Celebrating Wisconsin's workers (copy)

Portraying cultural icon Rosie the Riveter, Lisa Van Buskirk of Madison Fire Local 311 joins union supporters in a song of solidarity during LaborFest 2016 at the Madison Labor Temple in Madison.

Republican efforts to eviscerate unions in Wisconsin have been wildly successful, according to a new report that indicates union membership has plunged by more than 50%, more than double the decline nationally.

University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) released its annual “State of Working Wisconsin” this week, showing that since the passage in 2011 of Act 10 — the law that stripped public unions of bargaining rights — union membership has declined by 53.9%. That’s three times the decrease of 14.9% in neighboring Minnesota. The decrease nationally was 21.2%.

In addition to Act 10, Wisconsin passed a right-to-work law in 2015 that allows union shop workers to decline to pay dues, delivering a blow to the financial position of unions in the private sector as well.

Before Act 10, Wisconsin’s rate of union members was above the national average. That changed in 2012, the year after the law passed.

Last year’s report — which is more detailed on even-numbered years and more a snapshot in odd-numbered years — detailed public-sector union membership rates, which fell from more than 60% since 2010 to 18.9 percent in 2017.

The 2018 report also declared a general recovery from the Great Recession, but cited deep disparities between earnings for black and Latino workers and whites, with 41 percent of black and Latino workers earning poverty-level wages.

The group releases the report each year in time for Labor Day. This year it offers a critical take on Republican policies that had passed unimpeded for eight years under complete Republican control of state government. Last year’s election of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers changes that dynamic.

The report blames former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s refusal to accept federal Medicaid expansion dollars for costing the state $1.1 billion, increasing premiums by at least 7 percent, and causing 144 premature deaths each year.

“Public policy could actually work against these trends,” said Laura Dresser, COWS associated director, in a statement. “Stronger unions, progressive taxes, and health care for more in the state would strengthen our economy and help to close the gap between the richest and the rest.”

On the gap between rich and poor, the report cites an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy analysis that shows that the top 1% of Wisconsin earners pay and average of 7.7% of their income in state and local taxes. Nearly all other families pay more than 10 percent, which continually widens the gap.

The report calls the gap “one of the defining features of the U.S. economy” and notes that while the gap isn’t as extreme in Wisconsin as in other states, it’s still at record levels and rising.

On a positive note, the report points to the state’s consistently low unemployment rate and the rising number of jobs. But it calls wage growth “anemic.” Adjusting for inflation, it says, the median wage is just 73 cents higher than in 1979, while productivity has grown by 70 percent.

“Americans are working more productively than ever,” the report says, “but the fruits of their labors have primarily accrued to those at the top and to corporate profits, especially in recent years.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.