Union officials are not surprised by new federal data suggesting that union membership increased in the state last year, and say the country’s strong economy has helped them thrive amid a slew of laws meant to weaken their power.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that 230,000 workers in the state were union members in 2017, an increase from 219,000 in the previous year. Union workers also accounted for a slightly larger percentage of the state’s total working population: Last year, 8.3 percent of all employed people were union members, up from 8.1 percent in 2016.
The latest figures come after a series of years that saw union membership decline in Wisconsin. In 2010, nearly 47 percent of all public-sector employees were union members. Seven years later that share had dropped to around 19 percent, according to the website unionstats.com.
By far, the biggest declines for public-sector unions came in the wake of a state law known as Act 10, which was passed in 2011 and stripped most government workers of the bulk of their collective-bargaining rights. Private unions, in contrast, have been left relatively unscathed.
Wisconsin was not the only place where union membership increased from 2016 to 2017. Nationally, unions added 262,000 members in 2017, bringing the total to 14.8 million, even as the ratio of union workers to all workers remained unchanged at 10.7 percent.
Terry Hayden, president of the Wisconsin Pipe Trades Association, said he wasn’t surprised by the results. He said his union and its building-trades counterpart have seen nothing but membership gains in recent years.
Hayden said the economy “has a major effect” on his group’s bolstered ranks, driving people both to join the union and embark on apprenticeship training. He said every local pipe-trades chapter in the state added members from 2016 to 2017.
The state’s largest construction union – Local 139 of the International Union of Operating Engineers – reported similar results.
“We took a little bit of a dive during the recession,” said Terry McGowan, president and business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139. “But since 2012, since we pulled out of the recession, we’ve grown by 1,000 members.”
By Dec. 31, Local 139 had more than 9,500 members, he added.
Construction unions are doing relatively well in spite of Republican lawmakers’ attempts to weaken them, several union officials said. Labor officials have contended various policies passed in recent years – including the state’s repeal of prevailing-wage requirements and adoption of a so-called right-to-work law– were meant specifically to undermine unions’ power.
“I would say in spite of the anti-union policies that have been enacted in the past few years, the support of the unions by the union membership has not declined,” Hayden said.
John Schmitt, president and business manager of the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council, said another source of concern has been the state’s current transportation budget, which puts less money than previous spending plans toward certain highway projects and delays planning work for others.
“We’ve sure got some bad roads and bridges in this state, so we could sure get a lot of work done,” he said. “But unfortunately the budget is not where I’d like it to be.”
Over the past four years, Schmitt said, his group has seen increases in both its member ranks and in the number of hours that members are working each year.
The non-union construction workforce is similarly benefiting from the country’s expanding economy and strong demand for construction services, said officials at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.
The association, which largely represents non-union companies, has not only added to its membership ranks in recent years but also seen more and more people take advantage of its apprenticeship program, said Leigh Emrick, ABC of Wisconsin’s apprenticeship director. Follow @alexzank