By Kirsten Adshead and Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
An August Gallup poll indicates that 52 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, compared to 65 percent in the mid-1990s.
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.
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.
“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.”