Survey shows decline in local union membership
JANESVILLE—A national survey suggests Rock County ranks No. 2 nationally in percentage of union workers lost in the past 10 years, but local union leaders aren't so sure.
“I would be amazed if that was accurate. It seems impossible. If we really had a drop that low in such a small geographic area, it would not come without some sort of a big concern by the local groups (we represent) … we'd be aware that something that significant were going on,” said Shawn Reents, a local representative with the AFL-CIO.
It's no secret that private-sector union membership in the Janesville area plummeted after General Motors ended most production at its Janesville assembly plant in late 2008 and closed it in 2009.
Since then, a drop-off in membership in public- and private-sector unions has continued nearly unabated in Rock County. The Janesville metro area has lost a greater proportion of union members over the last 10 years than all but one other U.S. metro, according to a reading of the data by financial news service 24/7 Wall Street.
The publication relied on the Union Membership and Coverage Database, an annual snapshot of federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That survey shows that in 2016 union members made up 6.1 percent of workers in the Janesville-Beloit area.
That's a drop from 24 percent union membership in 2006, according to the survey, and ranks as the second-biggest loss of union membership for any metro area in the nation, 24/7 Wall Street reported.
Other Wisconsin metro areas -- Oshkosh-Neenah, Wausau and Madison -- made a list of 15 metropolitan statistical areas across the U.S. with the biggest losses in union membership.
The 24/7 Wall Street analysis lists Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 law, which curtailed teachers unions' and other public employee unions' ability to bargain collectively, and the state's Act 1, or “right-to-work” law that went in effect in 2015, as possible reasons why union membership in Janesville and other Wisconsin metros have continued to plummet, according to the labor survey it cited.
Last week, journalist and author Amy Goldstein reported in the weekly news magazine The Nation that a survey she and the University of Wisconsin conducted in 2013 estimated as many as 38 percent of Rock County residents had once belonged to unions but were no longer members.
Goldstein is the author of “Janesville: An American Story,” a book published earlier this year that examines the massive shifts in Janesville's economy and labor force in the wake of the Great Recession and the closure of the General Motors assembly plant amid the backdrop of Gov. Walker's landmark changes to union laws.
Statewide, union membership has fallen from about 15 percent of workers to 8 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics counts. Public employee unions were hit hard by well-publicized losses in both memberships and dues in the last few years.
The union membership survey casts Wisconsin as one of the hardest-hit states for union membership losses, but the survey finds that Janesville could be faring even worse.
A Gazette analysis of the union survey shows public sector union membership appears to have continued dropping in the Janesville metro area in the years since Act 10's introduction in 2011.
The survey also shows private-sector union membership was cut almost in half between 2015 and 2016 when Wisconsin's Act 1, the law that bars unions from requiring employees to join unions, went in effect.
The survey showed Janesville now has about 2,000 private-sector union members. That's about half the number of private-sector union members the survey estimated for 2015.
Some local private-sector union officials told The Gazette they question the accuracy of the labor survey, in part because they weren't familiar with the survey and because the survey appears to draw data from small samples.
Reents reviewed the survey and said he believes the survey's 2016 numbers are likely skewed, although he said he's not familiar enough with the survey or its methods to say exactly how.
Reents's group is a countywide consortium that represents private-sector unions under the umbrella of AFL-CIO, an international union group that in Rock County represents a segment of private-sector unions, including building and construction trades.
He suggested if private-sector union membership had dipped that low, he'd have heard a hew and cry from union groups, especially at a time when some sectors of the economy, including construction, are seeing a massive increase in demand for labor.
No one in his labor circle has mentioned any such trend, he said.
Reents estimated membership for private-sector unions in Rock County is at least 7,500 and perhaps as high as 8,000—numbers much bigger than the 1,970 indicated by the survey.
That would be half the number from a decade ago, when private-sector union membership in Janesville was in the 15,000 to 20,000 range, but it presents a brighter picture than painted by the union membership survey.
If union membership is on the decline, private-sector construction unions could be a bright spot.
Leo Sokolik, who is business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 890, said he has 475 members in the local union. That's about 130 more employees than he had on the books 13 years ago, when he first became the unions' business manager, he said.
Because of a jump in demand in local commercial construction, Sokolik said, he needs about 40 more journeyman electricians. If demand continues, Sokolik said he might be 100 or more workers short in the coming year.
That's a trend playing out statewide and in parts of northern Illinois, he said, in part because of a wave of baby boomer journeymen retiring. Sokolik believes the trend could be exacerbated locally by major projects, such as Alliant's massive power plant being built in the town of Beloit.
Sokolik said the IBEW and other construction unions in the last few years have begun to pump resources into apprenticeship programs, organizing, and outreach to find experienced journeymen.
Sokolik and Reents acknowledged the falloff in private union membership in the early 2010s after GM closed, and both said Walkers' Act 10 had a whiplash effect on public employee union membership. Neither had any current local statistics on a public employee union falloff in Rock County.
The Gazette was unable to reach for comment officials with the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents a large block of Rock County employees.
Wisconsin Education Association Council Region 6 Director Michael Walsh declined to give a headcount or estimate for membership in the Janesville Education Association, the Janesville School District's main teachers union. Walsh said membership is considered an “internal number” that the local teachers union and WEAC do not release.
Walsh said that in November 2016, during a recertification vote, almost all members of the teachers union voted that they wanted representation under Janesville Education Association. He wouldn't elaborate on how many members were present for that vote, but he said at least in Janesville schools, “there is very high support for the union.”