Polls: Union Popularity Still Low, But Public (Mostly) Supports Bargaining Rights

Akito Yoshikane February 23, 2011

The labor bat­tles in Wis­con­sin, Indi­ana and Ohio have put unions in the pub­lic spot­light. A new Pew Research poll shows that over­all favor­a­bil­i­ty for labor has con­tin­ued to remain low, but the pub­lic is less sup­port­ive about the cur­rent assault on pub­lic unions’ right to exist.

Pub­lic opin­ion toward unions had just 45 per­cent of respon­dents hold­ing a pos­i­tive view, while 41 per­cent had an unfa­vor­able view. The poll is a slight improve­ment from last year, when the sur­vey found the low­est favor­able rat­ings in a quar­ter cen­tu­ry. In Feb­ru­ary 2010, Pew said only 41 per­cent had a favor­able opin­ion of labor unions and 42 per­cent had an unfa­vor­able view. In a sim­i­lar Gallup poll pub­lished last August, 52 per­cent approved of labor unions, the sec­ond low­est rat­ing on record.

The Pew poll was con­duct­ed from Feb­ru­ary 2 – 7, just weeks before Wis­con­sin Gov­er­nor Scott Walk­er took on pub­lic-sec­tor unions with his calls for major con­ces­sions and the elim­i­na­tion of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments for the state’s pub­lic union employees.

The sur­vey results are not a sig­nif­i­cant change from last year, but a clos­er look with­in the data, cou­pled with oth­er sur­veys, shows a pub­lic that is more sym­pa­thet­ic to unions than per­ceived in light of the labor dis­pute brew­ing across the Midwest.

The respon­dents gen­er­al­ly believe that unions are ben­e­fi­cial to its mem­bers and the work­force at large. But they are split on whether unions have a pos­i­tive effect on pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and job oppor­tu­ni­ties in the U.S., and regard unions as a hin­drance to com­pete inter­na­tion­al­ly.

Even before the poll’s release, the rhetoric against civ­il ser­vants was ris­ing, and Walker’s efforts to dis­man­tle unions have height­ened the union back­lash to a fever pitch. Nev­er­the­less, the Pew sur­vey showed that the pub­lic has sim­i­lar views for unions in the pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tor. Less than half (48 per­cent) have a favor­able opin­ion for state and local gov­ern­ment work­ers com­pared to 40 per­cent of those who have an unfa­vor­able view, a stat near­ly iden­ti­cal for the pri­vate sec­tor work­force.

Still, when it comes to labor dis­putes, the pub­lic appears to favor unions over munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments. Forty-four per­cent side with unions, while 38 per­cent agree with state and local gov­ern­ments. The Pew sur­vey also sug­gests that the sup­port is about pro­tect­ing work­ers’ rights: more than 55 per­cent of respon­dents believe union con­tracts guar­an­tee that its work­ers are treat­ed fair­ly.

That gen­er­al sen­ti­ment is appar­ent in Wis­con­sin, a dis­pute that will most like­ly shape the out­come of sim­i­lar labor bat­tles across the coun­try. But the leg­isla­tive efforts to strip union rights aren’t pop­u­lar. As not­ed on Work­ing In These Times on Tues­day, a good major­i­ty (62 per­cent) of Wis­con­sin vot­ers view the pub­lic employ­ees in a pos­i­tive light com­pared to 11 per­cent who have an unfa­vor­able view, accord­ing to poll con­duct­ed by a lib­er­al group on behalf of the AFL-CIO.

A non­par­ti­san Gallup/​USA Today poll also echoed sim­i­lar results with 61 per­cent of Amer­i­cans opposed to any law that would elim­i­nate col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights for pub­lic unions. Thir­ty-three per­cent favored a law sim­i­lar to what is being pro­posed in Wis­con­sin. Ras­mussen Reports has also released a poll that found 48 per­cent of like­ly vot­ers” across the coun­try agree­ing with Gov­er­nor Walk­er. The New York Times, how­ev­er, points to a pos­si­ble bias in the suvey’s word­ing.

The pub­lic may be ambiva­lent about elim­i­nat­ing union rights alto­geth­er, but there is still the cri­sis fac­ing state and local gov­ern­ments. In anoth­er Pew poll released ear­li­er this month, the sur­vey found the pub­lic is wary about the bud­get cri­sis, but peo­ple are large­ly opposed to any mea­sures that would cut ser­vices. Pew sum­ma­rized:

Large majori­ties say their state should not decrease fund­ing for pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary edu­ca­tion, health ser­vices, high­er edu­ca­tion, and road main­te­nance and pub­lic trans­porta­tion. Most also oppose rais­ing per­son­al income and sales tax­es, as well as tax­es on busi­ness as ways to bal­ance their state’s bud­get.”

While most were luke­warm to cut­ting pro­grams or rais­ing tax­es, the idea of reduc­ing state pen­sion plans had the most sup­port, on bal­ance. Even then, the pub­lic was split at 47 per­cent for those in favor of and against reduc­ing pen­sions of pub­lic workers.

The take­away is that there isn’t any over­whelm­ing pub­lic sup­port to gut unions. Although labor’s pop­u­lar­i­ty con­tin­ues to remain low, under­min­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing or labor’s right to exist isn’t exact­ly pop­u­lar. That doesn’t bode well for Gov­er­nor Walk­er or oth­er Repub­li­cans hop­ing to ride the momen­tum against unions.

Pub­lic opin­ion could play a big role as leg­is­la­tors try to bust unions, and sub­se­quent­ly the work­ing and mid­dle class. Con­stituents vote, after all, and 26 per­cent of Wis­con­sin vot­ers belonged to a union house­hold. Right now the tides may be shift­ing to labor and its supporters.

Aki­to Yoshikane is a free­lance writer based in Chicago.
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