Long-Term Union Membership Trends: Give Colo. Teachers Greater Choice

Last week the U.S. Department of Labor released new numbers showing that nationally union membership is on the decline. And not only in the private sector, which has been on a decades-long downward trajectory. Three years ago the nation crossed a historic threshold, as union members in private industry were outnumbered by their public sector counterparts for the first time ever.

The 2012 decline also hit government, where budgetary and labor reforms in places like Wisconsin and Tennessee have taken hold. The inimitable Mike Antonucci, writing at the Education Intelligence Agency, picked apart the numbers to unravel 10 interesting observations, including this pair of gems:

9) If the trends recorded since 2000 continue, by 2051 there will be 8 million union members in the United States – 6.6% of the total workforce – and they will all work for the government.

10) Five million of them will be teachers.

Of course, that assumes the likes of the National Education Association will overcome the most recent short-term numbers that suggest their national membership has slipped a bit. To some extent, Colorado mirrors the national trend.

While Colorado teachers are blessed with the freedom to decide whether to join or to pay fees to a union, in many of the larger districts the option to exit the union is limited by various revocation (opt-out) periods. In some cases, it’s easier to get out of a cell phone contract than to get out of the union. Show up at the union office during a two-week window at the busiest time of the school year and fill out the forms, maybe even get an interrogation.

Last year the legislature considered House Bill 1333, which would have afforded all teachers the opportunity to get in or out of a union membership payroll deduction with 30 days notice. (CEA union lobbyists testified against the proposal, all based on the feeble argument that the legislation violated “local control.”)

Well, two very similar proposals have been introduced under the Golden Dome this year, both by freshman legislators: Senate Bill 17 and Senate Bill 141. Insofar as either one restores this option to teachers, without imposing a requirement that school districts serve as collection agents for organized labor, they represent a worthy step forward on behalf of free association.

If Colorado and other states were to adopt such a policy, one must wonder what it would mean for Antonucci’s prediction of future trends. To serve an empowered generation of younger teachers and maintain its membership rolls, just how much would organizations like CEA have to adapt themselves? Given the composition of political power, we may not begin to find an answer this legislative session. But the long-term trends are hard to deny.

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