Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Anti-Union Governor

Scott Walker may be the nation’s leading union killer. What’s the impact on Wisconsin?

By - Jul 24th, 2018 11:25 am
Wisconsin Capitol Protests. Photo by Patti Wenzel

Wisconsin capitol protests during the passing of the controversial Act 10. Photo by Patti Wenzel

For more than a half-century, Wisconsin was one of America’s leading states for unions. That seems unimaginable today, after nearly eight years under Gov. Scott Walker. Nothing better defines the Republican leader than his success crushing collective bargaining. He’s arguably America’s leading union slayer, a title Walker would probably be proud — privately, of course — to embrace. 

What has that meant for Wisconsin? As a powerful new report by four economists documents, unions have been a huge factor in reducing income inequality in America, and not just for union members.  The decline of unions is a key reason the United States now has the biggest wealth gap in at least a century between the super-rich and everyone else. And in recent years, no state has seen a greater decline in unions than Wisconsin. 

This was always a fertile state for unions, because it ranks second in the percent of workers employed in manufacturing (which had always been the sector with the most unionized workers) and because it was the first to allow public workers to collectively bargain. A quarter century ago, in 1983, 24.6 percent of workers in Wisconsin were unionized compared to 20.1 percent nationally.

This was still one of the more unionized states when Walker took office in 2011 and decimated public unions with Act 10, and then continued what he called his “divide and conquer” strategy with a Right to Work law that makes its very difficult to organize private unions. 

The result: Union membership statewide has plummeted by 38.5 percent, from 354,882 members in 2010 to 218,233 in 2016. The percent of workers unionized in Wisconsin dropped from 14.2 percent in 2010 to 8.3 percent today, well below the 10 percent figure nationally. It’s a stunning turnaround, with huge consequences for this state.   

The long-term impact of unions in the U.S. had always been harder to evaluate because the Census Bureau did not ask about union membership until 1973. But this new report, “Unions and Inequality Over the Twentieth Century: New Evidence from Survey Data,” by four economists, Henry Farber, Daniel Herbst and Ilyana Kuziemko of Princeton, and Suresh Naidu of Columbia, has gone back through information on public opinion polls, primarily done by Gallup, since 1936. In the process they created a vast new data base from over 500 surveys done from 1936-1986, providing information on union status, household income and other factoids. They then harmonized this data with that found in the Census Bureau reports since 1973. 

The story that emerges is one whose general outline we know, but is stunning in the new details it offers. The percent of union households grew steadily from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s when it included about 33 percent of households, and then more or less plateaued through the 1960s, only to drop steadily from the 1970s on, declining to just 10 percent today. 

And this growth period in union households, the study notes, coincided with what it calls the “Great Compression,” the period from the early 1940s to 1970, when the difference in earnings and wealth between the super-rich and everyone else narrowed significantly. 

The study finds there was a consistent household income premium of 15 to 20 percent for union households over the nine decades studied, from 1936 to 2010. This union premium naturally had the largest impact on the wealth gap when the highest percent of households had at least one union member.

The data also shows unions had clear benefits for minority and lower-skilled and lower-income workers. “In the Great Compression period, when unions were at their peak and inequality at its nadir, disadvantaged households were much more likely to be union members than either before or since,” the study finds. “Unions were conferring a substantial advantage to what would otherwise have been low-income households… A similar pattern emerges for minorities: unions were relatively less white during the Great Compression.” 

The study also found unions can affect the earnings of nonunion workers, as a New York Times story notes. “To capture such effects, the researchers broadened their lens to include the entire distribution of workers and their wages beyond those who are in typically unionized jobs and industries.” The data showed that “during years and in states where workers were more likely to be unionized,” overall income inequality was lower.

“While the scholars can’t pinpoint the precise mechanism at work, they speculate that unions have indirectly increased pay at firms nervous that their own employees might organize. Unions have also lobbied for higher minimum wages and pushed to hold down executive salaries. They have also advocated for broader access to health care, countering a key channel through which income inequality can harm all of society.” 

The post-1960s decline of private sector unions coincided with an increase in public sector unions, whose members were more likely to be college graduates. And so the equalizing impact of unions was significantly reduced as the wealth gap in America grew ever larger. In Wisconsin, this set the stage for resentment of public union wages and benefits, which was documented in the book by UW-Madison Professor Katherine J. Cramer.

Indeed, even some private sector union members supported Act 10 and believed Walker’s promise that he wouldn’t sign a Right to Work law. But once Walker won a second term, he signed the legislation. 

This was only one of the many anti-worker bills Walker has signed, including repealing the 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which helped women workers victimized by wage discrimination to seek remedies; repealing a law that said employees must have at least one day of rest every seven days; Repealing the “living wage” law, which gave workers the option to demand better pay — as much as $6,000 annually — than the minimum wage; Ending prevailing wage requirements by local governments; and eliminating a child labor law rule that “16- and 17-year-olds couldn’t work more than 26 hours during a school week and more than 50 hours a week during vacations.” And Walker and Republicans have opposed any increase in the state’s minimum wage. 

All these actions may help explain the reduction in average wages paid by manufacturers in recent years and the fact that that Wisconsin now has the greatest level of income inequality since 1929.

The decline of unions certainly isn’t the sole cause for this.  But it was a key factor in creating the ever-growing wealth gap across America, as this new study finds. And in just eight years, Gov. Walker has made Wisconsin a national leader in killing unions and increasing income inequality. 

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

20 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Anti-Union Governor”

  1. PMD says:

    Except that right-wing union critics do not care about weakening unions resulting in wage reduction and rise in income inequality. Hurting people’s pocketbooks and livelihoods doesn’t matter. To them unions vote Democrat and weakening unions means hurting the political enemy. And they continue to say nothing critical about public safety unions so they are massive hypocrites as well.

  2. Terry says:

    Well said PMD! The impact on Wisconsin is that the state is now known for super low wages, no benefits, no healthcare corporate welfare taxpayer subsidized Chinese jobs! Thanks for nothing Walker. Thanks for nothing republicans! “Right to Work” my ass, more like “Right to Poverty”.

    Dump Walker 2018

  3. LenaTaylorNeedsToResign says:

    Thank God we finally got someone with the guts to break the backs of those parasitic public employee Unions and their ‘pay-to-play’ endless circle of taxpayer dollars getting turned into campaign contributions to their stooge Dems!!

  4. fightingbobfan says:

    Guts? He’s following the orders of his Kochhandlers.

    But hey, gutting unions gives you such a buzz, and it doesn’t matter to you that in the bargain we get a lackluster economy that hurts all of us.

  5. CalvinPi says:

    The harping on income inequality leaves me cold. I don’t care one whit about how rich the top one percent is, because that has no impact on how well or badly off the people in the bottom twenty percent are. The concern comes across as pure envy, not as concern for the people at the bottom of the heap.

    Maybe unions help the bottom tier, maybe they don’t, but taking money away from the rich and giving it to corporate agribusiness and solar energy companies is no way to help the poor.

    Better to think about how to help the 16% of the population with IQ scores of 85 and below. That’s fifty million Americans who need help, not college educated public employees.

  6. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Unions are an anachronism, of another day and will never come back. Millenials move around too much, we do not make as many things and service jobs do not lend themselves to unionization.
    There will always be some. Trump is their best friend as he is bringing back manufacturing. They are more and more being crippled by courts and lack of money.
    As they make more money the elders vote Conservative. The nutty socialists in the youth are not union people like the 50’s when I was in unions.

  7. Denny says:

    Lots of Fox news sheep cult members active today. Must have hit a soar spot.

  8. andsoitgoes says:

    Without labor there is no wealth. I do care about wealth and income growth disparity. I do care about worker rights and concerns. I do care about a social contract and I do believe that an intelligent mixed economy is the answer. A mixed economy worked quite well to benefit the most during the best times in this nation’s history. To those absolutes that like to babble on about the evils of socialism or sing praises of ‘free’ markets or ‘free’ capitalism — those never happened and they never will, so you have no credibility here. Demagoguery is nothing but another name for PR for the uneducated, which incidentally is why Walker and the GOP work so diligently to dismantle education and opt for training and obedience instead. Excellent article, Mr. Murphy.

  9. Troll says:

    It is sad when the road builders and construction trades union leadership have to hide behind the “Scott Holes” campaign and cannot be upfront with their own union members. Union members spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to a union that’s sole purpose is to take down Governor Walker. What has Walker done for union members. We are in a golden age of building and union workers are at full employment. Many union members support Walker, so it has to be a secret. SSHHHH! Kind of like Tammy Baldwin acting all conservative. We cannot be liberals around election day.

  10. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Interestingly, Scotty was saying how happy he was that the United Steelworkers reached an agreement with Kimberly-Clark to try to keep jobs at their plant in the Fox Valley.

    Of course, Scotty now wants to throw a Foxconn-like bailout at KC (that can be kicked back to him in donations) while the unionized workers take wage and,benefit cuts.

    And we wonder why this state stagnates economically as unions get busted and cheap Wisconsin business owners won’t pay the wages that other places do.

  11. Troll says:

    Unions and tax payers can not coexist. Unions will always grab more of your hard work through taxation.

  12. Eric J. says:

    Unions and tax payers do coexist.
    Union members ARE taxpayers .
    -Firefighters / EMT ARE union members .
    -Police ARE unions.
    -The union purpose is to represent their members and interests ,much like the hoards of Madison and D.C. lobbyists do-Who do you think spends more money on political campaigns ,unions or the lobbyists ? Unions can’t in any way match what the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson ,Uihlein family or Diane Hendricks are doing already in Wisconsin.

  13. Timothy J Haering says:

    Bruce, I’ll buy your vaunted biggest wealth gap. It feels pretty big to me, too. NO evidence, just feeling. But if unions were strong, guess whose butts we would be seeing taking up that gap? Union butts. Quasi-skilled unionites now get a taste of what life is like for us.

    Heard this quote on CNBC the other day: “The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.” You can keep your “powerful new report.”

    When I was 19, I worked shipping-receiving in a lighting factory with IBEW assemblers. I was the only non-union guy out there. When the union folk were on break, they used to tell me not work so hard because the boss might expect them to work harder too. After a couple fruitless weeks, they stopped telling me that. But 41 years later, I’m still incredulous.

    We may be stuck with the biggest wealth gap for a while, but it’s better than our workforce being controlled by quashers of individual effort and initiative.

  14. Tom says:

    Thank you for this excellent investigative story detailing the many ugly effects on the futures of young people in Walker’s Wisconsin due to the crushing of unions in Walker’s Wisconsin.

    When speaking to college students, especially future teachers, our volunteer speakers cite many of the points made in this article to encourage teachers to flee Walker’s Wisconsin upon graduation.

    Walkers Wisconsin is dead last in the Midwest in wage growth since Walker’s election in 2011. Coupled with over 3.5 Billion dollars slashed from public education since 2011, our volunteer speakers are reporting that increasing numbers of students that we are speaking to are planning on leaving Walker’s Wisconsin upon graduation or soon after, as they realize that they will earn far more money and have far better benefits when they leave Walker’s Wisconsin.

    Besides having a much better chance at a bright future, attendees at our seminars also cite Walker’s decimation of Wisconsin’s once great public education system as another reason why they are looking for employment outside of Wisconsin once they graduate. These bright young men and women don’t want to raise a family in a state that places so little value on quality public education. Glad to provide them with the critical information they need to make the best possible decisions on where they will live once they graduate from college.

  15. Thomas says:

    This was a well researched and well written article. It is unfortunate that most of the first dozen posts on it did not appear to understand it. Unions contributed significantly to the growth of our middle class for many decades. Union busting by Walker has resulted in the decline of our middle class

    “Solidarity forever,”

  16. PMD says:

    So one anecdote is supposed to mean more than, you know, facts? One guy has a story so to hell with stronger unions resulting in better wages and a stronger middle class?

  17. Terry says:

    @ScottWalkerMustResign, Now instead republicans just tax us to death and give all our money to China! At least the unions kept the money in the USA and in the pockets of Wisconsinites, not the CHINESE! All while Walker and republicans let our roads and schools crumble even as DOT debt skyrockets (because idiot republicans can’t even figure out how to calculate inflation) and then these republican charlatans dump huge tariffs on our farmers and diss iconic AMERICAN companies like Harley Davidson!? What on earth on these idiots doing? Career Politician Scott Walker and Donald Trump are wickedness, idiocy and corruption all rolled into one.

    Dump Trump 2018
    Dump Walker 2018

  18. Denis Drew says:

    Folks, there is an easy and sure way to restore US unions overnight. Really! Just steal a page from Scott Walker’s union busting-elections playbook — and turn it 180 degrees into union creating-certification elections.

    When our (hopefully) blue wave Congress takes over next year it can amend the NLRB to require regularly scheduled union certification elections at every private workplace (I would suggest one, three or five year cycle, local plurality rules).

    Scott’s Repubs want to pass: H.R.2723 – Employee Rights Act115th Congress (2017-2018) — “Republicans in Congress have already proposed a bill that would require a new election in each unionized bargaining unit whenever, through turnover, expansion, or merger, a unit experiences at least 50 percent turnover.”

    Thing is, the sure way to win the wavering blue collars back to the Democratic fold where they belong is to give them their own power back by backing regular cert elections.

    The only other path to rebuilding US unions — making union busting a felony; with real sanctions — could no longer possibly work — not with 40 years of tricky union busting by literally million of private employers out there. We’d have to start a labor civil war because it wouldn’t be just one workplace; it would be at every workplace at once

    So regularly scheduled cert elections is the easy way and the only way to bring back Dem voters and bring back unions. What are we waiting for?

  19. Bill Kurtz says:

    Troll may not realize that the union representing road builders (Operating Engineers) supported Walker in 2010 and remained neutral in the recall and 2014. In the latter case that was after Walker “gave his word” to their president that right to work would never happen here.

  20. PMD says:

    You could fill an ocean with what Troll doesn’t realize.

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