Posted By Woody Pendleton
FREE ZONE MEDIA CENTER WFZR
Subject: Wisconsin Unions See Ranks Drop Ahead of Recall vote.
Public-employee unions in Wisconsin have experienced a dramatic drop in membership—by more than half for the second-biggest union—since a law championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker sharply curtailed their ability to bargain over wages and working conditions.
Now with Mr. Walker facing a recall vote Tuesday, voters will decide whether his policies in the centrist state should continue—or whether they have gone too far.
The election could mark a pivot point for organized labor.
Mr. Walker's ouster would derail the political career of a rising Republican star and send a warning to other elected officials who are battling unions. But a victory for the governor, who has been leading his Democratic opponent in recent polls, would amount to an endorsement of an effort to curtail public-sector unions, which have been a pillar of strength for organized labor while private-sector membership has dwindled.
That could mean the sharp losses that some Wisconsin public-worker unions have experienced is a harbinger of similar unions' future nationwide, union leaders fear. Failure to oust Mr. Walker and overturn the Wisconsin law "spells doom," said Bryan Kennedy, the American Federation of Teachers' Wisconsin president.
Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—the state's second-largest public-sector union after the National Education Association, which represents teachers—fell to 28,745 in February from 62,818 in March 2011, according to a person who has viewed Afscme's figures. A spokesman for Afscme declined to comment.
Much of that decline came from Afscme Council 24, which represents Wisconsin state workers, whose membership plunged by two-thirds to 7,100 from 22,300 last year.
A provision of the Walker law that eliminated automatic dues collection hurt union membership. When a public-sector contract expires the state now stops collecting dues from the affected workers' paychecks unless they say they want the dues taken out, said Peter Davis, general counsel of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.
In many cases, Afscme dropped members from its rolls after it failed to get them to affirm they want dues collected, said a labor official familiar with Afscme's figures. In a smaller number of cases, membership losses were due to worker layoffs.
Tina Pocernich, a researcher at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, was a dues-paying union member for 15 years. But after the Walker law went into effect she told the American Federation of Teachers she wanted out.
"It was a hard decision for me to make," said Ms. Pocernich, a 44-year-old mother of five, who left the union in March. "But there's nothing the union can do anymore."
But economic factors also played a role. Mr. Walker required public-sector employees to shoulder a greater share of pension and health-care costs, which ate up an added $300 of Ms. Pocernich's monthly salary of less than $3,100. She and her husband, a floor supervisor at a machine shop, cut back on their satellite-TV package and stopped going to weekly dinners at Applebee's.
Meanwhile, she said, she paid the AFT $18.50 out of her biweekly paycheck and was now getting nothing in return. Her college eliminated one small-but-treasured perk, the ability to punch out an hour early during summer months—and the union was powerless to stop it.
In the nearly 15 months since Mr. Walker signed the law, 6,000 of the AFT's Wisconsin 17,000 members quit, the union said. It blamed the drop on the law.
A Walker victory would have other reverberations. It could put Wisconsin—which President Barack Obama won by nearly 14 percentage points in 2008—into play in this November's presidential contest, requiring his campaign to devote valuable resources to defending it. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has strongly backed Mr. Walker's efforts.
Mr. Walker, 44, has likened his policies to Ronald Reagan's breaking of the air-traffic-controllers union in 1981. He says unions make it difficult to balance budgets while maintaining government services without raising taxes. Backers have poured more than $30 million into his campaign since last year, compared with $3.9 million raised by his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who entered the race in late March.
A victory by Mr. Walker "will be a dramatic signal to local and state politicians they can, in the name of fiscal responsibility, tell unions…to come into parity with private-sector workers, especially on benefits," said Michael Lotito, a San Francisco attorney who represents management in labor disputes and has testified on labor issues before Congress.
The Walker law sharply curbed collective bargaining for nearly all the state's public-employee unions except those for police and firefighters. Unions no longer can represent members in negotiations for better working conditions or for pay raises beyond the increase in inflation.
Unions have spent millions of dollars on TV ads campaigning against Mr. Walker. "Unions are putting a lot on the line and if they win, they win big, but if they lose, they lose even bigger," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. A loss "will be interpreted as a sign of weakness and a lack of public sympathy."
Organized labor's strength has been declining for 60 years, as unions failed to keep pace with globalization, an increasingly service-oriented economy and more aggressive opposition from employers. Today, just one in eight American workers is a union member compared with more than one in three in the mid-1950s.
But that decline has come almost entirely in the private sector, where only 7% of workers today are union members. Public-sector union membership rates have held steady at around 37% since 1979, and the number of members has increased, thanks to growth in government employment. In 2009, for the first time, there were more union members in government than in companies.
The Labor Department estimates Wisconsin had 187,000 public-worker union members last year, but it hasn't updated the data for this year. The Wisconsin affiliate of the National Education Association declined to comment on any membership change.
Public-employee unions are under pressure elsewhere, too, as state and local officials cut spending in the wake of the recession, although the unions have won some fights. Ohio voters last year overturned a Republican law that went even further than Wisconsin's in limiting bargaining rights for public-sector unions by including police and firefighters.
But Republican governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey have seen their popularity rise after taking on unions, and even some Democratic mayors in big cities—such as Chicago's Rahm Emanuel—have been pressing unions to accept concessions to help balance budgets.
Membership declines could be self-perpetuating, said Mr. Chaison of Clark University. With diminished dues, unions deliver fewer services, making membership less appealing and hampering recruiting.
The fight in Wisconsin has spawned bitter rancor across a state whose divergent progressive and conservative political traditions were long balanced by a culture of political compromise.
After Mr. Walker proposed the law, hundreds of thousands of union members and other labor supporters shut down the state capital for weeks, and Democratic lawmakers fled to Illinois to try to prevent the quorum the bill needed to pass. Union organizers helped gather more than 900,000 signatures to force the recall election.
But the unions also have made mistakes. They spent $4 million backing Kathleen Falk, a labor-friendly former official in Madison, who was crushed in the May 8 Democratic primary by Mr. Barrett.
Meanwhile, collective-bargaining rights for public employees has receded as an issue, with far more people saying in recent polls that job creation is their top priority.
A version of this article appeared May 31, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Wisconsin Unions See Ranks Drop Ahead of Recall Vote.