MADISON — Union membership in Wisconsin has declined nearly 40 percent since legislation was passed that gutted collective bargaining for public workers, according to federal data.
The percentage of public and private workers who were union members was about 8 percent, or 219,000 people, in 2016, down by 136,000 members from 2010 levels, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The agency’s report shows the percentage of Wisconsin workers in unions is below the national average of 10.7 percent, The State Journal reported.
A 2011 law took away collective bargaining powers from nearly all public-sector unions in Wisconsin except over base wage increases no greater than inflation. With no power to bargain over workplace rules or anything meaningful related to salaries, membership in the statewide teachers’ union and unions for state employees plummeted.
Membership in unions in Wisconsin tumbled further after the state in 2015 passed so-called right to work legislation, which prohibits businesses and unions from reaching agreements that require all workers, not just union members, to pay union dues.
University of Wisconsin-Madison economist Steven Deller said the level of union membership nationally has been declining for years as manufacturing is replaced by technology that requires more capital but less manual labor.
“Clearly the days of barely making it out of high school but getting a union job at $30 per hour with benefits because your uncle is with the union are gone, and not coming back,” he said. “Some have argued that these ‘bloated’ union jobs made (U.S.) manufacturing uncompetitive, and there is some truth to that. … But did these union-scale jobs result in the growth of the middle class and the narrowing of the income gap? Some would argue yup, sure did.”
Anthony Anastasi, a business agent and organizer for the Iron Workers Local 383 from Beloit, said the effects of anti-union legislation amount to “the depletion of the middle class.”
“If I didn’t make a fair wage, with benefits, I wouldn’t financially be able to do the things or provide the things for my children that my wife and I are able to do right now,” he said.