It’s been 10 years since Wisconsin passed Act 10, which limited the rights of public employee unions to demand collective bargaining, and Wisconsin is still reaping the benefits: better educational outcomes, more teacher freedom, less ability on the part of unions to influence politics and cost-savings to school districts — just to name a few.
However, the left is still working to say otherwise, so two prevalent myths deserve to be dispelled. The passage of Act 10 and “right-to-work” legislation — which gave employees in Wisconsin the same freedom to choose whether to be in the union as is enjoyed in 26 other states — did not increase income inequality or harm education in Wisconsin. In fact, close to the opposite is true.
Let’s consider income inequality first by looking at a common measure of the gap between the rich and the poor — the Gini coefficient. It attempts to represent, with a single number, the difference between the poorest and wealthiest individuals in a particular area. State-level Gini coefficient data collected by a Sam Houston State Economics professor shows that Wisconsin’s hasn’t changed much in terms of income inequality before or after Act 10. Indeed, the state has remained more equal than the average across the United States. In other words, the claim that labor union reforms have increased inequality is patently absurd based on the data.
Contrary to popular understanding, Act 10 did not restrict the rights of unions to advocate for their members. It did, however, restrict their ability to insist upon collective bargaining — a system in which the government is obliged to negotiate with its employees. While this may sound innocuous, in practice it allows unions to influence government decision-making in a way that citizens with competing interests — say, taxpayers — may not. Under collective bargaining, public employee unions exercise outsized power on public decision making. For example, while parents across the country became more interested in opening schools following the growing consensus that it was safe to do so, teacher unions fought to prevent it. Research from our organization and others found that COVID-19 played little role in school reopening decisions — what mattered was whether there was a strong union in the area.
While COVID-19 no doubt hurt education, Act 10 did not. Specifically, Act 10 is not the reason for a declining number of people becoming teachers, which is one of the left’s arguments regarding Act 10 hurting education. The teacher shortage is a national problem, covering states across the political spectrum. According to data from the Department of Education tabulated by the Center for American Progress, almost all states have experienced significant declines in the number of students entering teacher preparation programs. States such as Illinois and New York, where little union reform is possible, have seen larger declines than Wisconsin.
Act 10, in many ways, has benefited education. According to research we’ve conducted at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the law has allowed important flexibility in the employment process for teachers. Now, effective educators can be rewarded with merit pay while those who aren’t getting the job done can be more easily removed. Perhaps relatedly, implementation of Act 10 was found to be associated with increased math proficiency. All of this came with little change to student-teacher ratios and a decline in average teacher experience levels of less than a single year. Moreover, as the MacIver Institute here in Wisconsin has noted, Act 10 resulted in savings to school district budgets, over time, approaching $14 billion.
Wisconsin will continue to prosper because of Act 10 and right-to-work — and other states with similar laws will too. In fact, in this past decade at least four states have passed right-to-work laws. Other states, such as Iowa, have passed similar public-sector union reforms. In this way, Act 10 did not harm education or increase income inequality, but it did have a lasting impact by contributing to empower workers to make their own choices across the country.
Rick Esenberg is president and Will Flanders is the research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.