Unions play an essential role in the economy.
Inside worksites, unions represent workers and raise wages and improve working conditions. When unions represent a significant share of workers in an industry, they raise job quality in that industry and even worksites outside union representation. Unions also support policy that improves the lives of working people – things like increasing access to health care, raising minimum wages, supporting and enforcing higher safety standards. Inside worksites, industries, and society, unions improve pay, working conditions and policy for working people. They help counteract the organized power of business interests in our society.
U.1 shows that unions are important to our broader political economy and society.
The top line shows the share of income going to the nation’s richest 10 percent. The dramatic rise of this line shows growing inequality over the past two decades. The U.S. now has levels of inequality not seen since the 1930s.
The bottom line charts the share of the workforce in unions and shows the increase in unionization after WWII and subsequent decline in unionization that began some 50 years ago. As unions have increased representation, inequality has fallen. In periods where unions have been on the decline, the rich have gotten much richer. This chart clarifies the broad implications of union power.
Unionization has seen a long downward slide, but in recent years public support for unions has risen dramatically. A 2022 Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans now approve of labor unions, a level not seen since 1965. From Starbucks to Amazon, workers are increasingly organizing unions outside of traditional areas of union strength. Even with the increasing organizing and popular support, unionization remains at a very low level. This is an exciting time, but it is not yet clear if the innovation and commitment of workers who are leading the movement for their rights will be powerful enough to begin rebalancing the playing field between worker and business interests.
Wisconsin has a strong union tradition and was the birthplace of public sector unions.
Wisconsin’s deep union history is clear in U.2. In 1989, one of every five workers in the state was a union member – unionization well above the national rate at the time. Unionization has fallen steadily in Wisconsin from one in five workers in 1989 to well 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 then fell below it.
Wisconsin Unions: Redefined in 2011
The deeper decline of unions in Wisconsin is the direct result of state policy.
In 2011, despite an outpouring of support for public sector bargaining rights, the state legislature passed Act 10 which restructured the terms of Wisconsin’s 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 unions 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. For example, Act 10 limits the bargaining of public-sector unions to only wages. Bargained wage increases, specifically, cannot exceed the rate of inflation. This obviously undermines the relevance of wage negotiations and leaves some of the most important issues to workers — benefits, safety, and scheduling – off the table. Further, employers are not allowed to collect union dues in paychecks, even when workers demonstrate and document interest in such collection.
Additionally, Act 10 requires an annual vote to maintain its certification as a union. In that vote, the union must receive support of at least 51% of all members of the unit, regardless of how many members actually vote. Taken together, Act 10 has reduced the potential positive impact of public sector unions while substantially increasing the burden of operating them. Public sector unions have been devastated as a result.
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 unionization has fallen by more than half, with just 19 percent of public sector workers in unions in Wisconsin in 2022. The 2015 passage of “right to work” legislation which makes operating unions in the private sector much harder has had a negative impact on unions in the state as well. Private sector unionization has declined, but public sector unionization has fallen much more dramatically.
Union Trends in Wisconsin vs. Neighboring States
Wisconsin’s union decline is the worst.
From 2011-2022, Wisconsin unionization fell by more than one third, from 14.1 to 8 percent. Over that same period, the national rate fell from 13 to 11.3 percent. The Wisconsin decline is 3 times faster than the national decline and the greatest decline among neighboring states (see U.4).
State trends in unionization reflect state policy and industrial structure. In striking contrast to national and regional trends, Minnesota’s unionization has held strong (15.8 in 2011 and 15.3 in 2022). Declines in Michigan and Illinois match national decline. Indiana and Iowa, both “right to work” states, join Wisconsin with dramatic declines. Even so, Wisconsin’s decline is the most pronounced in the region.
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 support for all workers. Wisconsin policies have made unionization more difficult, but workers across the state, through their organizing and their unions, continue to pursue economic justice.