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Friday, May 24, 2024
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Scott Walker’s legacy: The fall of labor union rights

“Wisconsin is open for business,” Gov. Scott Walker’s administration proudly declared, pointing to signs that the state’s business climate was improving. 

In 2010, only 10% of CEOs in Wisconsin thought the state was moving in the right direction — by December 2011, that number had risen to 94%. These numbers come directly after Act 10, a controversial Wisconsin law passed in 2011 that remains a divisive issue among labor advocates and policymakers today

Insisting the original intent behind Act 10 in 2011 was because the state was “broke,” and that it was an attempt to address a shortfall in the state’s budget, the law mandated public sector unions hold recertification elections annually. Unlike typical democratic elections, unions would need to win a majority of all eligible voters, not just a majority of votes. It effectively outlawed collective bargaining for worker benefits and workplace safety — even the wages workers could negotiate were capped by inflation. It also barred unions from deducting dues from union paychecks. 

These new rules in Wisconsin meant the end for many already weakened public-sector unions. 

In truth, the “hard” problems Wisconsin Republicans took on were not so much economic as political. The state was never “broke.” Its debt had a high credit rating. It faced a less daunting budget deficit than many other states. 

State unemployment was lower than the national rate, and the previous administration, led by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, wrestled with a deficit almost $2 billion larger. So it’s hard to believe Act 10 was simply “an attempt to address a budget shortfall” when we know business first politics are not new to the state

Since 1980, the share of state revenue provided by corporate taxes has fallen by more than 30%, and two-thirds of corporations pay no state taxes — increasing dramatically in 2011. Meanwhile, many aspects of social spending were slashed. With a rollback of the Earned Income Tax Credit, taxes on the working poor rose. This was not just an attempt to fix a budget shortfall, but also an attempt to destroy their opponent’s base in the unions and drive a stake through the heart of social-democratic Wisconsin. 

By that metric, Act 10 has been remarkably effective; in the past year alone, Wisconsin’s public sector unions lost 13% of their members from the year before. Additionally, the diminishment of public sector workers had helped pave the way for Walker to sign in a right-to-work law in 2015, breaking his earlier pledge not to do so. 

These right-to-work laws, along with Act 10, eroded union finances and bargaining power, ultimately contributing to a 10% decline in the state’s union membership since 2011. Now, barely 8% of Wisconsin workers are unionized — the lowest number on record. 

However, Act 10’s impact over the past decade stretches far beyond a decline in union membership. The law also damaged the state’s infrastructure and services, including the K-12 public education system. 

An analysis from the Center for American Progress found that in the year following the passing of Act 10, median compensation for Wisconsin teachers decreased by 8.2%; the percentage of teachers who left the profession spiked to 10.5%, up 6.4% from the year before; the percentage of teachers with fewer than five years of experience jumped from 19.6% in the 2010-11 school year to 24.1% in the 2015-16 school year. 

Additionally, the loss of collective bargaining rights has made teachers’ wages and benefits more uneven across the state. Wealthier districts can now entice sought-after teachers, while poorer districts, many rural, face constant teacher shortages and high turnover rates

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Private sector unions have been targeted as well. The right-to-work movement — founded by avowed white supremacist Vance Muse in the 1940s before being taken over by conservative industrialists such as Fred Koch — appeared to have petered out by 2010. But over the next decade, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan — the birthplace of the United Auto Workers union — joined Wisconsin in becoming right-to-work states. 

Today, there are roughly 27 of these states. 

The consequences of these laws have been devastating for millions of working-class people across the country. In states such as Wisconsin, union membership has plummeted, wages and benefits have stagnated and workers’ rights have been weakened or eliminated.

Ultimately, this has had a ripple effect through the entire state economy, with workers bearing the brunt and business owners reaping the rewards of austerity measures, shifting the economic and political balance of power away from regular citizens and toward corporate interests. 

It’s time for government officials to take a comprehensive approach towards protecting labor laws in this country, incorporating lessons learned from Wisconsin and other states where similar labor policies were implemented. Doing so would help ensure American workers can access the resources they need to weather hardships, such as economic downturns, without having to sacrifice essential protections and benefits. 

For individuals who benefit from the protection and benefits of a strong union, it is essential to remember the lessons of Act 10 and to continue to advocate for labor rights and worker protections. 

It is far past the time for America to realize that unions are not detrimental to capitalism but instead crucial components of a functioning society. A thriving workforce is a critical part of a thriving economy, and the rebuilding of the American labor movement should be a top priority for all Americans. 

Owen Puckett is a sophomore studying Political Science. Do you agree that unions aren’t detrimental to capitalism? Send all comments to

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