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2015 DATA: WI is a Union Membership Cesspool, but Numbers Remained Flat in OH, Rose in MI


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While union membership rates remained unchanged nationally from 2014 to 2015, they dropped significantly in the state of Wisconsin. For the first time in its history, the state fell below the national average. 

In 2015, only 8.3 percent of Wisconsin’s workforce paid dues to unions, or a total of 223,000 workers.  In 2014, roughly 306,000 people, or 11.7% of the state’s workforce, belonged to unions.  On the national scale, nearly 11.1 percent of workers were unionized last year.

The cause is no secret. The precipitous drop followed legislation known as Act 10, which in 2011 severely limited public sector unions’ ability to collectively bargain.  In the year 2010, the unionization rate in Wisconsin was 14.2 percent, 2.3 percentage points above the national average.

The numbers are likely to worsen as not all contracts that predate Act 10 and Wisconsin becoming a “Right-to-Work” state have expired yet. When they do, union membership will surely atrophy anew.

Will Jones, a labor historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, blamed the shift on “potential job cuts at unionized plants and businesses and the last public-sector unions having long-running contracts end and coming under the effects of Act 10.”  

”I would think it’s the long-term effects of Act 10 more than right-to-work,” Jones added.

Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, also blamed Act 10 and the anti-union actions of the GOP: “Essentially it was an anti-union climate in Wisconsin that resulted in severe loss of  membership.”

Act 10 has had a devastating impact on the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), forcing three councils to merge into one, and two-thirds of dues paying members to opt-out:

The three Wisconsin AFSCME councils claimed nearly 63,000 members in 2010, before the law known as Act 10 took effect. That number was likely fewer than 20,000 last year.

Publicly available tax records for the state workers union show that Council 24 revenue dropped from over $5 million in 2010 to $1.5 million in 2013. Like the other councils, it reduced staff to cut costs, but from 2011 through 2013 it spent $1.8 million more than it took in.

Act 10 has also hit the state’s teachers unions hard.  Since 2011, the Wisconsin Education Association Council has lost more than half of its membership and nearly all of its ability to spend money in Madison.

As of February 2015, a WEAC official told the State Journal the union represented about 40,000 public school employees — down more than 50 percent from the union’s 98,000-member levels before Walker signed his signature legislation in 2011.

At the same time, WEAC’s lobbying dollars have dropped dramatically. A decade ago, WEAC spent $1.5 million on lobbying during the 2005-06 legislative session, state records show. The next session, that figure was $1.1 million. During the two sessions leading up to the passage of Act 10, WEAC spent $2.5 million and $2.3 million, respectively.

But during the 2013-14 session, after Walker signed the bill into law, the union spent just $175,540. It was the first time in at least 10 years that the union was not among the state’s top 12 lobbying spenders, according to the Government Accountability Board.

Wisconsin may be a workers’ rights cesspool, but the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is less discouraging nationally. Overall, union members earn more ($980/week) than non-union members ($776/week) in 2015. Union membership was also still high for public sector workers despite an onslaught of attacks from the right in state legislatures.  A total of 35.2 percent of public sector workers were unionized in 2015, compared to just 6.7 percent in the private sector.  

Other midwestern states with dominant Republican parties were able to maintain their union power in 2015.  Ohio’s union membership rate was 12.3 percent in 2015 down only .1 percent from 2014. As Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga told

“Despite unrelenting attacks by extreme politicians on the collective bargaining rights of Ohioans and working people across the country, our collective voice remains strong and these numbers reflect that.  We are committed to raising wages for all and giving working people a voice as they speak up together and work towards a better life.”

In Michigan, four years after its decision to enact “Right-to-Work,” more than 36,000 new names were added to union rolls last year.


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