Unions didn’t dodge a bullet at the Supreme Court today. They dodged the guillotine.

The question at the heart of the Supreme Court's Harris v. Quinn decision on Monday was whether or not home health care workers, paid by the state, should have to pay fees to the union that negotiates their contracts, even if those workers choose not to belong to the union -- a question of real importance to two very influential constituencies within organized labor: public sector employees and women.

It has been said that labor dodged a bullet at the Supreme Court with a ruling narrow enough to apply only to a specific group of workers. This wasn't a dodged bullet though. It was more like labor was hit by only one of the bullets fired by the firing squad.

Organized labor has seen its influence wane in American politics for a variety of reasons, none of which is more significant than the decline of union membership. Lower union membership means less money paid in union dues, less of a voting bloc with which to woo elected officials, less in political contributions.

This is how union membership has changed in each state since the 1980s. There are little flickers as the density of union membership (expressed as a percentage of all workers) falls or increases, but the overall trend is downward. Pay close attention to two states: New York, where the density of union membership in New York City helps keep the state well above-average, and Michigan. (All data in this post is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

membership

The decline in union membership is itself in part due to politics. In 2012, Michigan and Indiana passed "right to work" laws backed by conservative groups that allow workers to benefit from union-negotiated contracts without having to make any contribution to the union. That's the issue at the heart of Harris. And there's a reason groups opposed to unionization focus on it: Ending the practice would grievously harm public sector unions.

Public sector unions have been a bright spot in the labor movement. The graph below shows how membership has plummeted overall, but held steady in public sector employment. The dashed lines, incidentally, shows those employees covered under a union contract but who are not union members.

density

The "dodged bullet" is that the Court disparaged the precedent behind collecting fees for representation from non-union workers, but didn't end the practice for public sector unions.

Instead, the Court separated out home health care workers, one of the few growth areas for union membership in recent years, determining that such workers in Illinois couldn't be compelled to pay the union money. The increased organization of workers in home health care are one reason that the labor movement has seen a remarkable shift over the past few decades, as the percentage of men who belong to unions has dropped much, much faster than the number of women.

gender

Which brings us back to that first animated chart, the one in which you were asked to pay close attention to Michigan and New York. The drop in Michigan's union density began well before the state passed its right-to-work law in 2012. That's a function of changes to the state's economy that are now legendary, like manufacturing's move overseas. The national drop in union membership in recent years is similarly linked to broader trends. For example: Since the recession, the number of government workers has dropped dramatically. The public sector has kept density high, but that doesn't mean much when the overall number of workers shrinks.

One last trend comes into play: unions are getting grayer. The trend is obvious below: even as the overall number of union members shrinks (despite the size of the overall labor pool increasing), there are fewer young workers in unions and more old ones. In 1992, 37.6 percent of union workers were aged 45 and over. Now, more than half are.


This is an institution on the precipice. Had the Supreme Court thrown out the 1977 case that allows public sector unions to collect fees from employees, it could very well have been the last push needed. Instead, the Court just made the cliff's edge shakier.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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