Scott Walker ‘Gutting’ Organized Labor?

Wisconsin has become the 25th "right to work" state.

Scott Walker

The CSM report “Wisconsin Governor Walker signs bill gutting organized labor” caught my eye this morning, which indicates that the headline writer did their job. The headline is nonetheless vastly overblown. The lede:

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican presidential hopeful, signed a bill into law on Monday that stops private sector workers from being required to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment.

The law takes effect immediately, making Wisconsin the 25th state to approve a so-called right-to-work law and marking the latest victory for Republicans targeting labor unions, following adoption of similar laws in Michigan and Indiana in 2012.

So . . . Wisconsin is a “right to work” state now. Like half the states in the Union. Does that really constitute “gutting” organized labor?

Supporters said the law would attract businesses and jobs, while opponents said it was a thinly disguised assault on organized labor that will drive down wages and leave workers vulnerable.

Thousands of workers demonstrated at the capitol in Madison as lawmakers debated the bill, but crowds were far thinner than four years ago, when tens of thousands of people protested the push for changes to public sector collective bargaining rights.

So . . . it’s at least mildly controversial. But here’s the kicker:

About 8 percent of private-sector workers in Wisconsin are union members, down from about 22 percent three decades ago, according to the website that tracks membership.

Emphasis mine. Organized labor, then, is a tiny fraction of Wisconsin’s work force. Even thirty years ago, when Walker was a mere high school student, it barely constituted a fifth of Wisconsin’s work force. In what sense, then, can a law that allows people to opt out of union membership “gut” union membership when so few people are union members to begin with?

UPDATE: Less than an hour after posting this, CSM has changed the headline to the post, including the URL at which it resides. Scrolling over my link above, you’ll see that the original headline was reflected in the URL at the time. So, they’ve not only changed the headline but gone through the trouble of redirecting to a new URL.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    Does this move by Walker gut Organized Labor? Probably not.
    Have Republicans gutted the Middle -Class? There is zero doubt that they have.
    This is just one more notch in the belt of Republicans 35 year old war against the Middle-Class.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    I’d bet he sold it to his corporate sponsors as gutting organized labor.

  3. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Meanwhile, closed shop Minnesota is booming / leaving Wisconsin in the dust economically.

    How can this be?

  4. JKB says:

    Because without a gun to their head, employees will skip the forced payoffs to union bosses and the percentage will drop precipitously from the current 8%.

    Pro-choice for workers!

    Let us acknowledge before someone drags up issues from a century ago, that organized labor did bring about changes in working conditions for all workers. Their mistake was having those changes enacted into law. So in a sense, the department of labor is who gutted organized labor.

  5. Tony W says:

    @JKB: Well it’s a good thing everything is all tidied up then in a neat little bow. Problem solved – just like racism. Right?

  6. JohnMcC says:

    Clicked on the link to the source “CSM” and found a headline that says: Wisconsin Governor Walker Signs Bill That Incenses Organized Labor + Video.

    Maybe the editors read OTB? Or the Original Post was based on the dead-tree version of the Christian Science Monitor?

    I have to admit that someone reading the Monitor in an actual ‘paper’ form is wonderfully quaint.

  7. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Minnesota has a 14.2% union membership rate, and yet it is leaving Wisconsin in the dust economically. Lower unemployment. Higher GDP and higher rate of GDP expansion.

    Minnesota also has higher taxes than Wisconsin (along with a budget surplus instead of a deficit).

    How can this be?? 😀

  8. JKB says:

    This is interesting:

    Union membership 2014 (in thousands)

    Wisconsin 2626
    Minnesota 2538
    Tennessee 2514 (right to work state)

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Wisconsin has about 300,000 members of unions. Of those nearly half are public employees and their number has dropped by 20% since 2008.

    It doesn’t seem to me that Gov. Walker is at war with unions. He’s at war with public employee unions.

  10. Dave Schuler says:


    That’s not union membership. That’s total employed.

  11. James Joyner says:


    Maybe the editors read OTB? Or the Original Post was based on the dead-tree version of the Christian Science Monitor?

    The former. If you put your mouse on my “CSM” link, you’ll see the original headline in the URL. They’ve renamed the piece, including changing the URL, and redirected it since I posted this an hour ago!

  12. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Aside from validating my 14.2% statistic (thanks), you misread the table.

    Oops …

  13. KM says:


    Their mistake was having those changes enacted into law. So in a sense, the department of labor is who gutted organized labor.

    As much as I hate to admit this, there is an element of truth to this. Once victory is achieved, the vanguard must now turn to new purpose. Unions have never fully shifted over to the role of watchdog and protector but still view themselves as front-line defenders in a economic war. Their job will never be what it was due to the simple fact that they won what they set out to achieve and never really established new goals. It would be like if the military successfully fought off an invasion on US soil and then just kinda lingered around in power past all need, “just in case”. Unions are definitely needed in current economic times but they are not nearly as important to the process as they think they are.

  14. JKB says:

    @Dave Schuler:


    My original intent was to see how WI and MN union membership compared and they are similar at

    WI 306
    MN 360

    TN is only 127

  15. C. Clavin says:

    Boney-noggin…shear numbers mean nothing.
    You have to look at percentages to begin to understand the apples to apples comparison.
    I know you Republicans don’t like education…I didn’t know it was because you hadn’t had one.

  16. HarvardLaw92 says:


    If they are similar in Wisconsin and Minnesota, then doesn’t that sort of neuter unions as a cause of economic woe?

    I mean given the fact that (according to you) they have a similar number of union workers, but their economic results are anything but similar?

    Which is it? Unions don’t matter (and therefore other Republican economic policies explain the disparity), or unions do matter (and the disparity indicates that Walker’s labor policy negatively affects Wisconsin’s economy)?

    Either way, doesn’t it sort of argue that Walker doesn’t really understand economics? 😀

  17. wr says:

    @Dave Schuler: “It doesn’t seem to me that Gov. Walker is at war with unions. He’s at war with public employee unions.”

    Except this new bill targets non-public employee unions.

    And as Walker famously explained to the prankster pretending to be a Koch, gutting public employee unions was the first step in wiping out all organized labor in the state.

  18. JKB says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Well, we have this:

    The BLS study reported that there are 7.3 million public sector employees who belong to unions in the United States. Meanwhile, there are only 7 million private sector workers who are union members, which translates to 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce.

    So there we have it. Historically, union membership was never much more than 20% of the workers in the private sector, now it is less than 7% nationwide. Seven million in a nation where in Feb, 2015 119.3 million were employed on a full-time basis. Only 14.6 million union members if we roll in the public sector workers. If we assume all the union members are working full-time, then that is only 12% of the employed population.

    If we look at private sector unionization, we see that the highest unionization is in utilities, which is quasi-public employment.

    In the private sector, industries with high unionization rates included utilities (22.3 percent), transportation and warehousing (19.6 percent), telecommunications (14.8 percent), and construction (13.9 percent).

    Interesting, how most of the hype on unionization is over the manufacturing which apparently has below 14% unionization? I guess pushing linemen, Teamsters and the phone guy just doesn’t sell in the union PR?

  19. wr says:

    @KM: “Unions are definitely needed in current economic times but they are not nearly as important to the process as they think they are.”

    Good point. I mean, it’s not like 40 years of pro-corporate governments passing laws attacking labor and giving more power to owners has had anything to do with labor’s decline. Nope, it’s clearly all the fault of the unions.

  20. Stan says:

    Workers have no effective bargaining power vis a vis their employers except when the labor market is unusually tight. As a result, the circumstances of their employment depend almost completely on the business model and philosophy of their employer. This works out well for Costco employees, not so well for nonsupervisory people working for McDonald’s or for adjunct faculty at universities.

    As a personal note, back when I was in high school it galled me to have to show up at my warehouse job at a cannery bright and early and then sit around waiting (without pay) until so many pallets were lined up in front of the warehouse that the foreman had no option but to allow us to check in. Or to have him check us out when rain in the fields slowed the process down so much that we weren’t working at top speed. Or seeing one of my high school teachers, a slight man, not in good health, working in the same warehouse to supplement his crummy teacher’s pay.
    In his case the kids working in the warehouse got him to rest part of the time and the foreman looked the other way. But I don’t think the owners would have approved.

    When it comes to patriotism, I bleed red, white, and blue. But I think something is seriously wrong with this country when so many well off people are so contemptuous of the rights of working people.

  21. Modulo Myself says:

    Let’s see: Republicans find it offensive for government to intrude with ideas such as a minimum wage and health care. If you don’t like your pay or your benefits, find another job, loser!

    And yet they have no problem intruding when it comes to unions.

    It’s almost like the sole beneficiary of Republican economic policies is either the investor or the employer. But wait–that’s crazy. That means that Republicans are either dumb enough to believe that we are a nation of investors and employers or that they are brainwashed enough to believe that by satisfying the interests of both we have satisfied the interests of all. Or that they are simply greedy liars who can’t handle the more complex greed of Democrats.

    Or maybe a combination of all three.

  22. JKB says:


    When were you in high school?

    What about the right of a person to be hired into a job without paying off some union thug? Do workers not have the Right to Work? The right of choice to associate or not with a union?

  23. steve says:

    “He’s at war with public employee unions.”

    Nope, he is at war with selected public employee unions. He leaves police and firefighters alone. The fact that they tend to vote for the GOP might have something to do with this.


  24. JKB says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    You mean Republicans are okay with stopping government from forcing individuals to pay off private labor cartels just to get a job and earn a living?

    You do know that employee can still organize, unions can still apply and receive exclusive representation recognition, that employees can still join, be active and pay dues to the union? All that has changed is that those who want to work do not first have to obtain a “by your leave” from the labor cartel or to have their pay docked and that money transferred to the labor cartel without any say by the worker.

  25. Modulo Myself says:


    No, they’re meddling with the market by outlawing closed-shops. If the employees who want to work don’t want to pay their dues, they should just leave.

  26. C. Clavin says:

    What the anti-unionists do not get is that without the unions it becomes a race to the bottom for employers. Then the very same people complain about the state of the economy…flat wages….weak employment…slow recovery’s from recessions….etc. They just aren’t smart enough to make the connection…probably because Fox News won’t ever tell them about the connection.
    Look – I get it. When I worked in a unionized industry in a right-to-work state I opted out and counted the dues I saved as a wage increase. But I was smart enough to know that absent that union the wages would not have been decent to begin with, and the work rules would have been non-existent. I benefited from safe rules, a safe work environment, and safe equipment. I always knew full well that I was taking unfair advantage of a system that was absolutely necessary.
    People like JKB don’t get that. They think that the workers rights battle is over just like they think racism is over. They could not be more wrong. But that’s nothing new.

  27. Guarneri says:


    Minnesota’s performance is overwhelmingly due to two subsidized industries: health care and education. Both hurtling towards economic unsustainability.

    Do analysis much?

  28. HarvardLaw92 says:


    With regard to labor policy, workers have the rights which are extended to them by labor law. Nobody is arguing that Walker acted illegally here.

    That said, you are deflecting. Why, if labor unions are such a bad thing, has Wisconsin’s economy lagged Minnesota’s, despite Walker’s well publicized and broad attack on organized labor in Wisconsin?

    For that matter, if higher taxes negatively influence business and hiring, why is Minnesota’s economy more productive than Wisconsin’s and growing much faster than Wisconsin’s?

  29. Guarneri says:

    The unions are gutting themselves, by overplaying their hand. I watched it first hand in the steel industry, and second hand in auto. It’s most prevalent in the public sector now. WI and IL are case studies. It’s a latent event of self immolation.

  30. Stan says:

    @JKB: I was in high school during the 50’s. That’s a long time ago, but the practice of screwing workers continues. The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. That seems to be the attitude of too many members of our governing class. And by the way, falling back on stock phrases like “union thugs” and “The Right to Work” isn’t very persuasive.

  31. JKB says:


    It is interesting how the unions as labor providers is ignored in the current arguments for unionization. I suppose it is partly because the aspect is never taught in schools. In the post-war period especially, but also before, the union as a source of training for workers solved the training needs of employees and employers. The training, such as say welding, is valuable to many employers thus permitting the employee to move without limitation. As we see today, this type of “generic” training is not something employers are eager to pay for since after their expense other employers can poach their trained workers. In their heyday, unions provided this training, via union training facilities, out of union member dues. Then the worker was ready to work for any of the employers, with some bleed off into the non-unionized sector.

    To an extent this still happens today with union member training. It became less common as union member unemployment created an excess of “trained” workers starting in the 1970s. Today, few in the education field discuss this avenue when lamenting the current decrease in employer provided training. Employers are okay with providing site-specific or employer-specific training but reluctant to pay for generic training that is easily transportable.

    Also, until the peak of the Baby Boomers hit in the late 60s, unions provided “HR” services to their unionized shops. Pre-negotiated pay and benefits, training certificaiton, etc. This was a boon for the large employers who had a lot of churn through production layoffs and such, i.e., the US auto manufacturers up until the mid-1970s when real competition forced them to improve the quality of their mediocre products.

  32. Barry says:

    @JKB: English, please?

  33. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Yea, we get that. You don’t like unions.

    But you are still dodging the question. Why is Wisconsin’s economy performing so poorly relative to Minnesota’s?

    It’s a simple question, and for people who ostensibly have all the answers, it shouldn’t be difficult to respond to.

    So respond to it … 😀

  34. gVOR08 says:


    …Walker doesn’t really understand economics

    He understands economics perfectly. The more he weakens unions, the bigger contributions he gets from the Koch Bros and his other corporate sponsors. That’s all the economics he wants to understand.

  35. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Nice try, but education and healthcare make up 15% of Wisconsin’s economy and 17.8% of Minnesota’s economy.

    The 12 month change in education / healthcare in Minnesota for 2014 was 1.8%.

    Do analysis much?

  36. HarvardLaw92 says:

    I stand corrected. This latest attack on labor is already benefiting Wisconsin’s economy

    Oh wait, it’s benefiting MINNESOTA’S economy … 😀

    Well played, Walker. Well played … LOL

  37. JKB says:


    Well, even someone with a Harvard Law degree should be able to comprehend that union memberships is not indicative but you have to look at the growing sectors of the economies.

    But let’s look a bit.

    For one, WI has a larger manufacturing sector where unionization is more likely. Whereas, MN has improved in professional and business services, which is less likel to be unionized.

    There are also demographic differences. But let’s not ignore the great big shale oil boom going on over in North Dakota. When that booming economy reaches out for things it needs, Minnesota is reached before Wisconsin. It probably helps that 62% of the MN labor force is located in the Minneapolis- St Paul metro area.

    Here, read this to improve your understanding of comparing economies.

    Essentially, Minnesota has an advantage over Wisconsin in key growth sectors — education, health services and professional and business services. (Those sectors have also driven U.S. job growth, as the Wall Street Journal reported recently.) Wisconsin has a bigger stake in manufacturing, which has been in steady decline for years as a jobs creator. The Great Recession accelerated those changes and Minnesota benefited.

  38. JKB says:


    I saw that. He’s going to expand his highway construction business into MN because he doesn’t like the law and if he gets some sweet MN state highway construction jobs. He’s now about 45% WI DOT jobs compared to 15% MN DOT jobs. It has been said, that one should diversify your contracts to avoid any one state’s cuts in funding wiping out your business.

    This was just PR to keep his union relations in good order. Did you notice in my earlier comment how transportation and construction are in the top 4 of private sector industries unionization?

  39. al-Ameda says:

    Scott Walker is selectively very anti-union. He is anti-public sector unions, but only if they are non-public safety employees. He chose not to bust the police public safety union because those are Republican voters.

    Republicans are anti-union because they do not want labor to have negotiating power, and since the 1960s most of the American public agrees, and overall unionization of American labor declined from around 33% to around 13%. Right now American labor is as productive as it has ever been, and yet it has not reaped a proportionate wage benefit from successive economic booms. Part of the reason is that senior management holds most of the leverage when it comes to salary, benefit and bonus or incentive compensation.

  40. Dave Schuler says:


    I interpreted that as divide ut impera. Divide and rule. Not going after the police and firefighters unions was a prudent but probably temporary strategy.

  41. HarvardLaw92 says:


    For one, WI has a larger manufacturing sector where unionization is more likely.

    Actually, the sector most likely to be unionized is “trade, transportation & utilities”, in which Minnesota and Wisconsin are virtually identical with regard to the number of workers employed in that segment.

    Wisconsin has almost 156,000 more manufacturing workers than Minnesota, yet its union rate is 11.7%, 2.5% lower than Minnesota’s. Under your logic, that percentage should be higher.

    But point taken, Wisconsin has an aging, rust belt economy, while Minnesota has been able to attract higher paying professional jobs.

    Which leads us to – Why? If Walker’s policies are such a nirvana for business, why are those jobs going to Minnesota instead? It certainly can’t be for the weather 😀

  42. superdestroyer says:


    The difference is the state taxes is not significant. Looking at Table 1 of cite is has Minnesota ranked as 7th highest and Wisconsin as 11th highest for 2013 and that is after tax cuts in Wisconsin. Before the tax cuts, Wisconsin had higher taxes than Minnesota and was still not doing that well economically.

  43. An Interested Party says:

    It’s so nice when white collar professionals pontificate on how unnecessary unions are for working people and, in so doing, enable corporations to stick it to those same working people…

  44. KM says:


    Nope, it’s clearly all the fault of the unions.

    I never said that – kindly don’t put words in my mouth. I pointed a fact that many gloss over in self-defense: it is not enough to be anti-something, one must be pro-something in order to succeed. Union have no great rallying cry anymore, no great goal to achieve (shorter work week, worker safety, etc). What exactly are they for anymore other then just “we stop you from getting screwed even worse”? You can’t just be the lesser of two evils and expect enthusiasm. It’s easy to rally around an articulated cause and it’s even easier to malign a group without one. Have you ever considered one of the reasons Republicans have been so effective at turning the public against them is that unions aren’t perceived as having any tangible goal Joe Q Public can get behind? They buy into the myth that all the great victories are over and there are no more battles to fight because unions do a poor job of articulating what still needs to be fought for.

    I am pro-union (raised in a union family and have worked several union jobs) but also a realist. This is a weakness that needs to be addressed, if only to take a meme away from detractors. Unions have flaws that needs to worked on, just like anything else it this world.

  45. superdestroyer says: had an interesting article about how the oil shocks of the 1970’s cite.

    A pull quote from the article is

    The Big Three found themselves in a bind, which they soon figured out how to make worse. GM, Ford and Chrysler didn’t want to build small cars, because only ginormous cars provided the profits necessary to pay the wages and benefits they had just lavished on their workers.

    The question for unions in the future is what kind of jobs are going to exist that can pay the wages and benefits that union members received in the past but are not vulnerable to global marketplaces or domestic competition?

  46. J-Dub says:


    The question for unions in the future is what kind of jobs are going to exist that can pay the wages and benefits that union members received in the past but are not vulnerable to global marketplaces or domestic competition?

    I don’t know why you are getting only down votes for this, possibly on reputation alone. It seems like a reasonable question. I’m pro-union but they’ve prices themselves out of the global manufacturing market. I’m not sure unions could ever compete with the slave wages paid overseas though. Maybe the solution is to go global themselves.

  47. David M says:


    That pretty much summed up the obvious reason to support unions. They provide upward pressure on wages for their workers, and the economy in general. Given the lack of middle class wage increases in the last couple decades, I’m not sure another reason is necessary.

  48. superdestroyer says:

    @David M: had an article that discussed the problems with unions in the modern economy and the limits of what they can do for wages. Unions appear to be best for entry level workers in union jobs but not as great for the long term, most productive employees. The study referenced in the article showed:

    Recently unionized firms employ fewer people
    Recently unionized firms pay lower average wages
    Recently unionized firms are more likely to go out of business

  49. Tony W says:


    Nope, it’s clearly all the fault of the unions.

    That’s not fair – it’s also because of Obamacare :o)

  50. Tyrell says:

    Look at the demise of once great Eastern Airlines. For years they had strong unions. They had way above average pay and benefits. Probably too above average. Even college students working part time on weekends cleaning out the cabins were paid way above minimum wage. Every contract renewal time they asked for more and more. Fine, until the government deregulated and they lost their gate monopolies.

  51. bill says:

    @HarvardLaw92: really, who wants to “live” in either to begin with?!
    half the country has dumped the extortionist ways of “unions”- not really trying to bash “real” labor but white collar workers don’t deserve the tag- gov’t. workers who essentially vote for their bosses and get rewarded for such. when the country needs to lower itself and actually compete against 3rd world laborers then maybe we will again. until them it looks like “life on the dole” suits a lot of them.
    unions are for people who can’t compete fairly- no need to bring up the past as we have all sorts of worker protections in place.

  52. Robert Levine says:

    Generally disregarded in discussions about the decline of unions in the US is the role of Federal labor law. It is telling that, in Canada, union density has remained at levels last seen in the US in the 1960s, even though the US economy and Canadian economy look remarkably similar. Why? The US has some of the worst labor laws in the developed world. Canada doesn’t.

    And why does the US have such bad laws? I blame Democrats more than Republicans. If Democrats supported unions the way Republicans support corporations, we’d have the best labor laws in the world.

  53. superdestroyer says:

    @Robert Levine:

    Once again, how do those corporations in Canda pass on the costs of the unions to their customers How do those corporations in Canada avoid competition from non-unionized companies? My guess is that it amounts to subsidies from the government and subtle forms of protectionism.

  54. Barry says:

    @Stan: “Workers have no effective bargaining power vis a vis their employers except when the labor market is unusually tight. ”

    And note that the elites have redefined ‘inflation’ to mean ‘workers getting raises’.

  55. John425 says:

    …safe rules, a safe work environment,

    I don’t see how this is relevant to government clerks and millions of other government employees handling paper. Perhaps the paper cutters should require special teams, eh Cliffie?

    Do they allow you to have sharp objects on the gerbil exercise wheel Cliffie?