Capitol Protest (copy)

As seen from the rotunda dome, protesters drum and cheer at the state Capitol in Madison on Feb. 18, 2011. 

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Unions in Wisconsin are significantly weaker than they were a decade ago and wage growth over the past quarter-century was stagnant, according to a new report from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, a left-leaning policy institute housed at UW-Madison.

The center’s annual “State of Working Wisconsin” report found that two policies implemented in the last 10 years weakened both public and private labor unions. Act 10 — a controversial bill signed into law by then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 — limited “the bargaining of public-sector unions to only wage and wage increases,” hampering unions’ abilities to to negotiate about things like scheduling and benefits, according to the report.

Accordingly, the report says, public-sector unions have seen a drastic drop in membership over the past 10 years. In 2011, roughly 50% of public employees were union members, according to a database maintained by two economic professors. In 2020, just 22% of public-sector workers were union members.

Statewide, unionization in the state decreased by one-third, the report found, with only 8.8% of Wisconsin workers belonging to unions. “The Wisconsin decline is four times as fast as national de-unionization,” it also noted, and substantially faster than in all neighboring states besides Iowa.

The report also cited “right-to-work” legislation passed in 2015 as a challenge to the operation of private-sector unions. “The density impact of that legislation appears less dramatic” than the effects of Act 10, according to the report.

Despite the rapid decline of unions in the state, COWS remains bullish on the role of organized labor in Wisconsin: “(U)nions continue to support workers, improve wages in worksites and … support policy that helps workers, families and communities thrive,” the report concluded.

The report also found that “wages continue to provide an essential lens on job quality and inequality in the state,” and that wage growth in Wisconsin has been stagnant over the past 25 years.

“Despite productivity and education advances over the last quarter of a century, median wages have only slightly increased for workers,” the report reads.

Citing data from the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, the report found that over the past 40 years, net productivity among workers has increased 70% while workers’ hourly pay increased just 17%.

The state has seen strong wage growth over the past two years, though, the report found. Since 2018, median wages are up statewide by more than $1.50 per hour, the report shows. The 2020 median wage in Wisconsin was $20.24.

The wage growth has benefited most Wisconsinites, the report found, but especially women workers of color. Black and Hispanic women workers both saw a median wage increase of more than 20% between 2018 and 2020, helping narrow racial and ethnic disparities, though those disparities still persist.

Finally, the report found that Wisconsin workers with higher levels of education had a greater median hourly wage. Workers in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree or more, for example, made 60% more than workers who did not earn a degree beyond their high school diploma.

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