California has the fifth highest rate of unionization in the country: 16.1% of workers report union membership, well above the 2022 national average of 10.1% of workers in unions. This 2022 national average is the lowest national unionization rate on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. In 1983, the earliest year with comparable union membership data, 20.1% of the national workforce was unionized.
Despite the consistent decline in union membership nationally over the last 40 years, in August 2022, Gallup reported that the public’s support for unions was the highest it’s been since 1965, with 71 percent of Americans approving of labor unions. To further confound these data points, in the same Gallup poll, most nonunion workers reported no interest in joining a union. It seems most Americans support the idea of labor unions; they just aren’t likely to be members themselves.
Organized labor has shaped the culture and mindset of many workers in the United States, often with familial pride recalling the days when parents and grandparents became union members decades ago. And there is much to be proud of: early American unions were the ones to fight for a 40-hour workweek, and to champion workplace safety provisions. These same unions were the ones to fight for child labor protections.
Unionization and collective bargaining became the official labor policy of the United States in 1935 with the passing of the National Labor Relations Act. Since the early days of unionization efforts, public-sector unions have evolved to become one of the largest special interest groups in U.S. politics, in large part to state laws that for decades forced workers to pay them as a condition of employment.
In 2018, the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision freed millions of public employees to make the choice themselves about union membership. Prior to the Janus decision, nearly every public employee was required to pay union membership dues as a condition of employment. Since 2018 various union alternatives have emerged for public employees, including the organization I now lead, as well as regional or profession-specific associations.
In recent years in the private sector, there has been a surge of union activity, with 1,249 union elections held during the 2022 fiscal year, reports the National Labor Relations Board, representing a 50% increase from the year prior. Such efforts at Starbucks, Trader Joes, and in Silicon Valley have dominated the news.
At this current moment in our country’s history, we’re facing national financial precarity, an increase in international tensions and conflicts, and extreme divisiveness at home. This is not unlike the climate of 1935 that led to the formalization and rise of early union activity. In times of great uncertainty, it is only natural to want protection and support, and to have someone to stand up for you. With a majority of Americans unable to afford an unexpected $500 bill, and wage growth trailing behind record-high inflation, it is no wonder workers want protection and support of their jobs and livelihoods.
But what protection and support do today’s unions offer?
The California Policy Center reports that as of December 2022, 27.1% of eligible public employees in California have chosen not to pay into government unions. Last November, employees of the local union SEIU 2015, a statewide union representing public employees in California, went on strike alleging unfair labor practices at SEIU 2015. Every two year election cycle hundreds of millions of dollars worth of membership dues from public sector unions in California alone are spent financing elections and lobbying efforts. And, because of a longstanding California employment law, employees from the University of California system are now being forced to repay wages they received while on strike last fall.
These examples point to a larger issue: traditional unions are not protecting and supporting their own members.
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Teachers, for example, benefit from the widest variety of union-alternatives: the Association of American Educators provides teacher representation and educational advocacy in most states; state-specific groups like the Keystone Teachers Association provide state-specific legal resources and other benefits; and Christian Educators provides fellowship, support, and insurance benefits to Christian education staff across the country.
For public employees who are not teachers, fewer resources exist. My organization, the American Public Servants Association, is the only organization serving every public employee in every U.S. state: we support and empower public sector workers and their families by providing them with a reliable and affordable alternative to traditional union membership, including providing legal services, insurance policies, and scholarships.
Workers deserve to have someone to protect them and stand up for them. If traditional unions are no longer able to provide that protection and support, America’s workers deserve more, and better, alternatives.
Manon Loustaunau is executive director of the American Public Servants Association, a national non-profit membership association.