the Manhattan Institute had some interesting pieces on how hard it is to determine how many public-sector workers have stopped paying union dues since the 2018 decision in the Janus v AFSCME Supreme Court case, which said public employees have the right not to pay a union to keep their jobs. The problem is, we rely mostly on the unions to report how many people they represent. You can imagine they may not be excited to share publicly just how many people have decided union membership is not worth their money.
We do know about one union that is concerned about dropping membership rates. In a recent press release, the Public Employees Federation (PEF), which represents a large number of state employees in New York, provided some insight into their struggle to keep members. In the release, PEF admits new employees aren’t signing up for union membership. They blamed the drop on having to hold new employee orientations virtually. New York’s lawmakers gave PEF the ability to force new hires to sit through a captive audience meeting with the union, but it was hard to hold those meetings during the pandemic.
In response to the drop in members, PEF plans to hold “an organizing blitz.” The release explains; “in partnership with AFT, and with help from an SEIU grant, PEF will hold a membership “blitz” in Albany, knocking on doors and engaging with potential members face-to-face.” They are hopeful that two newly hired organizers will help increase membership numbers. PEF isn’t alone in concerns over membership – union membership has been declining for years. But it’s hard to figure out how many members each union has lost.
At AFFT, we’ve tried using lots of go-arounds to find the numbers—like sending freedom of information requests and analyzing union tax filings—but it’s a tricky number to pluck. A union’s federal LM-2 form can provide some information on membership numbers, but unions that only represent public-sector employees don’t have to file these reports. So while it’s a little easier to see how NYSUT and SEIU report membership numbers, we have little information about unions like the PEF.
Accurate and timely membership reporting is an important part of union accountability and transparency, and it shouldn’t be this hard to find out how many members they represent. Unions should be required to publicly release this information.