By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – The conclusion is succinct.
“Wisconsin teacher unions currently have substantial resources from their members and have been an active force in Wisconsin state politics,” wrote the authors of the “How Strong Are U.S. Teachers Unions” report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an advocate for education reform.
“But recent legislation, which sharply erodes their collective bargaining rights, likely heralds an era of diminished strength for public unions in general, and teacher unions in particular in the Badger State.”
Act 10, which gutted collective bargaining for most of Wisconsin’s public unions, passed in 2011.
“I would say that they (Wisconsin’s public unions) don’t have much of a role unless they can reassert themselves and regain what is supposed to be the role of a union, which is to negotiate, you know, working conditions and pay and most other things for members,” said Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions,” a 2008 book updated late last year to include, among other things, an analysis of Wisconsin’s collective bargaining reforms.
Two years after Act 10’s passage, public sector organized labor is reeling in the Badger State. For some unions, the effects of Act 10 may be fatal.
AFSCME Council 24’s dues-paying membership fell from about 5,900 security and safety employee members pre-Act 10 to 690 in the early months of this year – an 88 percent drop — according to information posted on the Facebook site of the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement and obtained by Wisconsin Reporter.
WACLE is in the midst of a vote to break away from AFSCME Council 24, also known as the Wisconsin State Employees Union, or WSEU.
WACLE President Brian Cunningham said the ballots will be counted Thursday, and organizers will know within days, if not hours, after the vote whether members have chosen to be represented by WACLE, WSEU or neither.
Cunningham provided Wisconsin Reporter a copy of the information WACLE placed on its website and said that they were internal WSEU membership numbers, but he would not say where he got them.
Wisconsin Reporter left messages — an email and two voicemails — with WSEU Executive Director Marty Beil over the past two days requesting comment and membership numbers. Beil did not respond.
In December, however, he told the Wisconsin State Journal that WSEU’s overall dues-paying membership had dropped from 22,000 pre-Act 10 to fewer than 10,000.
Among other things, Act 10 made paying union dues voluntary.
For $36 a month
Cunningham criticized AFSCME leadership, including Beil, for being overly combative and focusing on attacking Gov. Scott Walker while doing too little to help union members within the confines of the new law.
He cited, as something that could be negotiated with the state, securing a minimum age requirement of 21 for prison guards.
“The reality is that if some of these things are not addressed, a staff member, a correctional officer, could be on the wrong end of some type of assaultive situation that could have been remedied by having some type of communication with management, by being able to work together,” he said.
While Cunningham said members initially showed strong support for continuing to pay membership dues voluntarily, over time they began wondering what they were getting for $36 a month.
That’s evident in the large drop-off in dues-paying membership, he said.
“AFSCME continues to push that this (attempt to start a new union) is just six angry guys,” Cunningham said. “And that just isn’t the case.”
The WACLE-WSEU dispute is among the more notable episodes stemming from Act 10.
But it’s clear that other unions also have taken a hit, and the dust hasn’t settled.
For one thing, the state Supreme Court has decided to consider a case arguing Act 10’s constitutionality, based on state law. But the court hasn’t heard the case.
A federal court, meanwhile, largely upheld the law via a separate lawsuit.
Total labor union membership, public and private sectors, dropped to 11.2 percent of Badger State workers last year, down from 13.3 percent in 2011, according to U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released in April.
That’s a significant drop, but it reflects a broader national trend of declining union participation, ongoing for decades.
With private union membership also dropping, Dine said, “If you destroy the public sector you basically destroy the labor (movement) at this point.”
AFSCME’s decline in Wisconsin has been precipitous.
The U.S. Labor Department reports the membership of Wisconsin’s AFSCME Council 40 dropped from 31,730 to 2011 to 20,488 this year.
The decline for Council 48, which represents city and county workers in Milwaukee County, was even more dramatic — a 61-percent drop in membership over two years, from 9,043 members in 2011 to 3,498 now.
The teachers’ unions haven’t been spared.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council and American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin have considered merging, partially in response to Act 10.
Incoming WEAC President Betsy Kippers did not respond to an email seeking comment this week and could not be reached by phone.
Outgoing WEAC President Mary Bell told the Wisconsin State Journal in October that WEAC membership is down about 29 percent, from a pre-Act 10 level of about 98,000 members.
Dine said anti-union groups, including business organizations, have capitalized on declining union membership and a faltering economy – which puts financial pressure on taxpayers and local governments – to push forward plans to destroy the public unions.
He finds fault with the unions, too.
Dine argues that having a strong labor-union force in the United States correlates with a strong middle class.
Likewise, he said, weak support for labor unions correlates with a weaker middle class.
But labor unions have done far too little to persuade the public that unions are relevant and beneficial to society, not just to their own members.
Labor unions need to use their political power to make the case to the public, rather than emphasizing passing or overturning specific legislation or getting a particular politician elected, Dine said.
“If the public doesn’t care about the messenger, it’s not going to care about the message,” he said, adding, “If constituents don’t care, politicians aren’t going to care.”
Contact Adshead at [email protected]