After years of decline, Wisconsin’s union membership appears to have grown slightly in 2017, according to new labor estimates.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that the estimated number of workers belonging to a union grew by roughly 11,000 people. That translates to about 8.3 percent of the workforce.
Wisconsin was one of 26 states to see a growth in union membership, while the national rate remained unchanged at 10.7 percent.
“We’re hanging in there,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
Iowa saw the biggest one-year loss in union membership, from 8.9 to 7 percent, while Minnesota and Illinois saw gains of 1 and 0.5 points respectively.
At the national level, 34.4 percent of public sector workers are unionized, compared to just 6.5 percent of private sector workers. Union membership rates are highest among service occupations, men and black workers.
On average, non-union workers earned about 80 cents on the dollar compared to their unionized counterparts.
Wisconsin, once a union stronghold, has experienced the country’s biggest drop in union membership since 2000.
At the turn of the century, Wisconsin had about 456,000 union members, and nearly one in five workers was represented by a union, according to BLS data. Membership fell to just 219,000 before rebounding in 2017.
Public unions in Wisconsin suffered a hit in 2011 with the passage of Act 10, which eliminated most collective bargaining rights, but the biggest single drop in union membership came in 2015 with the passage of “right to work” legislation, which allows workers in union shops to opt out of paying dues.
About 9 percent of Wisconsin workers were represented by a union last year, the same as in 2016.
Neuenfeld said membership growth is strong among millenials and that unions are more relevant than ever with growing income disparities.
“The only way that people are going to be able to advocate for themselves with the government taking away regulations and rules is through collective bargaining,” he said.
Bill Brockmiller, outgoing president of the Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO labor council, said unions have to figure out how to market themselves in right-to-work states where the number one concerns of workers are more likely to be job security and equal treatment than wages, although he notes wages are higher in states without right-to-work laws.
But Brockmiller thinks union membership numbers have bottomed out.
“It will go up,” he said. “How much is anybody’s guess.”