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Five decades ago, one in every three nonfarm workers in Wisconsin belonged to a union — most of them in manufacturing, construction or other blue-collar trades. They assembled cars for General Motors, produced and packaged Rayovac batteries, made Mirro cookware.

Tens of thousands of those jobs are gone, some resurfacing at nonunion plants in other states or in foreign countries with cheaper labor costs.

Now, barely one in seven Wisconsin workers is unionized, the lowest ratio since at least 1964, and they're just as likely to earn their paychecks from taxpayers as they are from corporations.

In placing a stranglehold on the state's public sector unions, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has struck at perhaps the final source of union strength in the state, and the squeeze is being felt across the country.

"I don't want to overdramatize it, but we're getting down to a last stand of the American labor movement and this might be it, and both sides seem to understand that quite keenly," said Bruce Western, a Harvard University sociologist who studies labor markets. "This explains why there's so much conflict in Wisconsin.

"The battle has already been lost in the private sector, so it's really a pivotal moment for American labor," he said.

Major impact on state

Walker's plan to end nearly all collective bargaining for public employees has divided the state, spurring weeks of huge protests in Madison and legislative recall efforts. It also became a wedge issue in a Supreme Court race that ended up closer than anyone could have anticipated just weeks ago. The law's implementation is on hold pending a legal battle.

Regardless of where people stand on labor unions, most experts agree that what happens next will have major implications for the state's future.

If public sector unions go the way of their private sector counterparts here and across the country, labor advocates say it could hurt pay and benefits for all workers and undercut important public services. They say it could also change the political landscape by quieting a voice that provides a check on corporate interests, which typically back Republicans.

"Unions provide an important balance in our society," said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO.

Yet, business leaders and conservatives say that weakening government employee unions in the state actually would be good for business and most other workers.

They argue public sector unions have a vested interest in increasing the size of government, which leads to higher taxes and stifles business growth and personal spending. Moreover, public employee unions help elect the very officials who negotiate their contracts, leaving no one looking out for the taxpayers, they say.

"You can't run a budget where the first dibs on tax dollars is for public pensions that are way over scale," said Richard Epstein, a New York University law professor who opposes public sector unionization.

In an interview Friday, Walker said private sector unions have played a "positive role" in the nation's economic development and in helping to create the middle class. But he said public sector unions can present "a challenge" to getting things done efficiently in government.

He said he's not out to destroy public employee unions but he does want to stop "the cycle" of unions negotiating contracts with the very lawmakers they work to elect.

"There's just something inherently troubling about the idea that taxpayers' money ... pays for people who not only advocate in terms of collective bargaining agreements, but then use portions of that for political purposes to elect candidates. And then those candidates (are) the very people they plead to, to not only spend more but to spend more for public worker benefits," Walker said.

The governor also said his law would save jobs by preventing layoffs, protect middle-class taxpayers from property tax increases, and allow local governments to develop creative pay scales.

Union numbers decline

Overall union membership, both nationally and in Wisconsin, has declined dramatically in recent years, and nowhere more so than in the private sector, as jobs like Randy Gossens' have disappeared.

Gossens, 51, lost his $28-an-hour union job as a machine operator at the NewPage paper mill in Kimberly, where he worked for 32 years, when it shut down in 2008.

He quickly found work in another union shop at Appleton Papers but started at $13 per hour, and he lost his six weeks of vacation. He was laid off after two months.

So he's spent the last two years training to install and repair heating and cooling systems. He'll graduate in May.

"We're just holding our own and spending only what we need to," Gossens said of his household, which includes his wife, a part-time interior designer, and 21-year-old daughter, a student.

In 1964, 34 percent of all nonfarm workers in Wisconsin were union members, according to the Union Membership and Coverage Database maintained by economics professors Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University in San Antonio. By 2010, that number had fallen to about 14 percent, even as the state added jobs overall.

Deep private sector losses

The private sector's losses were even more distinct. In 1983, 19.8 percent of the 1.64 million private sector workers in Wisconsin were union members, the database shows. By last year, just 8.4 percent of 2.13 million private sector workers belonged to a union.

International competition, technological advances and a changing economy - not to mention a workforce increasingly focused on individual gain more than collective solidarity - have combined to steadily drive down the number of private sector union jobs.

Meanwhile, the new jobs being created come from sectors where unionization is difficult.

For example, there were 56,000 more leisure and hospitality jobs in Wisconsin in January 2011 than in the same month in 1990. And there were 152,000 more business, professional and other services jobs, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the same period, jobs in the once-traditional union stronghold of manufacturing declined by 85,000.

The story of Barb Beyer, 57, of Two Rivers, bears out those numbers. In 2003, she lost her job at Mirro's plant in Manitowoc after more than three decades of union-backed employment. Now, she's a medical transcriptionist, earning a few dollars an hour less and working without health or life insurance, a pension or vacation time.

What does she miss most about belonging to United Steelworkers of America?

"I felt like there was a camaraderie," she said. "I just really miss that."

National implications

There are still slightly more privately employed union members in Wisconsin than there are public sector union members. But in 2009, for the first time, the number of public union members in the U.S. surpassed those in the private sector.

As a result, Walker's collective bargaining law may end up having even more significance outside of the state than in it if lawmakers in other states follow his lead.

Already, Ohio lawmakers have passed a law that goes farther than Wisconsin's. And the National Conference of State Legislatures says more than 700 bills affecting labor unions and collective bargaining have been introduced in nearly every state, most relating to public sector unions.

Before publicly unveiling the measure, Walker privately compared the bargaining legislation to President Ronald Reagan's 1981 firing of 11,000 air traffic controllers. Observers say it's an apt analogy, since Reagan's move is said to have emboldened private businesses to close up union shops and open nonunion operations in other states or countries.

"(Reagan's action) was really symbolically important because it delegitimized labor unions as actors in the labor market, and the real importance nationally in Wisconsin is it will symbolize for other conservative governors the feasibility of breaking public sector unions," said Western, of Harvard University. "Until this, for many governors, public sector unions were often a pain in the neck to deal with. What Walker is doing is challenging that."