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2011 protests against Scott Walker, Estelle Sweet

Estelle Sweet supports her sister, who is a member of AFSCME, as thousands of people gather in the state Capitol for the sixth day of protests against a bill by Gov. Scott Walker on Feb. 20, 2011. 

The latest tax documents available show yet again that Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to curb the power of the state’s public sector unions have been very successful.

While Walker and supporters of Act 10, which all but ended collective bargaining for most public workers, framed the bill as a way to help local governments reduce the costs of employee benefits, the legislation also included measures aimed at weakening unions financially by ending automatic dues deductions.

The bill appears to have hit the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) particularly hard.

Among Wisconsin unions, AFSCME is second only to the Wisconsin Education Association Council in members, and it has long been a powerful player in state politics, funneling money directly to campaigns and running independent TV ads in support of pro-labor candidates, as well as providing a legion of employees and member volunteers who made sure that their union brethren got to the polls on Election Day.

In 2011, the year Act 10 was approved, the four councils that make up the state organization reported a combined income of $14.9 million. In 2012, the first full year that the law was in place, the revenue had dropped roughly 45 percent, to $8.3 million.

While AFSCME’s income occasionally fluctuates to reflect infusions of cash it receives from other labor groups that support its political agenda, most of its money comes directly from member dues.

If we look specifically at dues revenue, the picture is also ugly. In total, dues revenue for the groups dropped 40 percent, from $12 million to $7.1 million.

Dues revenue for AFSCME Council 24, which largely represents employees of state government, peaked at nearly $5 million in 2010 and then dropped to $3.5 million in 2011 and again to $1.7 million in 2012. The particularly steep decline is at least partially due to the fact that, whereas some municipal governments rushed through new labor contracts with unions before Act 10 took effect, the GOP-controlled state government did not ratify any new contracts.

Dues for AFSCME Council 40, a union that represents thousands of county and municipal employees around the state, have plummeted from nearly $7.2 million in 2010 to $4.6 million in 2012. For AFSCME Council 48, which represents government workers in Milwaukee County, dues income declined from $1.9 million in 2011 to $920,000 in 2012.

AFSCME Council 11, which is an umbrella organization that serves the other three councils, operates differently, since it is funded by grants from the unions it serves, rather than by dues from union members.

Council 40 executive director Rick Badger says that while the declines in revenue stemming from Act 10 are to be expected, he has been encouraged by the number of workers who have continued to pay voluntary dues.

“In fact, what (Act 10’s) architects might find surprising is our resilience,” he wrote in an email. “(T)housands of front-line workers are remaining engaged in fighting for their rights despite heavy-handed political attempts to silence them.”

Furthermore, he argued, while public unions no longer enjoy the official bargaining power that they exercised in recent decades, many public workers continue to value their presence as advocates for their rights and welfare.

AFSCME, which was founded in Wisconsin during the Great Depression, existed long before Gov. Gaylord Nelson signed a law in 1958 which established the legal process under which  state and local government were required for more than 50 years to to negotiate with employee unions over wages, benefits and working conditions.

“(W)e are back to engaging in collective action in and around the workplace and political action aimed at improving the lives of working families,” Badger said. “This is how we operated for many decades, slowly and relentlessly building strength, carefully choosing our battles and winning incremental changes.”

And some have suggested that while unions have lost money, they won't need as much since they will no longer be engaging in the often-costly collective bargaining process that much of their funds used to be dedicated to. Instead, they will now be free to dedicate most of their money to political and policy advocacy. 

As reported previously, Act 10 has hit other big unions in the state hard, although not to the same extent as AFSCME. For instance, WEAC, the state’s largest teachers union, saw its revenue drop from $26 million in 2011 to $20 million in 2012.

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Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.