Does Wisconsin Illustrate Fading Role of Unions?

Wisconsin public sector unions don’t like the rules that emerged from a legislative battle earlier this year. As a result, many failed to file for recertification. A professor and former legislator terms it: "Welcome to the future Wisconsin." Stateline reports:

Major unions in Wisconsin have opted to allow their official collective bargaining status to lapse rather than file for “recertification” under controversial new rules enacted earlier this year.

The decision raises serious questions about the relevance of state workers’ unions in Wisconsin politics and governance. Wisconsin has long been a union stronghold — and was in fact the first state to require collective bargaining for state workers. That changed when Republican Governor Scott Walker and the state legislature re-wrote bargaining rules, triggering protests that captured national attention for weeks.

The new law allows unions to retain official collective bargaining status if they undergo an annual vote of represented workers to determine that they still want the union to represent them in formal talks with the state. That’s a high hurdle. For one thing, holding an annual election is an expensive proposition for a union. And in order to prevail, unions must receive votes from a majority of represented workers, not just a majority of the votes cast.

The deadline to recertify passed last week. While some small unions filed paperwork, unions representing the majority of state workers allowed the deadline to pass without filing with the state as required by the new law.

“I think the passing of the deadline was a major moment and now we can say, ‘Welcome to the future Wisconsin,’” Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and former state legislator, told Reuters.

The decision not to subject themselves to the recertification process indicates that unions are betting that, under the new rules of the game, the costs of collective bargaining may outweigh the benefits. Those unions that do successfully pass the recertification test will only be able to negotiate over salary increases to keep pace with inflation — they can’t negotiate over not workplace conditions, benefits or more significant salary bumps, as they could before. At the same time, the resources available to state unions have diminished because unions are no longer allowed to take automatic deductions from represented workers’ paychecks. All contributions are voluntary.

The Associated Press reports that while union leaders have refused to say how many members are voluntarily continuing to pay dues, layoffs of union staff have already begun. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the statewide teachers union, has laid off 42 people — 40 percent of its staff.