Politics & Policy

Wisconsin Unions in Decline

Whatever happens to Scott Walker, his reforms have had an effect.

Regardless of whether Governor Scott Walker survives Tuesday’s recall election, Wisconsin’s public-employee unions are likely to see their power continue to decline.

According to the Wall Street Journal, government unions in the Badger State have “experienced a dramatic drop in membership” since Walker and GOP lawmakers passed a package of reforms last year, including ones curbing collective-bargaining rights and ending mandatory union membership.

Labor unions are being crippled by the elimination of automatic dues withholding, a practice that had enriched the unions’ coffers. Thousands of state workers are simply refusing to contribute; others are leaving public-sector jobs.

“You see it especially among teachers, where there is a feeling that it doesn’t make sense to keep working under the new rules,” says Paul M. Secunda, an associate professor at Marquette University Law School. Indeed, according to the Journal, the American Federation of Teachers–Wisconsin, a labor organization representing 17,000 public-school teachers, has seen 6,000 members leave its ranks.

But the biggest drop has been in the Wisconsin chapter of AFSCME, the powerful union that represents state, county, and municipal workers. In the past year, more than 30,000 members have deserted the collective.

According to the Journal, when Walker first proposed his fiscal reforms in early 2011, AFSCME’s Wisconsin membership stood at a healthy 62,818. By February 2012, the labor behemoth had shrunk to 28,745. “It’s a profound shift,” says George Lightbourn, the president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the state’s former secretary of administration. “It’s similar to what Indiana experienced after Governor Mitch Daniels changed the collective-bargaining laws. If these numbers are borne out, it will significantly change the whole nature of Wisconsin’s state workforce and the relationship between management and employees.”

State senator Alberta Darling, a top Walker ally and the co-chair of the upper chamber’s joint finance committee, says the bosses of the public-sector unions aren’t battling Walker as much as they are their own members, who have been unhappy with paying hefty dues for decades. “People who refused to pay used to be blackballed,” she says. “Now I’m hearing from many teachers that they feel free to work with their school boards without going through the unions first. They can manage their own issues without outside involvement.”

Philip Dine, a labor expert and author of State of the Unions, acknowledges that the numbers are dipping, but he cautions that Walker’s reforms are not the sole reason for the erosion of public-sector-union membership. According to state data, Wisconsin employed 187,000 workers last year. An updated figure is unavailable, but Dine suspects that many of the union drifters referred to by the Journal did not quit out of frustration but were let go because of budgetary belt-tightening in the capital. “Any decline in Wisconsin’s public-union membership is probably tied to a decline in the state workforce,” Dine observes. “The economy has played a major role, and some workers are seeking employment elsewhere.”

Still, the impact of Walker’s reforms should not be understated, says Kurt Bauer, the president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business association. Walker’s efforts, he says, have clearly forced public-sector unions to reevaluate their operations as members have refused to pay dues. “For years, you had mandatory membership in public unions, where workers weren’t really given a choice,” Bauer says. “Now, given the choice whether to belong to a union, a considerable number of people are deciding to stay away. Post-recall, these unions are going to have to find new ways to show value to their members.”

Walker has gained in the latest polls, taking a slight lead in a Marquette survey released this week. The race, however, remains close, and labor activists will canvass the state this weekend, hoping to elevate Democrat Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor, to victory. Former president Bill Clinton, for his part, will stump for Barrett at a rally in Milwaukee on Friday.

Republican operatives doubt that the deterioration of public-employee unions will rattle voters in this historically union-friendly state. In fact, according to the Marquette poll, Wisconsin voters largely support Walker’s reforms — 55 percent of respondents backed the governor’s restrictions on collective bargaining.

To former Republican senator Bob Kasten, this is a striking change in the state’s political balance, which has long tilted in labor’s direction. “Scott Walker has restored the balance between public employees and the taxpayer,” Kasten says. “It’s been a battle to the death in Wisconsin, with so much outside money coming into the race, but the race has really been about that, more than any other political factor.”

— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.


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