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Why States Should Require Annual Union Recertification

Key Findings

  • Ninety-four percent of union members did not vote to be in a union.
  • Union leaders are political activists, and unions often advocate for radical policies unrelated to labor that their membership does not support.
  • The extreme activities of government unions harm both workers and taxpayers.
  • Requiring annual recertification elections would hold public-sector unions accountable.
The Bottom Line: States should require annual recertification for public-sector labor unions to ensure that union leadership is accountable to members.


Union membership has been on the decline for decades. Today, just 10 percent of workers are in a union, compared to 20 percent in 1983.1 Falling union membership indicates that workers find less value in union membership as the economy continues to change.2 There are nearly nine million open jobs, and wages for entry-level jobs have been on the rise.3-4 As businesses compete for employees, many are offering expanded benefits without external pressure from collective bargaining agreements.5 Two recent high-profile unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses failed when employees decisively voted against forming a union because they were already satisfied with their workplace conditions.6 

However, despite the overall decline in unionization, labor unions still have a strong hold on government employment. Public-sector union membership rates are five times higher than private-sector union membership, and nearly half of all union members are government employees.7

Government unions have a unique relationship with the public, and taxpayers foot the bill in more ways than one. First, all government union dues are drawn from taxpayer-funded salaries. Second, when government unions strike, it’s the public that pays the price. The government has a monopoly on many public services, and public-sector unions can use their government-granted powers to hold the public hostage.

For example, teachers’ union strikes lead to missed classroom time for kids, and parents are left unable to work.8 Third, government employees routinely perform union duties while they are on the clock receiving their taxpayer-funded salary and accruing benefits.9 In many cases, employees work full-time on union activities and continue to earn their government salary and benefits despite not actually serving the public.10

These hours spent on union activities instead of work—called “official time” or “release time”—include lobbying lawmakers and engaging in get-out-the-vote efforts.11 In 2019, federal employee union “official time” cost taxpayers $135 million, and the cost to local and state governments is estimated to be as much as $1 billion.12 

Workers are trapped in unions that they never elected

Both federal and state laws impact how labor unions can form and operate.13 In general, when a new union is formed, an election is held that certifies that a majority of voters wish to create the union and enter into collective bargaining.14 In a right-to-work state, a person can’t be forced to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment.15 Even in states that protect employees with right-to-work laws, employees still must accept the terms of collective bargaining agreements if they work in jobs that have union representation, despite not joining the union or paying dues.16

Just six percent of unionized employees voted to certify the unions that represent their workplace.17 The other 94 percent of union employees are now stuck with a union that they never voted to certify.18 

Outside of narrow and tightly controlled circumstances when workers can try to organize an election to decertify their union, which typically limits even attempting a decertification to one month every three years, unions may exist indefinitely once they are formed.19-20Before 2018, unions could automatically deduct dues from employees’ paychecks, without workers having any ability to opt out.21

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector unions had to allow employees to opt out of paying union dues on the basis that requiring dues was compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment.22 In the five years that followed this decision, more than 20 percent of employees in government unions declined to pay union dues in a clear sign that they were dissatisfied with the union or disagreed with how dues were being spent.23

However, even if employees are not required to pay dues, they are required to accept union representation. Unions have exclusive representation of employees in the bargaining unit.24 This means that even if an employee who does not want to be in the union is facing a workplace issue and would like to negotiate on their own behalf directly with their employer, they are required to use the union instead.25 Employees are forced to associate with the union even when the union takes positions contrary to their own beliefs, or negotiates terms for a contract that an individual employee does not want.26

Collective bargaining means that one-size-fits-all contracts are applied to all employees in a certain position. These contracts often limit employers’ ability to reward employees based on merit and protect more senior employees to the detriment of younger ones.27 In Minneapolis, the teachers’ union negotiated a contract that required the district to fire white teachers instead of racial minorities when layoffs occur.28 Exclusive representation and the near impossibility of decertifying a union once it is formed creates a lack of accountability, allowing union leadership to neglect the needs of its own membership without recourse. Moreover, it weakens political accountability by transferring control over core government functions from elected lawmakers to government unions.

Unions are overtly political and don’t focus on representing members’ interests

Recent polling shows that 51 percent of union members are Democrats, and 23 percent are Republicans.29 While it is certainly true that many union members identify as Democrats, the politics are still complicated. Just 36 percent of union members identify as liberal, compared to 43 percent in 2017, and 60 percent identify as conservative or moderate.30 Compared to the general public, union members expressed less support for leftist causes like Medicare for All.31

Despite a range of political affiliations among union members, unions function as an arm of leftist political activism instead of being focused on wages and other worker priorities.32 Some labor union leaders have even responded to the increasing political diversity within their ranks by hosting re-education workshops to impose their radical ideology on members.33

Unions have long been reliable contributors to leftist candidates and policies.34 Between 2010 and 2018, unions spent more than $1.6 billion in member dues on political causes, and even though only half of union members are Democrats, more than 99 percent of donations went to Democrat candidates and leftist groups.35 

The four largest government unions—which include the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA)—spent more than $700 million on political activities in the last election cycle.36 Less than 20 percent of dues revenue was spent on member representation, which is supposed to be a union’s primary function.37 More than 95 percent of political contributions from these top four government unions went to Democrats at the federal, state, and local levels.38 In 2016, one-third of members of the NEA voted for President Trump despite the union’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton.39-40 Yet in 2021, the NEA spent $183 million on political causes, nearly all of which went to leftist candidates and groups.41 The same year, the NEA only spent $32 million on member representation.42 In 2020, AFT endorsed President Biden, the Green New Deal, universal taxpayer-funded health care, universal Pre-K, taxpayer-funded college tuition, and other radical policies that would cost trillions of dollars.43

In addition to funneling money to causes that members may not endorse, teachers’ unions have also supported policies that directly harmed both their own members and students. AFT fought hard to keep schools closed to students after the pandemic, forcing teachers who wanted to return to work to stay home.44 United Teachers Los Angeles, affiliated with AFT, held kids’ education hostage to unrelated radical causes, demanding Medicare for All, defunding the police, increased taxes, and a moratorium on charter schools as ransom for schools reopening.45 Meanwhile, just 41 percent of Los Angeles County students can read at grade level, and only 31 percent are meeting grade-level standards for math.46 

When a school employee was fired for praying on the football field by a public school district in Washington, the teachers’ unions did not come to his defense.47 Rather, the NEA and AFT wrote an amicus brief in opposition to the coach and in support of the unconstitutional employment actions taken against him.48

Many teachers just want to teach and do not agree with the political activism of the union that they are required to accept as their workplace representation. Teachers and other employees should have a voice in their workplace and should have tools to hold union leadership accountable.

States should give workers a voice by requiring annual union recertification

Allowing a union to continue to have exclusive representation rights and operate indefinitely traps employees with representation they may strongly disagree with. Requiring unions to be recertified annually would ensure that unions must demonstrate their value to employees.49 This policy would increase the quality of representation and would make unions more focused on workers and less focused on politics. If a union is not serving its members, it will be decertified, and workers will have the choice to either form a new union or find another way to advocate for themselves in the workplace.50 If a union is popular with its members and serves them well, the recertification process would help union leadership understand what is working well and continue to pursue bargaining agreements that its membership wants.51 

Wisconsin led the way in ensuring that unions are accountable to members. In 2011, Wisconsin passed a law that required public-sector unions to hold a recertification election each year.52 Crucially, the law requires that a majority of employees in the bargaining unit vote in favor of maintaining the union’s exclusive representation rights, as opposed to just a majority of voters in the election.53 This ensures that a union must affirmatively win the support of a majority of employees that will be represented by its activities, and data shows that the policy has been effective in weeding out unpopular unions. The number of unions in Wisconsin that held recertification elections dropped from 540 to 369 during the first five years of enactment—a 32 percent reduction.54 Among unions that won recertification, an average of 68 percent of employees voted in favor of the union in 2014.55 By 2019, the share of votes in favor rose to an average of 82 percent, demonstrating that the remaining unions are working to consistently win the support of their membership and that unpopular unions were disbanded.56 

Iowa passed a similar law in 2017, requiring recertification elections to be held each time a new contract is negotiated, which is typically every two to three years.57 In 2023, Florida passed legislation to require a recertification election if less than 60 percent of employees in a public sector union pay union dues.58 

More states should ensure that employees have a voice in their workplace and require annual recertification elections for public-sector unions.

The Bottom Line: States should require annual recertification for public-sector labor unions to ensure that union leadership is accountable to members.

When unions were organized decades ago, the promise to members was representation and protection from unfair actions. Unfortunately, unions do not always live up to this idea. Today, unions function as activist organizations committed to leftist causes, despite opposition from their members, and at times in direct contradiction to their members’ best interests. 

The right of exclusive representation and the near impossibility of getting rid of an existing union means that workers are forced to associate with unions they may not support and accept contract terms they may not want. Requiring unions to prove their value to employees on a regular basis gives workers a meaningful say in their own representation and ensures that only those unions that serve their members well can continue to operate.


1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union members summary,” U.S. Department of Labor (2023),
2. Richard Epstein, “The decline of unions is good news,” The Hoover Institute (2020),
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment cost index,” U.S. Department of Labor (2024),
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Job openings and labor turnover summary,” U.S. Department of Labor (2024),
5. Gili Malinsky, “Singing bonuses, pay on-demand and other fast-growing work perks companies are offering to attract new employees,” CNBC (2022),
6. Karen Weise and Noam Scheiber, “Amazon union loses election at warehouse near Albany,” The New York Times (2022),
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union members summary,” U.S. Department of Labor (2023),
8. Kirsten Glavin, “Lawsuit filed, parents barred from press conference as Newton teacher strike continues,” NBC News Boston (2024),
9. Ben Weingarten, “To unions, organizing time is fine when it’s on the taxpayers dime,” Real Clear Investigations (2023), 10 Ibid. 11 Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ballotpedia, “Public-sector union policy in the United States, 2018-2023,” Ballotpedia (2023),,_2018-2023.
14. National Labor Relations Board, “Your right to form a union,” National Labor Relations Board (2024),
15. James Sherk, “Unelected unions: Why workers should be allowed to choose their representation,” The Heritage Foundation (2012),
16. Ibid.
17. James Sherk, “Unelected representatives: 94 percent of union members never voted for a union,” The Heritage Foundation (2016),
18. Ibid.

19. National Right to Work, “Decertification election,” National Right to Work (2024),
20. James Sherk, “Unelected representatives: 94 percent of union members never voted for a union,” The Heritage Foundation (2016),

21. State Policy Network, “Celebrating the historic Janus decision five years later,” State Policy Network (2023),
22. Janus v. AFSCME, 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018).

23. Jarrett Skorup, “The Janus effect: The impact of the 2018 Supreme Court decision on public sector unions,” Mackinac Center for Public Policy (2023),
24. Trevor Burrus and Michael Collins, “The coming battle over exclusive representation,” Cato Institute (2020),
25. Ibid.

26 Ibid.
27. Christian Barnard, “Teachers’ unions may have to put students first, rethink opposition to educational reforms,” Reason Foundation (2019),
28. Valerie Richardson, “Minneapolis school district defends deal to lay off white teachers ahead of minority teachers,” The Washington Times (2022),
29. Eli Yokley, “Labor union members have become more Democratic—and less liberal—in recent years,” Morning Consult (2023),
30. Ibid.
31. C.M. Lewis and Kevin Reuning, “New polling data shows complicated politics of union members,” Strikewave (2020),
32. Bill McMorris, “Labor unions’ ramped-up political extremism is alienating their members,” The Federalist (2021),
33. C.M. Lewis and Kevin Reuning, “New polling data shows complicated politics of union members,” Strikewave (2020),
34. Open Secrets, “Public sector labor unions summary,” Open Secrets (2024),
35. Colin Anderson, “Unions sent $1.6 billion to liberal groups,” The Washington Free Beacon (2019),
36. Andrew Holman and David Osborne, “The battle for worker freedom: How government unions fund politics across the country,” The Commonwealth Foundation (2023),
37. Ibid.
38. Ibid.
39. Greg Toppo, “Teacher unions smarting after many members vote for Trump,” USA Today (2016), 40 Lauren Camera, “Teachers union backs Clinton for President,” U.S. News & World Report (2015),
41. Joey McCabe, “Never mind its lies: The NEA is nothing but the left’s piggy bank,” The Freedom Foundation (2022),
42. Ibid.
43. Kerry McDonald, “Teachers’ unions are more powerful than you realize—But that may be changing,” Cato Institute (2020),
44. Alex Gutentag, “How the teachers union broke public education,” Tablet Magazine (2023),
45. Eric Boehm, “Teachers unions want wealth taxes, charter school bans, and Medicare for All before schools can reopen,” Reason (2020),
46. Howard Blume, “Most California students fall short of grade-level standards in math and reading, scores show,” The Los Angeles Times (2023),
47. Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, “Brief of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers as Amici Curiae in support of respondents,” U.S. Supreme Court (2022),
48. Ibid. 49 The Mackinac Center, “A policy guide for union recertification in Michigan,” The Mackinac Center (2018),
50. Ibid.
51. Ibid.
52. Wisconsin State Legislature, “Act 10,” Wisconsin State Legislature (2011),
53. Ibid. 54 Will Flanders, “Democracy in the workplace: Examining union recertification in Wisconsin under Act 10,” Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (2019),
55. Ibid. 56 Ibid.
57. Iowa Legislature, “House File 291,” Iowa Legislature (2017),
58. Florida State Legislature, “Senate Bill 256,” Florida State Legislature (2023),

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