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Report: Union membership dwindles in WI, across U.S.

By   /   February 1, 2012  /   5 Comments

By Kirsten Adshead and Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — If labor unions’ strength lies in numbers, a new report indicates unions’ most powerful days may be behind them. 

Membership in organized labor unions dropped last year in Wisconsin by 16,000, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That left 13.3 percent of the employed population — 339,000 workers — represented by unions, down from 14.2 percent in 2010.

“I think at this point, we’ve gotten to the point where the unionization rates are so low that for many workers, they don’t have any exposure to unions and unions are not seen as a normal part of working lives,” said William Powell Jones, a University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor in history whose specialty is the history of the labor movement. 

While labor unions gained members in 19 states last year, union membership nationally dropped from 11.9 percent of the employed population in 2010 to 11.8 percent in 2011, continuing a decades-long trend.

Union members also tended to be older than nonunion members, according to the BLS data. Union membership was 15.7 percent among workers 55 to 64, but 4.4 percent for those 16 to 24.

The BLS data highlights a potential problem for unions, whose political might depends largely on their ability to mobilize their membership in support of specific candidates or causes, such as Wisconsin’s recall battles of 2011 and 2012.

With strong backing from union members, Democrats were able to oust two Republican state senators last summer in recall elections, though they needed one more seat to recapture the Senate majority.

They’re hoping to do that this year as they seek to recall four GOP state senators along with Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

Walker and the GOP pushed through significant collective bargaining changes for most of the state’s public sector union employees last year — limiting bargaining to cost-of-living salary increases; increasing workers’ contributions to their pension and health-care plans; eliminating unions’ ability to automatically collect dues from all members; and requiring unions to re-certify each year.

Those changes “have galvanized the labor unions in a way that I think you haven’t seen since the 1930s,” said Andrew Kersten, chairman of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Kersten, who authored the e-book, “The Battle for Wisconsin: Scott Walker and the Attack on the Progressive Tradition,” said the unions’ continued strength is evidenced by the estimated 1.9 million signatures submitted last month to recall elected officials, including Walker. 

“I think it’s very significant,” he said. “They had a project that had very clear goals, and very simple things average people could do to get involved, (such as) make phone calls.”

Kersten said that limiting collective bargaining potentially mobilizes not just union workers, but their families, former union members and others who believe that collective bargaining is an important right. 

Unions “were there to ensure that everyone was treated fairly,” said  Michael Hochrein, who retired Saturday after being a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union for 22 years, including 18 years as a correctional officer and four years as a recreations leader.

“Other people are critical because of the benefits that we have,” Hochrein said. “I think other people, you hear the big one-liner; it protects bad employees. Sometimes it does. Ultimately, for the majority, it protects good employees.”

The public, though, appears split on whether it believes that message. 

An August Gallup poll indicates that 52 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, compared to 65 percent in the mid-1990s.

Wisconsinites overwhelmingly agree, at 74 percent, that public employees should contribute more to pension and health-care funds, according to a Marquette University Law School poll conducted in January.
But respondents were just about equally split on whether collective bargaining powers should be limited for benefits and non-wage issues, with 48 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed, and 4 percent unsure.
The poll of 701 registered voters and those who are eligible and said they would register to vote by election day had a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.
“The fact that the unions ran pretty standard campaigns without ever mentioning the (collective bargaining changes), I think shows that … the unions recognize that they don’t have a big winning issue on their hand,” said Christian Schneider, a senior fellow at the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a nonprofit free market think tank. 

Jones, the UW-Madison history professor, said unions’ power is overestimated, particularly as businesses and other special interests have been putting more and more money into elections.

Party committees, retirees, lawyers and lobbyists, educators and health professionals  —  some of whom might be represented by unions  —  all contributed more to Wisconsin campaigns in 2011 than unions themselves contributed directly, according to an incomplete report from followthemoney.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit that reports on election financing.

Unions, though, wield plenty of money power. 

At $10.75 million, We Are Wisconsin, a political action committee largely funded by Washington-based unions, spent the most of any special interest group during the 2011 recalls, according to the liberal-leaning Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending.

Jones said unions do provide a public service.

“Unions often pursue grievances along violations of laws on behalf of workers and have the ability to protect workers and also to educate workers about their rights on the job,” he said.

However, Jones added, “I don’t think unions have always been effective at making that case and have at times sort of prioritized the simple economic benefits of their members over the broader good.”

And therein lies the rub for many union critics, who say unions’ role in protecting workers’ rights has eroded, replaced by greed on behalf of union members  —  which, in the case of public unions, comes at the expense of taxpayers.

According to the BLS, on average, the country’s public sector union workers earned $153 more per week last year than their non-union counterparts —  $922 instead of $769.

For local government, unionized public employees earned $971 per week on average, compared to $743 for non-union workers. 

“In the private sector, I think they have done some good, especially in the industrial era they were probably necessary in order to protect workers’ rights,” Schneider said. “But in this day and age, we’re not really talking about people who are risking their lives in sweaty factories.”


  • Tpartywarrior

    Teachers Unions will be for the children, when children pay union dues.

  • Brad

    The final paragraph left something out. People are not “risking their lives in sweaty factories”, partly because in the past, the unions did help make it so that you didn’t have to risk your life to work in a factory. However, those factories are not here anymore either. They either don’t exist anymore, or they are now in other countries. “Made in China”, “Made in India”, etc. You know the drill. Union defenders always talk about the glory days of unions, when child labor was abolished, and workers got some rights. However, those things happened 70-80 years ago. Since then, Union demands, government over-taxation and over-regulation has made the business climate in the U.S. extremely toxic. The union/government complex has become a monster which kills jobs, especially those jobs which create wealth. Those would be in manufacturing, mining(sound familiar?), fishing, and farming/ranching. Unions have served their purpose long ago, just like the buggy whip. It’s time for them to disappear.

  • LeAnn

    Brad. I could not agree more. Unions were started for good but have become much too powerful and are too close to the Democratic party. What bothers me most about this article is that it makes it sound like the signatures they gathered to oust Governor Walker and Lt. Gov. Kleefisch were union members which is not true. The majority of the signatures were gathered, I dare say, by telling the public lies about what the issues were. Most people signing the petitions probably didn’t know why they were signing.

  • Marine7076

    Now that the signatures are going to be made public, as they are required,BY LAW, you see the crying about victums of abuse. Well, if you didn’t want your name out there in public, you should not of signed the petition. Call the GAB and tell them that you want your signature removed from the petition, if there are so many out there, that are supposed victums of abuse. This is just another attempt by the Left, to cheat any way that they can, because without cheating, they know they can’t win. They will not win any other way. They don’t know any other way, sadly. I am requesting a list of all signatures, as everyone can, BY LAW, just to check how many duplicates there are and to see if my name was forged. Everyone should do this.

  • Brad

    To Marine 7076: Don’t forget that the GAB didn’t publish the signatures in a searchable database. This means that you have to sift manually, through 150,000+ pages of signatures to find anything you’re looking for. It’s not in any kind of order at all. The GAB knows this and it’s why they made it as hard as possible. The GAB is breaking the law by not publishing the searchable database of these signatures, because they have it, which makes it a public record AS a serchable database. The GAB is nakedly and shamefully biased in favor of the democrat party and the unions. The last thing the GAB wants is government accountability. The GAB serves no honest purpose, and should be done away with, or at least the 5 members(there are 6 total) which were appointed by Jim Doyle should be shown the door.