Union membership in Wisconsin is the lowest since at least 1989


Union membership in Wisconsin continued to decline over the past year, despite increased unionization efforts in the service industry and while polls show unions have grown in popularity as they have in more than half a century.

Union membership in the state fell by 28,000 in 2022, falling below 200,000 for the first time since at least 1989, according to data released last week by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics has no historical data for 1994, union membership in the years before and after 1994 exceeded 400,000.

Last year, Wisconsin had 187,000 union members, down 13 percent from 2021’s total of 215,000. That’s the largest decline in union membership in the state since 2015.

Although it was the strongest decline in recent years, it was the continuation of a downward slide that lasted more than three decades. In 1989, unions represented 20.9 percent of the state’s total workforce. Last year, union membership fell to just 7.1 percent.

The decline is attributed to a combination of market changes and legislative efforts. These include the passage of Law 10 in 2011, which restricted public employees’ ability to collectively bargain, and Wisconsin, which became a right-to-work in 2015, along with a decline in manufacturing jobs over time.

Wisconsin is not alone when it comes to falling union rates, as the national rate of 10.1 percent is the lowest on record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that’s despite high-profile cases from workers organizing at companies like Amazon and Starbucks across the country.

In Wisconsin, several Starbucks stores have unionized in 2022. A Green Bay store recently became the fifth Starbucks store in the state to unionize.

Unions have also become more popular with the public, although their membership has shrunk. According to Gallup, an analytics and polling firm, 71 percent of Americans support unions, the highest percentage since 1965.

What Causes the Decline in Union Organization in the State?

John Heywood is Professor of Economics and Director of the Graduate Program in Human Resources and Industrial Relations at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He told Wisconsin Public Radio’s Central Time that the data shows that while the labor movement has gained momentum in recent years, it hasn’t had enough momentum to reverse a long-term trend.

“Unionization probably peaked in the 1950s and has basically declined since then,” he said.

Heywood said Act 10 and right-to-work statutes are the primary reason Wisconsin is lagging behind the nation in terms of unionization.

“Act 10 made it significantly more difficult for public employees to organize, and the right-to-work laws made it difficult for private sector workers to organize,” he explained.

John Drew has been a union activist since he took a job at American Motors’ Kenosha plant in 1974. He said Act 10 has a greater impact on union membership in Wisconsin than the right to work.

The state had 339,000 union members in 2011, the year that Law 10 was passed, and 223,000 union members in 2015, the year Wisconsin became a right to work. Between 2015 and 2021, union membership remained relatively stable, ranging between 230,000 and 215,000.

“[The right to work in Wisconsin]certainly makes it harder for unions because people don’t have to pay dues as a condition of employment under a union contract,” Drew said. “But Act 10 was the real wrecker in Wisconsin in terms of union membership.”

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Supporters of right-to-work laws say they expand workers’ rights by giving them a choice about whether a union represents their best interests. Harry Moser, president of the Reshoring Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to bring manufacturing back to America, said Wisconsin’s right-to-work law could help relocate manufacturing abroad.

He said that much of the production returned from overseas has gone to states with the right to work at lower wage rates in the south-east of the country.

“For most companies – I would say almost all companies – unions are an inconvenience at best,” he said. “They’re another thing to worry about, another complication that makes it harder to maximize profitability and productivity. It adds another layer of rules and restrictions.”

Moser said he knows of unions that have worked with companies.

“I’m not saying unions are demons or anything, but in most companies, given the choice to unionize or not, almost everyone would choose to join a union,” he said.

Another cause of the decline in unionization in the state, Heywood said, is the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. In March 2000, 600,000 people were employed in manufacturing in Wisconsin according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, but in December 2022 there were 475,200.

“The service industry is notoriously difficult to organize,” Heywood said. “It’s always a difficult and frankly long-term process to actually transition from a non-union environment to a unionized one.”

While Wisconsin added 60,000 jobs last year, Drew said manufacturing posted a net increase of 300, while the services industry posted a net increase of 48,000.

“In 2022, many service workers returned to the workplace as things opened up after the pandemic and not much changed on the shop floor,” he said. “I think that helped explain why union membership has declined.”

How does declining union membership affect workers?

Drew said declining union membership is bad for workers in all industries because non-union employers have to compete against unionized employers for workers.

“If there’s a strong union presence, those wages will go up, so other employers — non-union employers — have to raise their wages,” he said. “If union membership falls, non-union employers are not forced to raise wages to compete.”

Unions also play an important role in creating better working conditions, which creates benefits that go beyond workers, Heywood said.

“If you can fix these working conditions, the consequences are good for everyone,” he said. “It’s not just good for the workers. It’s not just good for the patients or the clients or the customers. But it could potentially even be good for the company.”

Drew added that unions were particularly important in building America’s middle class after World War II.

“The union helped create the middle class and it did create the middle class,” he said. “As union density has gone down, we’ve seen it become increasingly difficult for people to achieve the same type of lifestyle.”

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