Unions play an essential role in the economy.
Unions represent worker interests and help raise wages inside worksites. They can raise job quality standards in industries and worksites even beyond those they organize. And at a political level, unions support policy that improves the lives of working people. In each of these ways, unions help raise wages and living standards and equalize power in our society.
Unionization has seen a long downward slide over the last half century, but public support for unions is growing. A recent Gallup poll found that approval of unions reached 71 percent, a level not seen since 1965. From Starbucks to Amazon, workers are increasingly organizing unions outside of traditional areas of union strength. This year, we feature some of that work in Wisconsin in our worker organizing profiles.
More than Members: Unions are a force for working people
U.1 helps make clear the importance of unions in our broader political economy and society.
The top line in U.1 shows the share of income going to the nation’s richest 10 percent, its rise evidence of the nation’s growing inequality over the past two decades. Today, the US is facing levels of inequality not seen since the 1930s.
The bottom line in U.1 charts the share of the workforce in unions, showing the increase in unionization after WWII and subsequent decline that began some 50 years ago. These two lines move in opposite directions.
If rising inequality is your concern, then unions are part of the policy answer.
Wisconsin has a strong union tradition and was the birthplace of public sector unions.
This history is clear in U.2. In 1989, one of every five workers in the state was a union member, with unionization well above the national rate at the time. Unionization has fallen steadily in Wisconsin from one in five workers in 1989 to just under one in ten workers today.
The relative decline of Wisconsin’s unions is also clear in the chart. From 1989 to 2011, Wisconsin’s unionization rate was above the national average. In 2012, Wisconsin slipped to the national line and remains consistently below it.
Wisconsin Unions: Redefined in 2011
The deeper decline of unions in Wisconsin is the direct result of two state policy actions.
In 2011, despite an outpouring of organized support for public sector bargaining rights, the state legislature passed Act 10 which restructured the terms of public sector unionization, reducing public unions’ power, relevance, and membership. A few years later, the state also enacted “right-to-work” legislation, a blow to private sector unionization as well.
The structure of Act 10 does not actually prohibit the existence of public sector unions. Rather, it restructures the rules around them, limiting their power and relevance and increasing the burden of keeping them going. More specifically, Act 10 limits the bargaining of public-sector unions to only wage and wage increases, which cannot be larger than inflation. This obviously constrains wage negotiations, and leaves some of the most important issues to workers — safety, scheduling, and benefits – off the table. Employers are not allowed to collect union dues in paychecks, even when workers demonstrate and document interest in such collection.
Further, Act 10 requires every public-sector bargaining unit to take annual votes to maintain its certification as a union and in that vote, the union must receive yes votes from at least 51 percent of all members of the unit, regardless of how many members actually vote. Taken together, this policy has reduced the potential positive impact of public sector unions while substantially increasing the burden of operating them.
U.3 provides the trends in unionization for public and private sector workers (as well as the overall rate) and makes clear the significant de-unionization from Act 10 in Wisconsin. Across the early 2000s, more than half of public sector workers in the state were union members. The rate has fallen by about half, with just 26 percent of public sector workers in unions in Wisconsin as of 2021. The 2015 passage of “right to work” legislation certainly makes private sector unionization more difficult but the density impact of that legislation appears less dramatic.
Union Trends in Wisconsin and Neighboring States
Another way to show the distinct and substantial decline of unions in Wisconsin is to compare trends here with nearby states.
From 2011-2021, Wisconsin unionization fell by more than one third, from 14.1 to 9.3 percent. The Wisconsin decline is 3.4 times as fast as national de-unionization. Unions in Illinois and Michigan lost ground, but Wisconsin more than doubled the pace of their decline. Only Iowa, a “right to work” state since 1947 that passed a public sector bargaining bill modeled on Act 10, had a more substantial decline in unionization over this period.
Union decline is not the only story in neighboring states though. Just across the Mississippi River, Minnesotans actually became more likely to be union members in the last 10 years.
Unions and Wages
When unions are strong, they raise labor standards not only in represented jobs, but throughout the economy.
Despite de-unionization over the last half century, unions continue to support workers, improve wages in worksites – and often in entire sectors – and support policy that helps workers, families, and communities thrive. Unions have been essential partners in movements to raise the minimum wage, to defend the ACA, and to secure strong protections and supports for all workers in a global pandemic. State policy choices have made unionization in the state more difficult, but workers across the state have, through their unions, continued the work of economic justice.