Union membership is plateauing among California state workers, data show. Here’s why

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California’s state worker unions saw membership rates dip ever so slightly in 2023, even as the total number of rank-and-file employees increased.

Across state government, just over 64% of employees paid union dues in October, according to the most recent available data from the State Controller’s Office, which deducts dues from union members’ paychecks. That’s down less than 0.5% from last October.

The state’s total number of rank-and-file employees increased by about 1,580 people from October 2022. Meanwhile, the number of dues-paying members increased by just under 330 employees. These trends buck previous years’ patterns, which saw decreases in total staff as well as dues-paying members.

But the aggregate data don’t show the whole picture.

Some unions, such as Cal Fire Local 2881, added hundreds of new employees and nearly twice as many dues-paying members. Others, including the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians, saw losses in both total employees and paying members.

And oddly, SEIU Local 1000 and the Professional Engineers in California Government both saw a decrease in dues-paying members even as the total number of rank-and-file employees they represent increased.

Leaders of both Local 1000 and PECG say members are leaving faster than they can replace them, and recruitment has only become more challenging in recent years due in large part to telework.

Another challenge for public sector unions, albeit not a new one, was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME. Labor organizations across the country and at all levels of government suffered financial losses after the court decided that unions can’t compel non-members to pay collective bargaining fees. That makes recruitment of dues-paying members even more important, but it’s also more challenging to convince members the dues are worth the investment.

Ever since the Janus decision, it’s not uncommon to see public employee unions ramp up membership drives before contract negotiations begin, said Ken Jacobs of the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

Case in point: Cal Fire Local 2881 added 640 new dues-paying members to its rolls this year, despite only seeing a 320-person increase in total rank-and-file employees. The union will enter bargaining next year before its contract expires on June 30.

In the same vein, some employees may choose to cancel their memberships after the union inks a new contract. But Jacobs said the drop-off rate will depend on a variety of factors.

“How involved were members during bargaining? Do members perceive the contract as a success?” Jacobs said. “And how much is the union engaging members after the contract?”

One plausible explanation for Local 1000’s drop in membership could be member dissatisfaction with the contract the union signed earlier this year. Board chair Bill Hall acknowledged that some members feel that the current contract short-shrifted them. At the same time though, “Everybody got something,” Hall said.

“It was a very good contract. It wasn’t a great contract,” he said. “If you have wild expectations, but not enough strength in membership to achieve those expectations, it’s going to be a rocky road.”

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