Wisconsin's Labor Movement Can Grow, Two Labor Leaders Say

Sep 1, 2019

Two women who head major labor groups in Wisconsin say they think union membership can reverse declines over the last decade — and grow. Their optimism comes as thousands of union members plan to take part Monday in the annual Laborfest celebration in Milwaukee.

Just eight years ago, demonstrators outside the state capitol in Madison chanted "kill this bill." It was an unsuccessful attempt to stop the passage of the Act 10 legislation, which curtailed the power of most public-sector unions in Wisconsin.

Unions say Act 10 was one of the efforts during the Walker administration that hurt the labor movement. But Stephanie Bloomingdale is hoping for a turnaround.

READ: Labor Leader Sees Causes For Optimism On Wisconsin Political Landscape

Last fall, Bloomingdale was elected the first female president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. On her first Labor Day in charge of the statewide organization, she's pleased with a recent Gallup poll that shows 64% of those responding approve of labor unions. That's the highest percentage in 15 years, and one of the highest in the last half-century. Current union membership nationwide is only about 10 % of households. But Bloomingdale says more people can be recruited into the labor movement.

Stephanie Bloomingdale is the first female president of Wisconsin State AFL CIO, which is located at 6333 W. Bluemound Rd.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

“It's going to take a lot of hard work. It's going to take energy on the ground and people talking to each other. The other thing this is going to take, in order for working people to realize what they're showing what they want in this poll, is that we need to pass labor law reform," Bloomingdale said.

Bloomingdale mentions the PRO Act, which was introduced in Congress a few months ago. It would repeal so-called right-to-work laws passed in about two dozen states including Wisconsin — laws that labor says hurt union organizing. But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calls the PRO Act "pernicious."

READ: History Of Right-To-Work Legislation & Its Impact On Unions

Increased public approval of unions comes as the U.S. unemployment rate is less than 4%. But Bloomingdale says that doesn't mean labor groups are without a message.

"Unemployment may be low on the books, but what is happening is more and more people are working one, two or three jobs just to make ends meet. No American should have to work more than 40 hours a week to put food on the table and have a good life," Bloomingdale said.

Laborers Union Hall at 63rd Street and Appleton Avenue.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Pam Fendt says during a time of low unemployment wages for working people should be rising faster. Fendt's been president of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council since 2017. She says unions can grow by promoting their successes.

"Workers United was out doing informational picketing a couple times this summer. They represent workers at the Pfister and the Hilton Hotels, and they negotiated a very good contract this summer," Fendt said.

Fendt also says the stagehands union has negotiated its first contract with the Milwaukee Bucks.

She says Milwaukee unions are happy with new Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. But she says they're not happy with Republican lawmakers who blocked Evers' effort to repeal the state's right-to-work law and restore a wage requirement, called Prevailing Wage, for public works projects. Still, Fendt says unions are motivated.

"Oh, absolutely! We have a lot of hope that the governor is going to be able to push things forward that help both public and private sectors workers," Fendt said.

A labor union trailer outside the Building & Construction Trades Council.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Nationally, she says the biggest threat to worker rights are policies and funding choices made by the Trump administration.

But a recent Associated Press poll shows public support for Trump's handling of the economy has gone up to 46%, and if the increase continues, that could make it harder for unions to recruit.

Monday though, labor will celebrate workers. There will be a parade in downtown Milwaukee at 11 a.m. Also, there will be food and activities from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Summerfest Grounds. Admission to Laborfest is free.