There was a surprise in the Bureau of Labor Statistics report Friday on union membership: Trade unions appear to have gained ground in Wisconsin last year.
Wisconsin’s union membership rate -- the percentage of wage and salary workers who belong to unions -- rose from 11.25 percent to 12.34 percent, the seventh biggest gain in the nation. This after 2012, when Wisconsin had the third largest decrease in the nation.
The change came as a surprise to union leaders and academics alike.
“That was the first thing that jumped out at me when I opened the spreadsheet,” said Barry Eidlin, a University of Wisconsin sociologist who studies labor unions. “It was definitely not what I was expecting at all.”
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, was at a loss to explain the increase.
Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Bill Brockmiller suggested some unions have shifted some resources back into organizing after focusing on lobbying activity during the Legislature’s 2011 move to rein in public sector unions and the subsequent recall elections.
Brockmiller noted that some locals within the district have made small gains.
Not only does Wisconsin’s increase go against recent state trends, it counters a decades-long national trend. In 1983, more than one in five U.S. workers belonged to a union. Last year it was 11.3 percent, unchanged from the previous year.
“To the extent you would have been expecting anything, it would have been down,” Eidlin said. “We’ll have to see whether this is part of a trend. That is still up in the air.”
The numbers, drawn from a monthly survey of about 60,000 households, show that overall about 7.3 million public sector employees and 7.2 million in the private sector belonged to unions in 2013.
That translates to a rate of about 35 percent for public sector workers, but just 6.7 percent for those in the private sector.
Overall, protective service and education are the occupations with the highest union membership rates, while sales, farming, fishing and forestry are the lowest. Among private sector industries, transportation and utilities are the most unionized.
The report shows Wisconsin had an increase of about 24,000 union members in 2013, while the overall number of wage and salaried workers dipped by about 36,000.
James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the biggest statistically significant change was in the financial sector, with some marginal increase in wholesale and retail trade unionization.
Even one union opponent was unable to explain the change.
“Right now it’s just interesting,” said David Denholm, president of the Public Service Research Foundation, an independent research organization focused on union influence on public policy. “There’s no pat explanation for it, but it’s worth looking at.”