Wisconsin Unions Shrunk Dramatically in Wake of Scott Walker Bill

Patrick James Drennan

According to a new analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin public employee unions have seen tens of thousands of members withdraw from their ranks since Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 10 into law in June of 2011. The law, which sparked massive protests, severely restricts the scope of collective bargaining. The only thing unions can legally bargain for is a wage increase—and only up to the rate of inflation. Act 10 also includes a “right to work” provision banning the deduction of union dues from members’ paychecks, which forces unions to seek alternative methods of collection such as emails, phone calls and home visits. No longer required to pay union dues, many members have opted to leave their unions rather than pay to be part of an organization that can no longer negotiate better benefits or wages. The Journal Sentinel examined the annual financial reports of more than 600 local public sector labor unions in the state. One of the largest losses in membership was suffered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 48, which represents Milwaukee city and county workers. In 2010, District Council 48 represented 9,000 workers and reported an income exceeding $7 million. By the end of 2012, the union had shrunk by nearly two-thirds to 3,500 dues-paying members, and its fund was more than $650,000 in debt. Other unions’ financial situations aren’t quite so dire, but similar membership decreases have been reported in public sector unions across the state. Other AFSCME District Councils have seen large drop-offs in membership since the passage of Act 10, from a 36 percent drop in District Council 40, which represents public employees across the state, to District Council 24 (also known as the Wisconsin State Employees Union, or WSEU), which saw a nearly 50 percent drop in membership, from 22,000 members to between 9,000 and 10,000. The Security and Public Safety (SPS) contingent of the WSEU, which represents correctional officers, firefighters, and security guards, experienced a nearly fatal 88 percent plunge, its membership falling rom 5,900 to just 690. And an unnamed source told the Journal Sentinel that the Wisconsin Education Association Council—the state’s primary teachers union—lost 50 percent of its 98,000 dues-paying members.  Unions have made some inroads in fighting Act 10. While an early court challenge to the bill failed in the state Supreme Court in September of last year, Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas struck down a portion of Act 10 that same month, returning collective bargaining rights for city, county and school workers. Colas agreed with the plaintiffs, Madison Teachers Inc. and Public Employees Local 61, that the bill “violated workers' constitutional rights to free speech, free association and equal representation under the law.” However, the case has been appealed to the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court, which is likely to uphold Act 10 again.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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