KING, Wis. — At the old union hall here on a recent afternoon, Terry Magnant sat at the head of a table surrounded by 18 empty chairs. A members meeting had been scheduled to start a half-hour earlier, but the small house, with its cracked walls and loose roof shingles, was lonely and desolate.
“There used to be a lot more people coming,” said Magnant, a 51-year-old nursing assistant, sighing.
The anti-union law passed here four years ago, which made Gov. Scott Walker a national Republican star and a possible presidential candidate, has turned out to be even more transformative than many had predicted.
Walker had vowed that union power would shrink, workers would be judged on their merits, and local governments would save money. Unions had warned that workers would lose benefits and be forced to take on second jobs or find new careers.
Many of those changes came to pass, but the once-thriving public-sector unions were not just shrunken — they were crippled.
Unions representing teachers, professors, trash collectors and other government employees are struggling to stem plummeting membership rolls and retain relevance in the state where they got their start.
Here in King, Magnant and her fellow AFSCME members, workers at a local veterans home, have been knocking on doors on weekends to persuade former members to rejoin. Community college professors in Moraine Park, home to a technical college, are reducing dues from $59 to $36 each month. And those in Milwaukee are planing a campaign using videos and posters to highlight union principles. The theme: “Remember.”
But recalling the benefits that union membership might have brought before the 2011 law stripped most public-sector unions of their collective-bargaining rights is difficult when workers consider the challenges of the present.
“I don’t see the point of being in a union anymore,” said Dan Anliker, a 34-year-old technology teacher and father of two in Reedsburg, a tiny city about 60 miles northwest of Madison.
The law required most public employees to pay more for health insurance and to pay more into retirement savings, resulting in an 8 to 10 percent drop in take-home pay. To help compensate for the loss, Anliker said he took an additional 10-hour-a-week job.
“Everyone’s on their own island now,” he said. “If you do a good job, everything will take care of itself. The money I’d spend on dues is way more valuable to buy groceries for my family.”
Sean Karsten, a 32-year-old middle and high school reading instructor in his first year of teaching in Reedsburg, said the unions are “just not something I concern myself with.”
“I just look to keep improving my teaching in the best way I can and try to keep my nose out of the other stuff,” he said.
Walker has pointed to the unions’ membership troubles as a victory — presenting himself as a conservative warrior unafraid of taking on big battles against liberal interests.
Walker’s administration has said forcing public employees to contribute more to retirement plans and health insurance helped local governments save $3 billion. The governor also has credited the 2011 law with saving homeowners money on property taxes while giving school districts the ability to make reforms that increased third-grade reading levels and high school graduation rates. And the law has emboldened Republican state lawmakers to further challenge Wisconsin’s labor movement this year by pushing right-to-work legislation that would allow private-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues — a measure Walker has said he would sign.
“We took the power away from the big-government special interests and put it firmly in the hands of the hard-working taxpayers,” Walker told Iowa Republicans recently. “That is what we need more of in this great country. The liberals don’t like that.”
Union officials declined to release precise membership data but confirmed in interviews that enrollment is dramatically lower since the new law was signed in 2011.
The state branch of the National Education Association, once 100,000 strong, has seen its membership drop by a third. The American Federation of Teachers, which organized in the college system, saw a 50 percent decline. The 70,000-person membership in the state employees union has fallen by 70 percent.
The decline is politically significant in Wisconsin, a presidential battleground where the unions have played a central role in Democrats’ get-out-the-vote drives.
John Ahlquist, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who specializes in labor movements, said Walker had “effectively dismantled the financial and organizing structure of unions in Wisconsin.”
“Although it is too early to tell if unions are near the end of their political power here, they are in a very vulnerable position,” Ahlquist said.
The mass protests that gripped the state Capitol have subsided, but anxiety remains high in union halls across Wisconsin.
At Magnant’s meeting in King on a frigid February afternoon, union members finally began trickling in, one by one, filling a few of the empty seats.
A groundskeeper at the veterans home complained that supervisors were no longer assigning overtime based on seniority because “there was no union.” Others complained that there were no longer enough nursing assistants on shifts, while management positions seemed to grow.
“This is what we are trying to live with,” Magnant said. “But we can’t continue like this.”
Dean Johnson burst through door with a big grin on his face. Johnson, 55, told the story of how he felt so bold at work that he yelled “Join the union!” in the middle of the veterans home. A stalwart union supporter, he vowed he’d do anything to keep the movement going.
But Johnson said he could no longer do it as an employee. He told the group he was retiring — prompting a discussion about the new mantra for those choosing to leave union work: “Goodbye tension, hello pension.”
While some union members have been energized by the fight, they say they notice a new, more vocal animosity toward them. It has been particularly pronounced in rural areas, where public-sector jobs were some of the most prized gigs in town.
In King, population 1,700, Magnant said she couldn’t change a sign at the union hall without someone giving her the finger. Farther west, in Stanley, prison workers said they ditched their favorite pizza pub because the owner stood by while other customers called them “leeches.”
In Reedsburg, that tension surprised Ginny Bourgeois, 52, who clerks at a local Kwik Trip. The community had always been divided, defined as much by the factories manufacturing car parts as it was by cornfields now blanketed in snow. Still, it was a place where the community got together for spaghetti and corn feeds and filled bleachers to watch the Reedsburg Beavers play. Now, she said, people were fighting over politics at gas stations.
Still, she felt unions needed to sacrifice.
“Everyone knows teachers’ insurance was some of the best you could get,” Bourgeois added.“They do fairly well around here, and they do a good job teaching. But everyone in this town has had to tighten their belts. They should too.”
Judy Brey, a 58-year-old speech therapist who taught in the community for 22 years, said such sentiment hurt teachers’ morale. She said she grew up admiring her dad, who put six children through college on his union-supported job as a forester. “ ‘I don’t make a lot, but we’ll be okay with retirement,’ ” she said he told her. That, she was taught, was the reward for public service in Wisconsin.
“Now I’m always nervous that everyone will think they’re moochers,” Brey said. “That I’m a moocher.”
While some union members across the state knocked on doors to court members, Brey tried another strategy: finding more allies.
A day before Magnant opened the doors for a meeting at the union house in King, Brey went to a local restaurant to call to order the meeting of the Reedsburg Area Concerned Citizens.
On the top of Brey’s list was deciding guests for a planned panel discussion on the state of public education. Someone raised a hand.
“Are we getting any interest from the schools in this?” one man asked. “I haven’t seen any of the teachers out here since we were marching with them on the streets four years ago.”
Brey sighed: “Probably not.”
Brey’s fellow participants included a county board supervisor, a community newspaper columnist and her husband, a longtime gadfly.
At the meeting, the husband of the columnist called Walker “a pig” — which prompted the board supervisor to wonder why he was insulting pigs. They debated whether or not it’s worth it to invite Republicans to the education event, but Brey insisted it’s important to keep things balanced. Eventually, the group agreed.
“We’re getting somewhere,” Brey said as a waitress handed out checks.
But were the unions? Brey vowed not to give up on them. Two days later, she attended a union meeting that had been called to discuss possible changes in teacher retirement. Ten of the district’s 192 teachers had gathered at the meeting. They appreciated that the superintendent had previously met with union leaders even though he didn’t have to. Still, they grew agitated when discussing his proposal to reduce retirement benefits.
“No way,” said Jenny Fish, 41, a middle school teacher.
Another teacher, Linda Zauner, 58, said she was working to build a case that teachers wanted to keep benefits the same, but she had struggled to get teachers to respond to a survey. She said she wanted to emphasize that teachers still thought of health care as a “bargained right.”
“This is the closest thing we’re going to get to negotiations,” Zauner said.
Fish remained incredulous.
“You have to be mean,” she said. “We never got anything by being nice. We’ve had to walk out. We got things when we banged our fists on tables.”
Brey jumped into the conversation.
“Sometimes I think,” she stopped to collect the words delicately.
“Sometimes, I think, . . . that’s . . . why they came after us, Jenny. Because they thought these teachers were too demanding.”
“No, we have to fight,” Fish responded. “It’s for our students.”
Brey nodded. As long as there were teachers, she said, she’d be fighting along with them.