The politics of Wisconsin’s declining union membership
Feb. 9, 2013
The 2012 election has produced a low-grade Republican panic about the long-term consequences of a shifting electorate, with legions of younger, minority and unmarried Americans voting heavily Democratic.
But there’s at least one demographic trend that’s working in the opposite direction – hurting Democrats and helping Republicans – and Wisconsin has become the most extreme example in the country: the shrinking union vote.
Nationally, union membership saw one of its sharpest declines in years in 2012, dropping from 11.8% of the workforce in 2011 to 11.3% last year, according to data released last month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the really eye-popping numbers could be found in Wisconsin, where membership in public-sector unions plummeted in the aftermath of Act 10, the hugely controversial Republican measure that wiped out most collective bargaining for public employees and made it far harder for their unions to operate.
For the past two decades or more, about half of Wisconsin’s public-sector employees have belonged to unions.
But that share fell dramatically from 50% in 2011 to 37% in 2012, according to an analysis of the Current Population Survey by unionstats.com, a web site run by two economists who monitor union trends:
That kind of free fall in public-sector union membership had never happened in the US in the previous 30 years of data collected by the two professors, Barry Hirsch of Georgia State and David Macpherson of Trinity. It’s the equivalent of almost 50,000 union members lost in Wisconsin last year. (The numbers are based on the Current Population Survey, not a count, so they aren’t precise; but Wisconsin’s 13-point decline in the share of public-sector workers that belong to unions was far outside the survey’s 4-point margin of error on that measure).
“This is so rare, to see such a major change in the collective bargaining laws,” says Hirsch. “This was the first year (the impact) could show up, and it sure showed up.”
Along with the sharp and sudden drop in the state’s public-sector union numbers, there has been a long-standing and much more gradual slippage in private-sector union members, a trend found throughout the industrial Midwest. The share of private-sector workers belonging to unions was 6.9% in Wisconsin last year.
The result: Wisconsin has had the biggest percentage-point decline of any state in the past three years in the share of all workers (public and private combined) that belong to a union – from 15.2% in 2009 to 11.2% in 2012.
For the first time in more than a generation, Wisconsin’s level of unionization is no longer above the national average, falling slightly below the US rate last year:
In other words, one of the hallmarks of Wisconsin’s political identity – that it’s a big “union” or “labor” state – is no longer true, statistically speaking.
What are the political implications of this change?
While Democrats did very well in the Nov. 6 election, union households represented the smallest share of the Wisconsin vote in at least 20 years — 21%, down from 26% in 2008, 28% in 2004 and 32% in 2000, according to exit polls.
“Their power before was the power of numbers, both in terms of turning people out and more important how much money they could draw from that,” said GOP Gov. Scott Walker, when asked about the union numbers in a recent interview.
Walker said the changes in labor law mean public workers aren’t forced to spend their money on union dues. He also argued it will lead to more open political competition for the support of those former union members, rather than Democrats being able to automatically expect that support through unions.
Union officials say the numbers are more evidence that Walker’s labor policies had a political purpose — damaging the organizational, financial and voting power of the union movement.
“It pretty dramatically demonstrates the real purpose of Act 10 was not a budget matter but a direct attempt to undermine the influence of working people and unions,” said Bruce Colburn, vice president of SEIU Health Care Wisconsin. “Certainly having less and less members (for unions) to talk to hurts in terms of the ability to elect supporters of working people.”
Colburn said unions’ diminished spending power in campaigns means “any kind of (partisan) balance that existed between people like the Koch brothers and the Bradley Foundation (and labor) obviously gets hurt too.”
Colburn and other activists said that as a result of the membership losses, unions are more aggressively forming coalitions outside their membership with other advocacy groups around issues of common interest, like health care and good wages.
The fight to mitigate Act 10 will also be a mobilizing issue for labor and the left, said Robert Kraig, a former union organizer who is now with Citizen Action Wisconsin.
But Kraig said it will be a big challenge to overcome the loss of union members. Unions have proven very effective in influencing how their own members vote in elections, and that tie is now broken in many cases.
What’s more, the big drop in public sector union membership in 2012 doesn’t capture the full effect of the Wisconsin labor changes, since unions still under existing contracts aren’t effected until those contracts expire. That means there will undoubtedly be more membership losses going forward.
It’s possible that for Democrats, the political loss will be more keenly felt in mid-term elections and legislative races, where the party has traditionally been more reliant on union spending, than in presidential elections, where bigger turnouts often produce a more Democratic-leaning electorate.
Nationally, the political impact will differ from state to state. The nationwide decline in union members is not occurring everywhere. The numbers show that in the Northeast and on the West Coast, the rate of union membership has been much more stable over the past decade.
But the rate has steadily declined in the Midwest, home to several key presidential battlegrounds:
This region has been more reliant on manufacturing, a once heavily unionized sector that has suffered long-term job losses. The Midwest is also where several states, under Republicans, have adopted new laws weakening unions, from Wisconsin to Indiana to Michigan. Indiana tied for the second-biggest drop in the percentage of workers belonging to unions last year.
Since 2000, the share of the presidential vote represented by voters in union households has dropped in Michigan from 43% to 28%, in Ohio from 36% to 22%, and in Wisconsin from 32% to 21%, exit polls show.
The declining union vote is just one of many structural changes occurring in the American electorate. Some of those changes – such as the growth of the Latino vote — have been good for Democrats and bad for Republicans. But this is one that poses a long-term challenge for Democrats, especially in Midwestern battlegrounds like Wisconsin.
Follow Craig Gilbert on Twitter @WisVoter