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Wisconsin union membership is the lowest it’s been since at least 1989

State's union membership declined by 28K in 2022

An attendee in a winter coat holds a sign that says "Scrooge Case."
Striking workers and supporters hold signs at a rally Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022, at the United Auto Workers hall in Racine, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Wisconsin’s union membership continued to decline last year despite increased unionization efforts in the service industry and while polling shows labor unions have become more popular than they’ve been in more than a half-century.

Union membership in the state declined by 28,000 in 2022 and fell below 200,000 for the first time since at least 1989, according to data released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have historical data for 1994, union membership the years before and after 1994 was more than 400,000.

Last year, Wisconsin had 187,000 union members, a 13 percent decrease from 2021’s total of 215,000. That’s the state’s biggest drop in union membership since 2015.

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While it was the sharpest decline in recent years, it was the continuation of a more than three-decade slide. In 1989, unions represented 20.9 percent of the state’s total workforce. Last year, union membership fell to just 7.1 percent.

The decline is attributed to a combination of market changes and legislative efforts. Those include the passage of Act 10 in 2011, which limited public employees’ ability to collectively bargain, and Wisconsin becoming a right-to-work state in 2015, along with a decline in manufacturing jobs over time.

Wisconsin isn’t alone when it comes to decreasing unionization rates, as the national rate of 10.1 percent is the lowest on record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s despite high profile cases of workers organizing at companies like Amazon and Starbucks around the country.

In Wisconsin, several Starbucks stores unionized in 2022. A store in Green Bay recently became the state’s fifth Starbucks to unionize.

Unions have also become increasingly popular with the public even as their membership has dwindled. Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest percentage since 1965, according to Gallup, an analytics and polling firm.

What’s causing the state’s decline in unionization?

John Heywood is a professor of economics and director of the graduate program in human resources and labor relations at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time” the data shows that even though the labor movement has gained momentum in the last few years, it’s not enough to reverse a long-term trend.

“Unionization probably hit a high point in the 1950s, and has basically declined ever since,” he said.

Heywood said Act 10 and right-to-work laws are the main cause for Wisconsin lagging behind the nation in terms of unionization.

“Act 10 made it much harder for public employees to unionize, and the right-to-work laws made it much harder for private sector workers to organize,” he explained.

John Drew has been a union activist since getting a job at the American Motors plant in Kenosha in 1974. He said Act 10 had a bigger impact on Wisconsin’s union membership than right-to-work laws.

The state had 339,000 union members in 2011, the year Act 10 passed, and 223,000 members in 2015, the year Wisconsin became a right-to-work state. Between 2015 and 2021, union membership remained relatively stable, hovering between 230,000 and 215,000.

“(Wisconsin’s right-to-work law) certainly makes it more difficult for the unions because people don’t have to pay dues as a condition of employment under a union contract,” Drew said. “But Act 10 was the real destroyer in Wisconsin in terms of union membership.”

Proponents of right-to-work laws say they expand workers’ rights by allowing them to choose whether a union represents their best interest. Harry Moser, president of the Reshoring Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes bringing manufacturing back to America, said Wisconsin’s right-to-work law could help it reshore overseas manufacturing.

He said much of the manufacturing that’s returned from overseas has gone to right-to-work states with lower wage rates in the southeastern part of the country.

“For most companies — I’d say almost all companies — unions are an inconvenience at best,” he said. “They’re one more thing to worry about, one more complication that makes it harder to maximize profitability and productivity. It adds another layer of rules and constraints.”

Moser said he’s known unions that have worked collaboratively with companies.

“I’m not saying unions are demons or anything, but for most companies, if you gave them a choice of union or non-union, almost everyone would pick non-union,” he said.

Another cause for the state’s decline in unionization, Heywood said, is the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. In March 2000, Wisconsin had 600,000 people working in manufacturing, but had 475,200 in December 2022, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

“The service industry is notoriously hard to organize,” Heywood said. “It’s always a fraught, and frankly, long-term process to actually go from a non-union environment to a unionized one.”

While Wisconsin added 60,000 jobs last year, Drew said manufacturing saw a net gain of 300, while the service industry’s net gain was 48,000.

“2022 saw a return to work for a lot of service employees as things opened up after the pandemic, and not much change in manufacturing,” he said. “I think that played a role in why union membership dropped.”

How does declining union membership affect workers?

Drew said declining union membership is bad for workers across industries because non-union employers have to compete for workers against union employers.

“If there’s a strong union presence, then those wages are going to be up, so other employers — non-union employers — have to raise their wages,” he said. “As union membership goes down, non-union employers are not compelled to raise wages to compete.”

Unions also play an important role in helping to create better working conditions, which creates benefits that extend beyond workers, Heywood said.

“If you can fix these working conditions, the consequences are good for everyone,” he said. “It’s not just good for the workers. It’s not just good for the patients or the clients or the customers. But it could even potentially be good for the firm.”

Drew added that unions were especially important in building the American middle class following World War II.

“The union did help create the middle class, and actually did create the middle class,” he said. “As union density has gone down, we’ve seen it’s harder and harder for people to attain that same kind of lifestyle.”