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Labor unions are increasing in numbers, a UW-Milwaukee professor explains why

Pabst Theater Group workers voiced their intention to unionize in April 2022.
Milwaukee Area Service & Hospitality Workers Organization
Milwaukee Area Service & Hospitality Workers Organization
Pabst Theater Group workers voiced their intention to unionize in April 2022.

More unions are forming across the country and right here in Milwaukee. Workers are organizing, from establishments like Colectivo Coffee and the Pabst Theater Group to corporations like Starbucks and Amazon – laborers are using their collective power.

John Heywood is a UW-Milwaukee distinguished professor of economics and the director of the graduate program in human resources and labor relations. He points out there are two major reasons why we're seeing such a quick and large increase in union presence: increased militancy by existing unions and a resurgence in organizing itself.

And this is all influenced by what happened to frontline workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. "Their jobs were tougher than they were before," Heywood says. "And not only were their jobs tougher than they were before, but they saw many of the white collar and management employees go home to work."

He also emphasizes that the nation's economy is at an advantageous point for workers trying to improve their working conditions, where both the unemployment and the labor force participation rate are low. "Both of these combined have many, many employers needing workers that they're having trouble finding," Heywood says.

In addition to all these factors, the current presidential administration is more supportive to unions and more inclined to improve labor relations.

However, within the last two decades, labor unions have seen a significant decline in the country. According to Heywood, many companies viewed unions as a "managerial failure" that had turned "decisively negative" to fight unions from forming.

And in Wisconsin, Act 10 played a large part in diminishing the prevalence and power of public sector unions.

READ: Act 10 Anniversary: A Look Back At How Gov. Walker Stripped Most Public Union Rights

"It's probably a little premature to say, 'wow, we're going to sort of grow back the unionization that we've lost.' Wisconsin has been one of the states... To see the largest decline in unionization. So that doesn't mean we shouldn't think that things could turn around, but it would be a big turnaround," Heywood emphasizes.


Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
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