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Despite declines in union membership, political fire burns bright, leaders say

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Jim Leute
Sunday, September 2, 2012

— While union membership has declined significantly since the 2008 presidential election, Democratic Party and union officials say labor's political support and activity is as strong as ever.

"I think it might even be more active now," said Mike Marcks, president of United Auto Workers Local 95, an amalgamated union built on its representation of hourly workers at the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.

There's no better example of the decline in union membership in the Janesville area than Local 95, which in 2008 reported more than 4,400 active members.

The plant's end of SUV production in late 2008 and its ultimate closure in 2009 gutted Local 95's membership, primarily as displaced workers left the industry or transferred to other GM plants.

In March of this year, Local 95 reported 580 active members, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Local 95 still represents workers at Blackhawk Community Credit Union, Parker Community Credit Union, Mercy East and Abitec, all in Janesville. It also represents workers at Weiler & Co. in Whitewater.

A survey of federal databases shows that between 2008 and 2012, the eight largest unions with Janesville addresses experienced a membership decline of 61 percent. The majority of that is attributable to membership losses within Local 95.

Marcks said that what the federal reports don't show are retiree members.

"We have more than 5,000 retirees who are members," he said of Local 95. "Those retirees remember the hard battles fought and won, and they're seeing the same things coming up again.

"We have all kinds of volunteers coming in and painting signs."

That wasn't the case as recently as two years ago, as illustrated in "As Goes Janesville," a documentary film that chronicles the struggles after the GM plant closed. The film will be shown in Janesville in October.

Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein shot one particularly empty scene on Election Day 2010 at Local 95's headquarters in Janesville.

"Before the GM plant closing, we'd be packed with people coming and going and getting their assignments," John Dohner Sr., the local's president at the time, says in the scene. "Now, we're down to a few volunteers."

Marcks said much has changed since that day in 2010 when Scott Walker was elected governor.

"There was a lull in activity," he said. "But people are much more active now. It started with the collective bargaining issues, then the waiting week for unemployment benefits and then health care.

"The Walker recall didn't go the way we wanted it to, but it certainly reactivated a lot of people, and they are still fired up and are out there today."

David Vaughn, chairman of the Rock County Democratic Party and a first vice president at Local 95, said the activism is fueled by a Republican assault on the middle class and the poor.

"We have more boots on the ground now than we've ever seen," Vaughn said.

Volunteers are knocking on doors, helping people register and are ready to help get Democratic supporters to the polls in November, he said.

"People are tired of the Republican takeaways. It's got to stop."

Vaughn, Marcks and Dave Parr, president of the Janesville Education Association, said the activism launched in opposition to Walker, the Republican Legislature and its actions and is growing stronger in advance of the presidential election.

In general, unions typically support Democrats. In February 2010, dozens of Janesville teachers called in sick to join the protests at the state Capitol in Madison.

"I believe the core group of political activists is actually growing," Parr said, adding that he believes the energy level has escalated since 2010.

Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor, said longer-term declines in union membership would translate to less activism and less support for the Democratic Party.

"Union members are some of the most active people when it comes to election campaigns, and they provide a substantial amount of labor for Democratic candidates," Burden said in an e-mail.

In the short-term, he said, the Wisconsin labor movement is quite active.

Labor mobilized in reaction to Walker's moves on collective bargaining, and union members were instrumental in last year's protests in Madison and the subsequent recall election, he said.

"I would expect them to remain involved for now, even among those who were in unions that recently disbanded or decided not to seek recertification from the state," Burden said.

Last updated: 4:43 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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