AFSCME (copy)

Estelle Sweet supports her sister, who is a member of AFSCME, as thousands of people gather in the state Capitol on Feb. 20, 2011, to protest Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to effectively end collective bargaining for most public sector union workers. Since the measure passed, union membership in Wisconsin has plummeted to 8.3 percent, according to new data released Thursday. 

AMBER ARNOLD -- STATE JOURNAL

Union membership in Wisconsin plummeted in 2015, falling far below the national average for the first time since Gov. Scott Walker and a Republican-controlled Legislature passed measures that all but eliminated collective bargaining for public workers.

In 2015, the percentage of public and private workers in unions was 8.3 percent, or 223,000 union members — down from 11.7 percent the year before, or 306,000 union members, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The drop in union membership came as Republican lawmakers were adopting so-called right-to-work legislation, which prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract that requires workers to pay dues.

According to Thursday’s report, 11.1 percent of wage and salary workers nationwide — about 14.8 million workers — were members of unions in 2015. The numbers were little changed from 2014.

By comparison, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, or 17.7 million workers, in 1983 — the first year for which comparable data were available, according to the bureau.

Union membership in the state first fell below the national average in 2012, when the rate was 11.2 percent in Wisconsin and 11.3 percent nationwide, according to the bureau.

Since 2000, the number of union members in Wisconsin has dropped 51.1 percent — from 456,000 to 223,000 in 2015. In 2000, 17.8 percent of workers belonged to a union, compared to the national average that year of 13.4 percent.

Georgia State University labor economist Barry Hirsch said the changes in recent years have caused many workers to opt out of unions. Others may be less likely to report union membership to the U.S. Census, he said.

Since Walker and Republican lawmakers successfully passed measures in 2011 that rolled back the power of most public sector unions, the number of members has dropped sharply. In 2015, the state’s three AFSCME councils merged, prompting two out of three dues-paying members to drop out.

The three Wisconsin AFSCME councils claimed nearly 63,000 members in 2010, before the law known as Act 10 took effect. That number was likely fewer than 20,000 last year.

Publicly available tax records for the state workers union show that Council 24 revenue dropped from over $5 million in 2010 to $1.5 million in 2013. Like the other councils, it reduced staff to cut costs, but from 2011 through 2013 it spent $1.8 million more than it took in.

For the state’s largest teachers union, the drop was just as steep.

Four years after public school teachers lost their guaranteed spot at the bargaining table, the Wisconsin Education Association Council lost more than half its membership, and its spending at the Capitol has all but disappeared.

As of February 2015, a WEAC official told the State Journal the union represented about 40,000 public school employees — down more than 50 percent from the union’s 98,000-member levels before Walker signed his signature legislation in 2011.

At the same time, WEAC’s lobbying dollars have dropped dramatically. A decade ago, WEAC spent $1.5 million on lobbying during the 2005-06 legislative session, state records show. The next session, that figure was $1.1 million. During the two sessions leading up to the passage of Act 10, WEAC spent $2.5 million and $2.3 million, respectively.

But during the 2013-14 session, after Walker signed the bill into law, the union spent just $175,540. It was the first time in at least 10 years that the union was not among the state’s top 12 lobbying spenders, according to the Government Accountability Board.

Act 10 took effect immediately for state workers, whose contracts had expired. Many of the local unions represented by Councils 40 and 48 continued to operate and receive dues under longer-term contracts until recently.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.