What Does the Public Think Unions Stand For? The Battle for Hearts and Minds in Wisconsin

Are public sector labor unions greedy leeches on the side of government, or are they the last bulwark of a national movement for working people?

The battle to define American public sector labor unions, and the labor movement in general, reached a new urgency this week in Wisconsin (our embedded correspondent Paul sends this dispatch from the battlefield). Governor Scott Walker is threatening to lockout the public sector employee’s union from collective bargaining, even as the union has agreed to most of the Governor’s demands for benefit cuts. The dramatic images of state employees, joined by students and ordinary citizens, blocking the Wisconsin state Capitol have prompted many on both the left and the right to compare Wisconsin to Egypt. Much like Egypt, the battle developing in Wisconsin will be critical in mobilizing the “opposition” movement in other states, and shaping the viewpoints of the public at large. Not to be outdone, the tea party has organized counter rallies to support the Governor’s hardline tactics. 

Defenders of the state workers would do well to consider recent national public opinion data, which shows that unions enjoy a narrow, but declining, margin of public support.

What Does the Public Think About Unions?

Going as far back as 1936, Gallup has asked representative samples of Americans “do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?” In August 2010, 52 percent of respondents said that they approve compared to 41 percent saying that they disapprove. This was only a slight increase from the 48 percent approval in 2009 (the lowest ever recorded), and down from the high mark of 75 percent in 1957. Not surprisingly, the split is extremely partisan – 71 percent of Democrats support unions compared to only 34 percent of Republicans.

A plurality of respondents (40 percent) in the Gallup poll say that they would like to see labor unions have less influence, compared to either more influence or the same amount. The plurality of respondents also predicts that labor unions will become weaker in the future.

The trend in labor union favorability is mirrored in a February 2011 poll from Pew (conducted before the Wisconsin story took the national stage), which finds a sharp decline in overall approval of labor unions from 2007. Particularly relevant to Wisconsin, respondents in the Pew survey had equally unfavorable ratings of public and private sector workers. They were most likely to report that union had a positive effect on compensation and working conditions, and least likely to believe that unions increase productivity and competitiveness. Asked whether they sided with public sector unions or the government in labor disputes, 44 percent said the unions and 38 percent said the government.

What Drives Public Opinion?

At least two factors seem to be particularly important in shaping public opinion about labor unions: media coverage and economic conditions. (A third factor is simply an artifact of questionnaire design – when questions focus on the rights of workers to organize approval is higher than when they focus on pensions and taxpayer dollars. Since the Pew and Gallup measures are framed fairly neutrally, and repeatedly administered, this is less of an issue).

Public opinion about organized labor is fluid and highly dependent on framing. Media coverage that is sympathetic to unions – for example coverage that portrays striking workers as ordinary citizens taking on substantial risk to protect their rights – is likely to create a much more positive psychological association with unions than media coverage that shows unions to be corrupt, inefficient, or exclusive. One factor that creates an implicitly positive association is the presence of sympathetic third parties. Just as Egyptian protests reached a critical tipping point when it became clear that protesters were law-abiding citizens, the Wisconsin protests depends on the involvement of “average folks.” As Paul described in his post, the media story about Wisconsin has tried to show two sides to the issue by giving outsized attention to small, and fairly non-representative counter-protests.

Another more subtle change is the shift from coverage focused on context (such as working conditions and labor laws) to coverage that is event-driven. Focusing on strikes, isolated from larger questions of working conditions, might tend to bias the public against unions. In a 1993 paper Diane Schmidt shows even as union strike rates decreased in the 1970s, coverage of unions in the New York Times became more focused on strikes, and public approval in the Gallup poll also declined. Sidebar: More could be done to cement the link between public opinion and unions through controlled psychological experiments exposing subjects to different types of media coverage.

Economic conditions matter in the current context. The cause of unions is much less popular during periods of fiscal austerity and budget cuts. With public sector workers claiming a much larger share of their compensation in such benefits, Republican Governors sense that they have the opportunity to win the public debate by shifting attention to the apparent unfairness of making private workers take cuts when public workers remain protected. Claiming the mantle of public opinion, one prominent Republic strategist told Politico: “The public has lost patience with a bloated, 1950s, one-size-fits-all style system that benefits a public employee class that gets special deals.” The public is thus left with a false debate: either take a hard line against unions or lose essential services. Raising taxes on special interests and the wealthy to cover deficits is off the table, as are other incremental reforms that would gain more bipartisan support.

Does Public Opinion Matter?

Short of direct ballot referendums of labor unions, the main way that public opinion translates into policy outcomes is through elections. There are two sides to this issue. The current crop of hardline Republican Governors and legislatures came to office on a promise to cut budgets and spur economic growth. Their ability to gain reelection depends primarily on whether they can convince their rightwing base, symbolized by the tea party, that they are delivering on that promise. An added bonus for Republicans is the ability to cripple organized labor, which is a declining share of the overall workforce (less than twelve percent) but a potent source of organization and manpower in elections. Even so, Republicans in states such as Wisconsin also need to win over the moderate middle. This is primarily where the battle for the hearts and minds of voters will take place over the next week, and in the coming months in other states.

On the other end of the spectrum, Democrats are in an awkward position. In states such as California, with much worse budgetary conditions than Wisconsin, Democratic Governors face looming budgetary standoffs that will involve reforming the pay of public sector workers. These Democrats may make the political calculation that they can afford to slash union benefits, because the unions have no other alternative but to continue supporting Democrats in elections. To counteract this threat, unions need to use large public gatherings to show that they represent the only credible representation for disempowered middle class workers – and that efforts to undercut public sector workers will have negative spillover effects on private sector workers, both the dwindling minority working in union jobs and their non-union counterparts that benefit from collective bargaining.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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