Wisconsin has long been a state in which labor unions have thrived. With the state’s strong manufacturing and mining background, it always seemed natural that many Wisconsinites would be members of a union. As it turns out, it wasn’t so natural after all.
The most recent report about union membership from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that union membership in Wisconsin dropped precipitously in the last year. Between 2014 and 2015, membership declined by a whopping 29 percent to the lowest level in modern times. This was the largest single-year drop in union membership of any state in the union. Only 8.3 percent of Wisconsin’s workers are union members.
While the data does not attribute the cause of such a decline in union membership, it is not difficult to discern the reason. In 2015, the Wisconsin Legislature passed right-to-work legislation and Gov. Scott Walker signed it into law.
Prior to 2015, Wisconsin was a forced-unionization state. If a labor union convinced a company’s workers to unionize, then people who worked for that company were required to be members of the union as a condition of employment forevermore. Generations later, workers were still required to be a member of the union even though they never had the opportunity to vote on it.
Right-to-work is common in other regions — particularly the South — and is a simple concept based on workers’ rights. It says that a worker cannot be forced to be a member of union as a condition of employment. Workers can, of course, join a union of their free will. But just as the government should not force a person to be a member of the Masons, Rotary, Republican Party or other private organizations to work, nor should it force a person to be a member of a union as a condition of their employment. With the freedom to choose, 83,000 Wisconsin workers chose not to be a member of a union last year.
The last time Wisconsin had such a large drop in union membership was after the passage of Act 10 in 2011. In the year after Act 10, total union membership in Wisconsin dropped by almost 16 percent. Act 10 was essentially rightto- work for most government workers, but it did not go into effect until after the contracts in place at the time expired. As such, many unionized workers did not have the choice to leave the union for several years after Act 10 was passed.
When looking at union membership in Wisconsin since the passage of Act 10 and including the passage of right to work last year, union membership declined almost 38 percent as Wisconsin’s workers decided that being a member of a union was not right for them.
While it is wonderful to see the progression of liberty in Wisconsin as most of us are allowed to exercise our First Amendment right to belong to a private organization without the intervention of our government either way, there remains one bastion of forced unionization left untouched by both Act 10 and right to work. Police and firefighters are still forced to be in a union if they want to serve the public in either of those capacities.
When the new Legislature begins its session next year, it should take up the task of extending the same right to choose to police and firefighters as has been extended to the rest of Wisconsin’s workers. There is no reason why some of the best among us — our first responders — should not have the same ability to exercise their freedom of association as the rest of us. Given the nature of their jobs, maintaining their unions might well be in their best interests. But that should not be determined by the people who did the job 80 years ago when they were first unionized. It should be determined by the people doing the job today.