Wisconsin's shrinking towns feed union-busting drive

(Bloomberg) — The loss of people and power in rural and small-town Wisconsin is helping fuel the state's showdown over public-sector union rights and benefits.

Rural Wisconsin counties are losing residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released yesterday, as a lack of jobs pushes young people to Madison, the state capital, and its suburbs. Twenty of the state's 72 counties lost population between 2000 and 2010, the census found.

Resentment in those areas helps explain support for Republican Governor Scott Walker's push to restrict the collective bargaining rights of some unions, said Katherine Cramer Walsh of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She noticed the bitterness while doing research in 27 communities, where many residents work multiple jobs without benefits while local government employees have health coverage and pensions.

"I heard a lot of comments and conversations about the rural-urban divide in our state," said Walsh, an associate professor of political science. "I was very struck by how resentful people in so-called outstate Wisconsin are of Madison and Milwaukee."

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The number of residents in Dane County, which includes Madison, rose 14.4 percent to 488,073 in 2010 from 426,526 in 2000, while Milwaukee fell 0.4 percent to 594,833, according to census data. Wisconsin's population increased 6 percent to 5,686,986 during the decade, compared with 9.7 percent nationwide.


Latinos gained 74.2 percent to reach 5.9 percent of the state's population, while the number of non-Hispanic blacks rose 16.9 percent to 6.2 percent, the census found.

Wisconsin's shifting demographics were the backdrop of interviews Walsh did beginning in 2007, talking with people at diners and gas stations to determine their views on politics and other issues. She summarized what she heard in a recent blog posting titled "What in the hell is going on in Madison?"

"All of our taxpayer dollars get sucked in by Madison, diverted to Milwaukee, and we never see them again," she wrote, paraphrasing her conversations with people who live outside the state's two biggest cities.

Wisconsin's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 7.4 percent in January was less than the February national rate of 8.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Government employed 415,200 people statewide in January, up from 403,700 in December 2000, according to the data. The Madison area had 84,200 government workers in January and 252,800 in the private sector, unadjusted numbers show.


Polaris Industries Inc., the Medina, Minnesota-based maker of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, this month begins closing its plant in Osceola, a village of 2,568 in northwestern Wisconsin. About 480 jobs will be cut, according to state labor records. NewPage Corp., a closely held paper maker based in Miamisburg, Ohio, said in December it will cut 360 jobs with the closing of its paper mill in Whiting, home of 1,724 people in central Wisconsin.

Those closings are fueling the resentment that Walker and his allies in the state Legislature have cited in their three- week-old clash with Senate Democrats. Wisconsin's Assembly yesterday passed the bill curbing collective bargaining for most unionized government workers as Democrats condemned its passage and labor leaders planned more protests.


"If you look at who's shared the brunt of this recession in Wisconsin, it's been the private sector," not government employees, said Matt Seaholm, 27, the Madison-based director of Americans for Prosperity's Wisconsin chapter. The Tea Party- aligned group is supported by billionaires Charles and David Koch, the brothers who control Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries Inc. "It's time that they pay their fair share."

Republicans and Democrats calculating public sentiment on the confrontation over unions can both find support for their arguments in a Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 4-7. Forty-three percent of Americans said public employees receive better compensation than private workers, compared with 21 percent who said it is worse and 27 percent who said it's about the same.

Sixty-four percent said public employees should have the right to collectively bargain, compared with 32 percent who said they shouldn't. The poll of 1,001 U.S. adults has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.


Wisconsin has a rich history of divided political opinion. It elected Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette governor and U.S. senator. The Progressive Party's 1924 presidential nominee, La Follette fought government corruption and corporate monopolies. The state also sent Joseph McCarthy to the Senate, where his anti-communist campaign in the 1950s ended the careers of some Americans accused of having links to the Communist Party.

The state's tradition of supporting such an array of politicians has meant Wisconsin can swing from one party to another in consecutive elections.

Walker won the governor's election last year with 52 percent of the vote versus 46.5 percent for Democrat Tom Barrett. Incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold lost his U.S. Senate seat to Republican Ron Johnson, 52 percent to 47 percent.

Yet Barack Obama easily won the state, 56 percent to 42 percent, over Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, and Jim Doyle, a Democrat, won re-election to the governor's mansion in 2006.

"You couldn't imagine two governors who are more different from each other," Jerald Podair, an associate professor of history at Lawrence University in Appleton, said of Doyle and Walker.


The 2010 census figures documented another stark difference: growth in Madison and decline in communities outside the major cities. The majority of counties that lost population were in the northern part of the state, the census found.

"It's not going to come as a surprise to anybody in outstate Wisconsin," Walsh said. "They feel on a pretty gut level that their communities are dying."

While residents leave rural counties, population has increased in Dane County and other areas surrounding Madison, in south-central Wisconsin, and Milwaukee, in the southeast. Around Dane County, Jefferson County's population rose 13.1 percent and near Milwaukee, Washington County's population gained 12.3 percent and Waukesha County's population added 8.1 percent.

Southeast Wisconsin and the Madison area may see an increase in representation in state government with the latest census figures as their populations grow. That may mean more government money for roads and other programs flowing to those regions and less money for other areas of the state.

Wisconsin has always been divided politically and culturally between the cities of Milwaukee and Madison on one side and the rest of the state, said Podair, the Lawrence University history professor.

"There are two Wisconsins arrayed against each other," he said. "The two Wisconsins are evenly matched."