In 1959 Wisconsin was the first state to allow its public employees the right to organize and form their own organizations to represent them in discussions with their employers. These early beginnings were the fruition of years of public worker organizing (AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was born in Wisconsin) and evolved into a mature labor relations framework featuring large, well organized public worker unions that engaged in collective bargaining with public employers throughout the state. Contractual impasses or disputes at the bargaining table were generally resolved through a system of binding interest arbitration. This process enabled unions to achieve definite contracts, albeit in a costly and time-consuming way that was far removed from most rank and file union members.
As a result of the 2010 elections, Republican Scott Walker was inaugurated as Governor, along with Republican majorities in both chambers of the State Legislature. They moved immediately to overturn Wisconsin’s fifty-year-old public sector labor laws, creating a vastly different labor relations framework. Referred to as Act 10, among the many changes the law required public worker unions to re-certify themselves annually by obtaining a majority of all those eligible to vote in their bargaining units, not simply a majority of votes cast. (Few elected politicians could hold their offices under this standard, and it is substantially different from the majority of votes cast standard utilized by the National Labor Relations Board.) Unions were limited to negotiate over only base pay and could bargain salary increases limited to the Consumer Price Index. Contracts were capped to one-year duration, union dues deductions from workers’ paychecks were banned, and interest arbitration as a way to resolve contractual disputes was eliminated. There were weeks of massive protests and the occupation of the State Capitol after Act 10 was introduced in the Legislature. After its passage in 2011, public worker unions were and continue to be subject to these modifications made by Act 10.
As labor educators and faculty of the School for Workers we researched and documented the impact to Wisconsin public worker unions of Act 10, what union structures and practices changed since its enactment; and how well unions have adapted to the new labor relations environment. Using the considerable published literature and government documents related to this topic as well as interviews of over 20 Wisconsin public worker union leaders from four key unions, we developed a research project to achieve these goals. The unions included were the American Federation of Teachers (AFT-Wisconsin), American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), an affiliate of the National Education Association.
Our findings have been published by Labor Studies Journal. A link to the paper, along with a radio interview of lead author David Nack, is available here.
Our key finding is that Act 10 has been extremely harmful to these four public worker unions, resulting in declines in active union memberships of approximately 50% to over 75%, and in some cases even more than that. Additionally, there has been a corresponding decline in union dues, requiring in each case some form of organizational downsizing. In one case there was also the de facto exiting of the union from Wisconsin’s public sector. Third, in many instances affiliates of these four unions have chosen not to recertify their union under Act 10, resulting in the loss of legally recognized collective bargaining rights for many public sector bargaining units. Finally, Wisconsin public workers have suffered greatly because of these changes in the form of wage freezes, reductions in net pay (from cost shifting health insurance and pension costs from public employers to their workers), and the loss for workers of union representation in relation to their employers.
The rapidity and depth of these declines is unprecedented in any state and should give pause to those concerned about public sector unionism everywhere. As recent experience in Iowa shows, Act 10 provides an example of a legislative plan that can effectively diminish and undercut the power of public worker unions anywhere similar laws can be enacted. Indeed, the US Supreme Court’s recent Janus Decision can be seen as a first step of this strategy on the national level.
While the data portray a grim picture, there are several examples of worker success. AFSCME locals in Dane County have used a local meet and confer ordinance to maintain their organizations and continue representing members. They have also revitalized internal organizing to maintain membership. AFT-Wisconsin locals at the University of Wisconsin campuses in Superior and Stevens Point, despite never having held collective bargaining rights, fought back against elimination of courses and majors and teaching positions with some success. Teachers and other educational workers in WEAC have become extremely active and creative, as they have in many parts of the country. In cities such as Milwaukee, Racine and Madison members are more involved in their unions, and leadership is drawn from the rank and file. This increased energy has helped workers to achieve their goals, impacting employment policies and influencing school administrations through local political processes.