It’s Likely That ‘a Lot’ of Wisconsin Workers ‘Didn’t Want to Belong to a Union in the First Place’

Earlier this week, Washington Examiner opinion writer Sean Higgins reviewed Wisconsin Labor Department data to get an updated picture on how the state’s government union bosses are faring in the wake of Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 budget-repair law that protects most state and local public employees from being fired for refusal to pay dues or fees to an unwanted union.

Act 10 also revoked most Badger State government union chieftains’ monopoly power to bargain with public officials over employee benefits and work rules.  Only wages and salaries are now part of union monopoly bargaining throughout most of the public sector, and even on matters of cash compensation it is subject to fairly tight limits.

Higgins found that the ranks of government unions have plummeted since government union bosses’ coercive privileges were curtailed:

According to Labor Department data, membership at Wisconsin’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 40 — one of AFSCME’s four branches in the state — has gone from the 31,730 it reported in 2011, to 29,777 in 2012, to just 20,488 now.

That’s a drop of more than 11,000 — about a third — in just two years. The council represents city and county employees outside of Milwaukee County and child care workers across Wisconsin.

The drop was even starker for Wisconsin’s AFSCME Council 48, which represents city and county workers in Milwaukee County. It went from 9,043 members in 2011, to 6,046 in 2012, to just 3,498 now.

The numbers came from annual filings the unions must make to the Labor Department. In other words, these membership numbers come from the unions themselves. The numbers have to hurt since the union was founded in Wisconsin.

A spokesman for Local 48 declined to discuss the figures, while spokesmen for Local 40 and AFSCME’s national headquarters did not respond to requests for an interview.

To be fair, this isn’t a complete portrait. The union has two other main branches in the state — Council 11 and Council 24. According to a Labor Department spokesman, the disclosure requirements do not extend to unions that solely represent state and local government employees. Councils 40 and 48 must make the filings because they represent some private-sector employees. The other two do not.

Nevertheless, the data confirm a news report last year by the Wall Street Journal, citing confidential AFSCME sources, that Wisconsin union membership was falling by as much as half.

As you might expect, no single factor appears to account for plummeting government union membership in the Badger State over the past couple of years.  One factor that is evidently relatively insignificant is public-sector layoffs.  U.S. Labor Department data show that state and local public employment in Wisconsin fell by just 1.7% from 2010 to 2012, below the national average decline of 2.1%.

Some public employees are undoubtedly less inclined to join a union whose monopoly-bargaining privileges have been curtailed.  This could be because they calculate that such a union has less power to help them if they join.  But it could also be because employees are now less afraid of angering union officials by refusing to join.  Finally, as Higgins observes, “it is also likely that a lot of workers didn’t want to belong to a union in the first place.”

Exit polls from the 2012 special “recall” elections in which union kingpins and their allies sought to end Mr. Walker’s governorship furnish compelling evidence that a large share of unionized employees don’t believe Big Labor speaks for them.  Even after the union hierarchy spent millions and millions of dollars in union treasury money to demonize the governor, exit polls showed, as Higgins points out “that 38 percent of union households and 29 percent of card-carrying union members voted” for Mr. Walker in last year’s “recall.”

Sean Higgins: Wisconsin union membership plunging as workers exercise new rights