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

Akito Yoshikane

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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