Wisconsin fight: End of labor unions or a new beginning?

March 8, 2011
in Employment Law

The stand-off between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and state Senate Democrats over legislation that would strip state employees of their collective bargaining rights has politicians, pundits and the public debating the role and relevance of labor unions.

Will the Wisconsin showdown—and similar legislative proposals in Ohio and Indiana—put a nail in organized labor’s coffin? Or will it reenergize efforts to unionize more workers?

HR pros in many industries are closely watching Wisconsin for clues.

Employment law attorneys say HR needs to be ready to respond to the threat of a resurgent organized labor movement. They note that the National Labor Relations Board has taken a decidedly pro-union tack since President Obama took office.


“The New NLRB & Unions – Working Together to Change Your Workplace” will be one of more than 20 sessions at HR Specialist’s upcoming Labor and Employment Law Advanced Practices Symposium, March 31 – April 1 in Las Vegas.


Plenty of organized labor leaders seem to think the Wisconsin uproar is the best thing to happen to unions in years. It’s been a long time since they had good news.

The overall percentage of U.S. workers who are members of a union dipped to 11.9% last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s down from 12.3% in 2009 and the lowest level since 1935, the year the National Labor Relations Act was signed into law.

Union membership rates run much higher for public-sector workers (36.2%) than in the private sector (6.9%).

Labor leaders say they’re emboldened by the Wisconsin fight.

“We’ve never seen the incredible solidarity that we’re seeing right now,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at the union’s annual meeting last week. “People are giving us another look now. It’ll be up to us to keep it going and continue defining ourselves in ways the American public will support.”

According to another AFL-CIO official, Deputy Chief of Staff Thea Lee, “We’ve been looking for a spark and the spark found us. [Wisconsin] isn’t a fight we looked for, but it is one we can turn to our advantage.”

Other observers agree that unions seem to have gotten a bump from the Wisconsin controversy.

Scott Teeter, director of survey research at the nonprofit Pew Research Center, told The Washington Post, “The battles have energized union household and liberal Democrats. Among both groups, very favorable attitudes about unions jumped sharply in the past few weeks.”

Pew polling has found that the public supports state employee union members over Gov. Walker by a margin of 42% to 31%.

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