Wisconsin News

Coulee Region labor unions take smaller hit than nation

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- - Labor union membership is at the lowest it's been for decades, according to a new report.

Membership has fallen by about 400,000 workers.

It's a challenge that's all too familiar in Wisconsin over the past two years.

Union membership across the nation has fallen by .5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That puts it at the lowest it's been since the 1930s.

While Wisconsin unions have had their fair share of struggles, Coulee Region unions are maintaining relatively high membership numbers.

Wisconsin is well-acquainted with the some of the challenges unions have faced over the past two years.

"There has been somewhat of an attack or assault on unions' rights, either through passage of right-to-work laws like we saw in Michigan or through what we saw in Wisconsin, the collective-bargaining bill that passed," said Viterbo University professor Michael Smuksta.


Smuksta says pair that with tight local and state budgets and it's no surprise union membership is the lowest it's been since the 1930s.

"I think the immediate cause was the Great Recession. Starting in 2008 cities and states were hit with shortfalls of revenue and that meant they had to lay off workers in the public sector," said Smuksta.

But the unions' struggles started years before the Great Recession in 2008.

"Back in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president, there was an air traffic controllers union that went on strike and Reagan fired them, and that sent a message to corporate America that you can take an anti-union stance and that coincided with a decline in labor strength since the 1970s," said Smuksta.

But in recent years, teachers unions in Wisconsin have been especially hard-hit since Gov. Walker's Act 10 was passed, ending most collective-bargaining rights for public workers.

Two of the state's main teacher unions are reporting a 30 percent decrease in membership.

But the executive director of the Coulee Region United Educators, or CRUE, Steve Glandt, says in our area more teachers seem to be sticking with their union.

"We have a number of locals that are 90 percent membership retention; our largest local, La Crosse teachers, is over 90 percent, so we've seen fair success in that, but I think it varies based on area," said Glandt.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also shows a decrease in private-sector unions, but for local private labor unions, having plenty of local construction jobs has helped them maintain their membership.

"The jobs that we did have on the books in the years past and a lot of private sector jobs that we did have that went to union, we were able to get by that," said Local 140 field representative Pete Arentz.

Back in the 1950s, labor unions reached their peak with about one out of every three workers represented by unions.

Now, that ratio is down to one in nine.

According to the Associated Press, when Gov. Walker passed Act 10 in 2011, the state lost about 46,000 union members, mostly in the public sector.

For a link to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report visit http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm

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