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Union membership down nearly 40 percent in Wisconsin (UPDATE)

New federal data show union membership in Wisconsin has declined nearly 40 percent since legislation was passed gutting collective bargaining for public workers.

In 2016, roughly 219,000 public and private workers — 8.1 percent of all workers in the state — were union members. That number was down from 355,000 in 2010, the year before state lawmakers passed the so-called Act 10 law that greatly curtailed most government employees’ collective-bargaining rights.

The 2016 figure also showed a yearly decline from the comparable number for 2015, when 223,000 Wisconsin workers, or 8.3 percent of the total, were union members. That was also the same year that Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill making Wisconsin a right-to-work state.

Aside from the adoption of that law, 2015 marked the first year that Wisconsin’s unionization rate fell below the national average, which was then 11.1 percent for both public and private workers. Last year saw no change in that situation; Wisconsin’s rate for 2016 was once again below the national average, which was at 10.7 percent for the year.

Yet, it was impossible to tell from the numbers released Thursday how much of the decline was the result of right to work. The data, for one, did not distinguish between public and private unions. Nor were there state-level numbers specific to different types of industry. That made it impossible to know if union membership had declined in one particular sector in Wisconsin — manufacturing, for instance — while staying the same or even rising in some other sector such as construction.

Dave Branson, executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin, said there’s at least one reason why it’s unlikely right to work has contributed to the decline in union membership. Most unions in the state continue to work under contracts that were signed before March 2015, when the new law took effect.

That means they still contain the “union security” clauses that require the payment of union fees. For most unions, those clauses won’t have to be eliminated until the contracts expire at the end of May.

Even with the clauses gone, Branson has reason to believe right to work will have little effect on Wisconsin construction unions.

“Iowa has been right to work for a long time,” he said. “And they have some really strong building unions.”

In general, right-to-work laws prevent workers from having to pay union dues as a condition of being employed at certain companies. Critics often argue that the laws give workers an incentive to become free riders and not contribute to unions even while benefiting from the bargaining that still must be done on their behalf.

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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