“We still haven’t recovered from Act 10,” Erickson, who was Wisconsin’s 2014 High School Teacher of the Year, told me. “It’s definitely changed things.”
Beginning with the elections of 2010, when a wave of Tea Party, anti-government candidates won statewide offices across the country, states have passed legislation to diminish the power of unions, and that’s had a very real effect on middle-class Americans like the Ericksons. Wisconsin passed Act 10 in 2010, and Indiana and Michigan both became right-to-work states in 2012, meaning that unions can’t require members pay dues as a condition of employment. Wisconsin also became a right-to-work state in 2015.
Now, after another big GOP victory in November, unions will likely face more challenges at the state and national levels. Lawmakers in Missouri, which replaced its Democratic governor with a Republican one, have already said they plan to pass a right-to-work law in the state in the new year. And Congress may consider a national right-to-work law as well, said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. Republicans will also control the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees worker-employer disputes, and Trump could reverse Obama’s executive orders, including those which required federal contractors to provide workers with paid sick leave. Chaison says he expects these developments to further erode the economic security of many middle-class workers. “The middle class is going to find it has no voice in determining their wages and working conditions,” he said.
That’s already the case for many public employees in Wisconsin. In fact, in many ways, Wisconsin is a sobering preview for what may happen in the rest of the country. Data suggests that Erickson is by no means unique. Total teacher compensation in Wisconsin has dropped 8 percent, or $6,500 since Act 10, according to an extensive study by Andrew Litten, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan who used state data showing compensation of all teachers in the state of Wisconsin. What’s more, he found that the most experienced and highest-paid teachers experienced the biggest reduction in benefits. Litten’s research confirms what labor advocates have said for decades: A lack of bargaining power can have a profound effect on what workers receive from their employers.
This, of course, is not something special about Wisconsin. “While Wisconsin is one of the most dramatic examples of a renewed regulatory focus on public sector unions, it should be considered an important part of an ongoing trend, rather than a one-off event,” Litten wrote, in the paper.
Act 10 had a number of specific provisions that eroded public-employee compensation and benefits in Wisconsin. It required that public employees pay at least six percent of their wages towards pensions, and stipulated that they pay half the costs of their pensions. Many employees, like Erickson, had not had to contribute at all to health-care costs previously, so the law meant a 12-percent pay cut. It also limited contracts to one year, and stipulated that employees and employers could only bargain over cost-of-living salary increases, and not over benefits at all. After Act 10, if districts wanted to raise teacher pay above cost-of-living increases, they would have to hold a referendum to do so, and there was really no way for teachers to achieve better benefits.