For decades, union membership has been in a steady decline. Once the backbone of Milwaukee’s blue-collar workforce during the city’s industrial heyday, things changed when many manufacturers moved operations to other states, and to other countries, seeking lower-priced labor.
In addition, Act 10, the controversial measure signed into law in 2011 by then Gov. Scott Walker, significantly limited what public employee unions in Wisconsin could collectively bargain for. Act 10 resulted in significant savings for Wisconsin taxpayers as many public employees ended up paying for a greater share of the costs of their benefits. In 2015, Wisconsin became a right-to-work state.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of union members or workers who are represented by a union in Wisconsin fell in 2021 to 215,000, down from 227,000 in 2020. As a percentage of total workers, the state’s union membership went from 8.7% to 7.9%. In the 2000s, around 16.3% of workers in the state were represented by a union.
However, there are signs that unions are gaining momentum. The number of union members or workers represented by a union in Wisconsin rose in 2020. Union representation in the state also rose in 2019. Those upticks were a shift from years of steady decline.
Today’s extremely tight labor market could be creating conditions for a resurgence of the labor movement. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was at 2.8% in March, and the U.S. inflation rate for the month was 8.5%, a 40-year high. Employers are struggling to find workers, so the labor market favors employees. Inflation is also putting upward pressure on wages.
The tight labor market is an opportunity for unions to expand their presence in workplaces and there have been some notable instances of that happening.
Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York made headlines recently with a successful vote to unionize.
Workers at a Starbucks in Oak Creek recently voted to unionize, the first in Wisconsin but among more than 200 Starbucks locations nationwide to file for an election.
Last year, workers at Milwaukee-based Colectivo Coffee Roasters voted to unionize and the Milwaukee Art Museum reached its first agreement with a group of unionized employees.
In addition, a group of Pabst Theater Group employees are trying to unionize.
Many employers would prefer that their employees not join a union. Business leaders often get a bad rap from labor activists who portray union opposition as greed. That’s certainly true in some cases, but most businesses simply want to avoid the adversarial “us vs. them” culture that can exist in companies with union workforces.
In a labor market that heavily favors workers, businesses need to make sure they are providing a positive work environment for their employees, that their wages and benefits are fair and competitive in the marketplace, and that lines of communication are open between management and workers.
If your workers don’t think they are being treated fairly, unionization becomes a more appealing idea – especially in this labor market.