Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting legislation — commonly known as Act 10 — has shuttered unions across the state, but Wisconsin’s union decline appears to be leveling off and those that remain are resilient, according to a new report from a conservative group.
Act 10 effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most public employees when signed into law in 2011. The bill mandated employee contributions to health insurance and pensions, but also required unions to hold annual votes to recertify their organization — with a majority vote of all members, not just those who vote, necessary to maintain a union.
The report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which uses union recertification election data from the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, found that almost 15% of recertification votes in 2014 resulted in a failure to recertify, while only about 2% of recertification votes failed last year.
“Even if the percentage of union failures is going down every year, every time it goes down, the pool of unions is shrinking,” WILL research director Will Flanders said. “The ones that are remaining are ones that have been through the wringer several times at this point, and therefore, they’re relatively popular.”
Laura Dresser, associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, noted that Act 10’s drastic restructuring of the recertification process made it more challenging for unions to survive.
“Most elections are based on who shows up to vote,” Dresser said. “This requires that more than half of the union vote ‘yes’, regardless of who shows up. That’s a very high bar.”
School unions have proven to be some of the strongest that remain. According to the report, school district unions are 96% less likely to fail than other types of unions, while school support staff unions are 68% less likely to fail.
While fewer than half of the state’s school districts have a union, the remaining unions have a relatively high level of support, according to the WILL report.
In addition, unions that failed to recertify and then tried a second recertification vote are often successful. About 93% of unions recertify on the second attempt, with more than 73% of members voting in favor of recertification, according to the report.
While Act 10 did not affect private-sector unions, the so-called right-to-work law passed in 2015, which prohibits mandatory union membership and bans unions or employers from requiring non-members to pay dues, furthered the decline of Wisconsin unions.
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the number of union employees in Wisconsin fell from about 317,000 in 2013 to 219,000 last year, a 31% drop.
The overall number of unions also fell, according to data on how many unions held annual recertification votes. There were 540 recertification votes in 2014, but only 369 in 2018.
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“I think we’re seeing in a lot of cases that folks are not seeing the value of the union, and therefore they’re letting the union die off,” Flanders said.
However, Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, decried Act 10 as “a fundamental attack on a working person’s freedom to collectively bargain together with their coworkers for a better life.”
Bloomingdale added that public approval of unions is high. An annual Gallup Poll in August found 64% of Americans support unions, up from an all-time low of 48% in 2009.
Flanders acknowledged that other items included in Act 10, including the elimination of most collective bargaining rights, worked to decrease the value of a union to many members — which likely played into a lack of support in some recertification votes.
“Because of Act 10, being in a union still means something, but it also completely obliterated collective bargaining,” said Analiese Eicher, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now. “So it’s not that folks don’t want to be in a union, it’s just that their opportunity to organize in their workplace is now so severely diminished, which was the intent of Act 10.”
An August report by the liberal-leaning Center on Wisconsin Strategy found that union coverage in the state declined by more than 50% from 2011 to 2018. That was greater than twice the 21.2% national decline in unionization and three times the decline in neighboring Minnesota, which was a roughly 15% drop.
The WILL report also suggests that Act 10 has not harmed student achievement — there has been no relationship between a teachers union’s failure to recertify and student performance in the state’s Forward Exam.
Flanders noted that while Wisconsin’s union numbers have been reduced since Act 10, those that remain do still wield influence when it comes to elections.
“They still are a force, they still tend to be pretty powerful,” Flanders said. “That’s something that conservatives must be cognizant of is they remain a force even after Act 10.”
According to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign finances, overall campaign spending by unions has dropped since Act 10 passed, yet some larger unions have shelled out large donations in some races.
An August report from WDC noted that the Wisconsin Education Association Council had 98,000 members before Act 10 and now has less than half that.
Yet last year, WEAC’s main political action committee outspent all special interest PAC contributors with more than $312,000 — the largest recipients being Democratic candidates. The union’s PAC contributions totaled more than $736,000 between 2011-18, the second most of all PACs.
Eicher also predicted increased efforts from Wisconsin unions in the coming 2020 elections.
“I think that we’re going to see a renewed interest and organizing from unions with their members in 2020 in both the spring election and in the fall election, particularly with the number of dissatisfied members that they have across the state or even former members,” Eicher said.