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View from around the state: Decline of unions isn’t good news for Wisconsin

There undoubtedly was some high-fiving among Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators and their corporate campaign contributors over the news that union membership has plummeted in Wisconsin over the past two years and is now far below the national average.

That may be good news for plutocrats, but it’s terrible news for working people and Wisconsin’s middle class.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that just 8.3 percent of workers in the state now belong to a union, which is down from 11.7 percent in 2014. Nationwide roughly 11.1 percent of working people belong to an organized labor union.

The big drop in union membership — estimated to be roughly 83,000 workers in little more than year — helps explain why Wisconsin’s economic recovery continues to trail the rest of the country. The figures are even more stark when compared to 2010, the year Scott Walker was first elected governor. More than 14 percent of Wisconsin workers belonged to unions then.

Unions may not be the be-all and end-all, but they’ve historically strengthened the country’s middle class, winning wage hikes and benefits for workers so they could support their families and share in the nation’s wealth, and making sure employers provided safe and healthy workplaces. Unions never did represent a majority of American workers, but they provided the benchmarks that nonunion employers used to keep their workers happy so they wouldn’t be tempted to form unions themselves.

It’s not coincidental that the biggest gains in the middle class occurred during the heyday of unions. And it’s also not coincidental that the middle class has suffered in recent years as union membership has eroded. The result has been an alarming increase in the gap between the rich and poor.

That’s been a particular problem here in Wisconsin. A Pew Charitable Trust report from last March showed Wisconsin with the largest decline among the 50 states in the number of middle class families. In 2000, 54.6 percent of Wisconsin families fell into the category of middle class, but that was down to 48.9 percent in 2013. The real median household income in our state had fallen 14.7 percent during that time.

While the drop in union membership has coincided with lower wages and fewer benefits, the upper classes have done well.

So we shouldn’t be happy that unions have taken big hits as a result of the Republicans’ attacks on public employees and teachers and the enactment of a right-to-work law, which hampers private unions.

No, we should be sad for the economic health of Wisconsin and worried about its future.

— The Capital Times

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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