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Is Wisconsin a cautionary tale for unions?

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Published: May 13, 2018, 6:03am

Wisconsin was once considered a Democratic stronghold. But the GOP has increased its grip on the state since 2011, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation aimed at limiting the power of public-sector unions.

Among other provisions, Act 10 Wisconsin did away with collective-bargaining rights for state workers and prohibited unions from withholding dues. It also made Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state, meaning workers couldn’t be compelled to join a union or pay agency fees to accept a job.

According to a paper by Marc V. Levine, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the percentage of unionized workers in Wisconsin (which had already been on the decline) fell from 14 percent in 2011 to 8.3 percent in 2015. During the same time period, the rate of unionized public employees fell from 50 percent to 26 percent.

The decline in unions, a traditional constituency of the Democratic Party, seems to have impacted the state’s politics. Five years after the bill was passed, Wisconsin, which hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, went for Donald Trump. The same year, the state re-elected a Republican U.S. senator who had been predicted to lose. Walker and the GOP have also stayed in power in the Statehouse.

In an essay, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, wrote that if the same legislation was “enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics. It’s that big a deal.”

Maxford Nelsen, labor policy director for the Washington Freedom Foundation, said that if the U.S. Supreme Court rules for Janus in the upcoming Janus v. AFSCME case, it will effectively create a national right-to-work framework.

However, he said it’s difficult to say in advance if the country will go the way of Wisconsin. He said the reforms in Wisconsin went much further than what’s being considered in the Janus case.

Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees union, said that some workers might opt out of their union if the court rules for Janus, but he is optimistic that membership will remain strong.

He said that unions in Wisconsin had grown complacent and taken their positions for granted, allowing Walker to successfully undermine them.

“If the unions had been out talking to their members, I don’t think you’d see the same result,” he said.

Devereux pointed to Ohio, where more active unions fended off similar legislation.

He said that his union has increased its outreach efforts. He also pointed to recent legislation that will allow unions to make their case to new employees.

He said that recent disputes with Republicans in the Washington Legislature over funding contracts “did us a favor” by energizing his membership.

“That, combined with the Trump administration, have shown the relevance and value of a union,” he said.

As for the future of Wisconsin’s unions, Devereux said they’ll rebuild.

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