Holding steady in Minnesota, union density plunges in Right-to-Work Wisconsin

BLS LogoUnion members made up 14.2 percent of Minnesota’s wage-earning and salaried workforce last year, a membership rate unchanged from 2014, according to an annual report released today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A similar trend played out nationwide, as the union membership rate held steady at 11.1 percent of the U.S. workforce.

But the story was much different in Wisconsin, where total union membership dropped to 223,000 last year, down 83,000 from 2014. Union members made up just 8.3 percent of the workforce in 2015, down from 11.7 percent in 2014.

In 2009, the year before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took office, Wisconsin had 385,000 union members, accounting for 15.2 percent of the state’s workforce.

Since taking office, Walker has teamed up with Republican majorities in the Legislature to pass a Right to Work law and Act 10, which included draconian restrictions on public-sector workers’ union rights, including a provision that requires local unions to hold annual recertification elections.

Both measures substantially weakened unions’ bargaining power and likely contributed to a 45-percent drop in union density statewide over the last six years.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Minnesota has … a higher unionization rate, higher median income and a better workplace safety record than any of our neighbors,” said Bill McCarthy, president of the state’s largest labor federation, the Minnesota AFL-CIO. “Higher union density means a higher standard of living for all working people.”

Meanwhile, the wage advantage enjoyed by union members nationwide remained strong in 2015. Median weekly earnings among union members who worked full time last year were $980, compared to $776 for non-union workers.

The advantage was even greater among some minority groups. Black union members, for example, earned 30 percent more than black non-union workers. And Hispanic women union members earned 44 percent more than their non-union peers.

Union membership continued to pay off in certain industries as well, most notably in construction, where union members’ median weekly earnings were $356 more than non-union workers.

The BLS reported Minnesota had a total of 363,000 union members in 2015, but unions represented an additional 22,000 workers. This group includes so-called “fee payers,” who elect not to pay union dues but are covered by the benefits of a union contract.

In Minnesota, fee-payers account for 5.7 percent of workers who benefit from collective bargaining agreements. In Right-to-Work Wisconsin, where unions are barred from charging fair-share fees, that ratio jumps to 11.9 percent.

Public-sector unions’ ability to collect fair-share fees is under scrutiny by the Supreme Court in Friedrichs v. CTA. Many experts expect the court’s ruling, expected before the end of June, to establish Right to Work across the public sector in all 50 states.

The BLS generates its annual report on union membership using results of the Current Population Survey, a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 eligible households nationwide. BLS data was released the same day that Gallup ranked Minnesota with the highest job creation index in the nation.

“As we continue to lead the nation in job creation, Minnesota’s labor movement is committed to ensuring these new jobs are family-sustaining jobs,” McCarthy said.

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