A new study conducted by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute, the School for Workers at the University of Wisconsin–Extension, and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, evaluates the impact that labor union membership has on a worker’s hourly wage in Wisconsin and in the United States. A key finding in the report, The State of the Unions 2017: A Profile of Unionization in Wisconsin and in the United States, indicates that unionization benefits low-income and middle-class workers most in Wisconsin, helping to foster a strong middle class and reduce income inequality.

Since 2007, unionization has declined in Wisconsin and in the United States. There are about 157,000 fewer union members in Wisconsin today than there were in 2007, accounting for 14.3 percent of the 1.1 million-member drop in union workers across the nation over that time. There are 155 fewer labor unions and 2,247 fewer individuals working for labor unions in Wisconsin today than there were in 2006.

This is in part due to Wisconsin’s Governor Walker’s fight against collective bargaining. In February 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker implemented his “Budget Repair Bill,” Wisconsin Act 10, which revised the state’s public sector collective bargaining laws and triggered weeks of demonstrations and rallies by hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites. Upon passage, the bill curtailed the rights of thousands of public sector workers, cutting pay and benefits for more than four hundred thousand public employees.

The continuing legislative initiatives against unions in Wisconsin from 2011 to present have been connected to a more general effort against organized labor. Governor Walker signed Wisconsin Act 1 on March 9, 2015. This “right-to-work” (RTW) law bars labor unions from including “union security” or “fair share” clauses in collective bargaining agreements with employers and made Wisconsin the 25th state to pass such a law. Prior to 2011, 14.2 percent of Wisconsin’s workforce belonged to a union. By 2016, that figure had dropped to 8.1 percent, significantly below the national average.

As of 2016, the overall union membership rate is 8.1 percent in Wisconsin:

  • Men are more likely to be unionized (10.5 percent) than women (5.7 percent);
  • Veterans are among the most unionized socioeconomic groups in Wisconsin (8.4 percent);
  • By educational attainment, the most unionized workers in Wisconsin hold Master’s degrees (15.2 percent) and associate’s degrees (10.9 percent);
  • Public sector unionization (22.7 percent) is four times as high in Wisconsin as private sector unionization (5.5 percent).

Union membership is influenced by a number of factors. Workers in construction, transportation and warehousing, and public administration are all more likely to be union members. Native-born and naturalized citizens are also statistically more likely to be union members than their non-citizen counterparts. On the other hand, workers employed in management, business, financial, sales, office support, service, and professional occupations are all less likely to be unionized than their counterparts in production jobs.

Labor unions increase individual incomes by lifting hourly wages. In Wisconsin, unions raise worker wages by an average of 11.0 percent. The state’s union wage effect is the 12th-highest in the nation. The union wage differential is greatest for the lowest 10 to 25 percent of workers, ranging from a 12.1 percent to a 12.2 percent increase in worker earnings. Unions therefore foster a middle-class lifestyle in Wisconsin.

Despite the decline in union density in Wisconsin, unions continue to play a vital role in Wisconsin’s economy and communities.

Read the report here.