BLS Stands By Surprising Union Surge Numbers in Wisconsin

MacIver News Service | January 28, 2014

[Washington, D.C.] The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stands by its report that labor unions in Wisconsin grew by 25,000 members last year, which left experts throughout the state in disbelief last week.

“That’s what the data tells us. The data is what the data says and we stand by the data,” Gary Steinberg, BLS information specialist, told the MacIver News Service.

The Census Bureau surveys about 60,000 households around the country every month. A quarter of those households are asked questions about union affiliation. BLS averages out the monthly union responses for each year and releases its findings annually in the Union Membership Survey. This year’s report was released last Friday.

“It’s a small enough change [each month] to where we don’t know if it’s a survey issue or if something is actually happening in the economy,” explained Steinberg.

However, by averaging the monthly responses, the report also stated that Wisconsin lost 36,000 jobs last year. Meanwhile the Regional and State Employment and Unemployment Summary, released on Tuesday, reported Wisconsin had 44,200 more people employed in December 2013 than in December 2012. BLS says that number is more accurate than the one contained in the union report.

“I always recommend reporters use year to year instead of annual averages for employment numbers,” Steinberg said.

That problem with averaging 12 months into a single annual figure could explain why the reality on the ground in Wisconsin does not reflect a major boost in union membership.

The MacIver News Service contacted the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development on Friday, which said it had no explanation for the numbers. The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission had a similar response.

The LaCrosse Tribune contacted a labor union expert at the University of Wisconsin, who said he was surprised by the numbers. Wisconsin AFL-CIO president, Phil Neuenfeldt, also could not explain the supposed increase.

According to the Friday release, actual union membership in Wisconsin went from 293,000 in 2012 to 317,000 in 2013. Workers represented by unions went from 312,000 to 337,000.

This union report stated, the average union membership rate across the US is 11.3 percent. In Wisconsin it was 11.2 percent last year, while this year it’s 12.3 percent. Wisconsin ranks 19th in the country for largest percentage of union workers. New York is ranked 1st with 24.4 percent. North Carolina is ranked 51st with 3 percent union membership. In 2012, Wisconsin was ranked 20th.