Have Republicans Lost The Public Relations War Over Public Sector Unions?

As the standoff in Wisconsin drags on, there is no sign that the public accepts the argument being made about public sector unions by Governor Scott Walker and other Republicans.

A new round of polls strongly suggests that the GOP’s efforts to limit the power of public sector unions, epitomized by the nearly three week long standoff in Wisconsin, has not resonated well with the public, although the calls for public employees to contribute more to the cost of their benefits in an effort to control state budgets appear to be resonating with many voters.

First, a new CBS/New York Times poll shows strong support for the unions:

As labor battles erupt in state capitals around the nation, a majority of Americans say they oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and are also against cutting the pay or benefits of public workers to reduce state budget deficits, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

Labor unions are not exactly popular, though: A third of those surveyed viewed them favorably, a quarter viewed them unfavorably, and the rest said they were either undecided or had not heard enough about them. But the nationwide poll found that embattled public employee unions have the support of most Americans — and most independents — as they fight the efforts of newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio to weaken their bargaining powers, and the attempts of governors from both parties to cut their pay or benefits.

Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent. While a slim majority of Republicans favored taking away some bargaining rights, they were outnumbered by large majorities of Democrats and independents who said they opposed weakening them.

Those surveyed said they opposed, 56 percent to 37 percent, cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce deficits, breaking down along similar party lines. A majority of respondents who have no union members living in their households opposed both cuts in pay or benefits and taking away the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

Second, there’s the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which shows similar strong support for union bargaining rights, but also strong support for the idea that union members should contribute more to the cost of their benefits:

Eliminating collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers over health care, pensions or other benefits would be either “mostly unacceptable” or “totally unacceptable,” 62% of those surveyed said. Only 33% support such limits.

(…)

The poll shows 68% of the respondents would like public employees to contribute more for their retirement benefits and 63% want these workers to pay more for their health care. Only 29% and 34% find these moves either “mostly” or “totally unacceptable.” A clear majority, 58%, also find it acceptable to freeze government workers’ salaries as governments get a handle on spending, whereas 40% think that would be unacceptable.

Similarly, 77% of the 1,000 adults interviewed for the poll think unionized state and municipal employees should have the same rights as those union members who work for private companies.

Finally, and perhaps more important in determining how the battle in Wisconsin will finally turn out, a new Rasmussen poll shows Wisconsin voters siding with the unions over Governor Walker:

Most Wisconsin voters oppose efforts to weaken collective bargaining rights for union workers but a plurality are supportive of significant pay cuts for state workers. Governor Scott Walker is struggling in the court of public opinion, but how badly he is struggling depends upon how the issue is presented.  There is also an interesting gap between the views of private and public sector union families.

A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Wisconsin voters shows that just 39% favor weakening collective bargaining rights and 52% are opposed. At the same time, 44% support a 10% pay cut for all state workers. Thirty-eight percent (38%) are opposed. That’s partly because 27% of Wisconsin voters believe state workers are paid too much and 16% believe they are paid too little. Forty-nine percent (49%) believe the pay of state workers is about right. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

These numbers mirror other poll results we’ve seen in the weeks since the stand-off in Madison started, and they suggest two things. First, despite the decline in labor union power and importance over the past several decades, Americans remain strongly supportive of unionism in general and the idea of the right to collective bargain with one’s employer, even when that employer happens to be the government. Second, it seems clear that if Governor Walker had limited his dispute with the unions to the benefits issue, as Chris Christie has in New Jersey, rather than taking the entire idea of collective bargaining head-on, he would likely be in a much better position than he is right now.

Economically, it makes perfect sense to require public employers to contribute more to the cost of their benefits. To put it simply. the taxpayers simply cannot afford to do otherwise anymore. There are also common sense arguments in favor of other modifications to public employee contracts, such as the elimination of teacher tenure However, politically, taking on the very idea of unions on head-on was a mistake and may well end up hurting the long term goal of bringing state spending in Wisconsin, and elsewhere, in order.

FILED UNDER: Deficit and Debt, Labor Unions, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    Walker has presented a classic study in overreach. If he has any actual interest in dealing with the real problem, it is time to backtrack and sit down with the unions, who offered concessions some time ago. Is this about money or party dogma? Sadly, the answer is obvious.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Wow, that was the best Rasmussen could do for Walker? I wonder how bad his numbers would be from a real pollster?

    Second, it seems clear that if Governor Walker had limited his dispute with the unions to the benefits issue, as Chris Christie has in New Jersey, rather than taking the entire idea of collective bargaining head-on, he would likely be in a much better position than he is right now.

    Heh. Republicans overreach. Always.

  3. DanielK says:

    He is losing this battle very badly and so far the Senate Dems who rolled out haven’t flinched which is good for them. Labor hasn’t been very happy with the national Dems and it’s taking the work of Democrats at the state level to get them motivated and inspired again. That will pay dividends in the 2012 election and even statwide races in WI and elsewhere. Any momentum the GOP had in Wisconsin is pretty much gone given what Walker has done and his adamant refusal to negotiate is not doing him any favors in the eyes of independents.

    And I agree with the previous comment that if Rasmussen is giving him the best polling data (barely) that’s not a good sign.

  4. Nikki says:

    “However, politically, taking on the very idea of unions on head-on was a mistake and may well end up hurting the long term goal of bringing state spending in Wisconsin, and elsewhere, in order.”

    I thought the long term goal was to dry up Democrats funding source.

  5. Steven Plunk says:

    I guess the November polls will be the ones to watch. By then this could be long forgotten except in union halls. This hasn’t played out yet.

  6. JKB says:

    So what if it is unpopular? This is required work in a long struggle. Even if Walker take a bullet (That’s a figure of speech for any union thugs reading), the theme will be set. If the Dems regain power, next time they go to raise taxes to payoff promises to the unions, this will be out there.

    Look at the rhetoric on both sides, people are stuck in the 1920s as far as unionism is concerned. Walker isn’t a Robber Baron, he’s the manager of an enterprise owned and funded by the taxpayers. This debate will start the process to bringing unionism into the 21st century with eye opened to the present nature of unions. Look at Steven Taylor’s post on entitlements, people aren’t ready to face reality but that doesn’t mean you don’t lay the groundwork. Hell, look how long it took to get the American consciousness to see the Mafia.

  7. G.A.Phillips says:
  8. michael reynolds says:

    any union thugs

    School teachers. Those thugs. There’s no one as brutal as a 3rd grade teacher.

    And you wonder why your side is losing?

    Did you know roughly a third of Teacher’s Union members are Republicans? Guess how many of them will vote Republican next time?

  9. sam says:

    They certainly haven’t done themselves any PR favors with those little chickenshit moves they pulled in Ohio:

    Cincinnnati Fire Department Lt. Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters, ripped Senate President Tom Niehaus of New Richmond today for abruptly removing Sen. Bill Seitz of Green Township from a committee that narrowly approved Senate Bill 5 this morning, by a 7-5 vote.

    Another Republican, Sen. Scott Oelslager of North Canton, was removed from the Senate Rules Committee to avoid a split vote and get the bill to the 33-member Senate floor this afternoon.

    UPDATE: Seitz and Oelslager joined all 10 Democrats in voting against the bill, but fell one vote short.

  10. Nightrider says:

    Doug, from your other posts it seems you’re smart enough not to just buy-in lock, stock & barrel into the meme that taxpayers “can’t afford” anything anymore. Our public debt by itself doesn’t mean we can’t afford XYZ, it means that we have not chosen to fund the government with as much money as we have asked it to spend. I’m generally in favor of lower taxes and smaller government, but I’m getting a little tired of the arbitrariness of watching the government continuing to spend trillions on defense, Medicare, etc but now every once in awhile when the bottle stops spinning the Fox News types announce that we “can’t afford” to pay teachers or whatever. India, maybe they can’t afford it. We can. The proper question is whether we want to. If 50% of the people don’t, that’s fine.

    To be more specific, do you even know what the Wisconsin state income tax rate is, or how much higher it would have to go to close their deficit? I have no idea, but I’ll bet they could “afford it” if they want to.

  11. Wiley Stoner says:

    The only poll that counts took place last November. The taxpayers spoke. Democrats did not listen. Poll responses can be influenced by how they are worded. Got any idea what questions were asked and how they were worded Doug? In Wisconsin you have a majority of GOP in both houses of their legislature and the Governor. Just how much attention did the donks pay when they could pass what ever they wanted? Not much. You lost. Get used to it.

  12. wr says:

    JKB — You’re right about one thing — it took a long time to see the Mafia. But now it’s exposed, the criminal conspiracy between the ultra-rich and the so-called “conservatives” the loot the middle class and keep all the nation’s money.

    Oh, wait, you’re right about another thing, too. This will be a turning point. The country will finally start to turn away from the economic policies that have dominated since Reagan started us down the path towards taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

  13. Wiley Stoner says:

    Reynold go review the youtube video G. A. left for you. Tell me again about those gentle teachers. A picture is worth a thousand words. In your case a picture defeats all you have ever said or thought.

  14. sam says:

    @Stoneboy:

    ” In Wisconsin you have a majority of GOP in both houses of their legislature and the Governor. ”

    Wisconsin Voters Launch Recall Campaign Against 8 GOP Senators:

    This morning citizens from around the state took the first steps by filing recall papers against key Republican Senators who have stood with Scott Walker and pushed his partisan power grab that will strip thousands of middle class teachers, nurses, librarians and other workers of their right to collective bargaining. And we learned just last night that their disastrous budget that will cut millions from our schools and universities. . . .

    Make no mistake, these Republican Senators are vulnerable to recall for their radical partisan overreach. Senator Randy Hopper won his last election by just 184 votes. And Alberta Darling won her last race by only 1,007. By recalling just three of the eight Senators … [Democrats] can regain control of the Senate.

  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    Lookie here sam, union + political corruption makes not a right, nor does selfishly hateful emotional mob rule the likes of which you and your friends like Harry call democracy. It’s a democracy of my republic.

    Oh and we can play the recall game too, plus we stared first, na na…….how do you think Walker became county executive………

  16. G.A.Phillips says:

    er, mocracy….poop….

  17. sam says:

    Clean up on Aisle GA! Clean up on Aisle GA!

  18. mantis says:

    nor does selfishly hateful emotional mob

    You mean the Tea Partiers screaming about others getting health care coverage while they demand no one so much as look at their government Medicare?

  19. michael reynolds says:

    Honest to God, is there no one Republicans can’t manage to fear?

    I don’t much like teachers — they smell me coming, they know me from way back, down in their DNA — but I don’t think I’ve ever been scared of one.

  20. G.A.Phillips says:

    You mean the Tea Partiers screaming about others getting health care coverage while they demand no one so much as look at their government Medicare?

    Dude I give a flying pile of donkey poop for your made up generalization, or freaking medicare. Compare peaceful protesting to the indoctrinated freaking stinky trash the world mob in Madison.

    Clean up on Aisle GA! Clean up on Aisle GA!

    you got a job for me sam?

  21. G.A.Phillips says:

    Honest to God, is there no one Republicans can’t manage to fear?

    No one is scared of you or these marxist unions Harry….

  22. cian says:

    Amazing to watch really. Walker is a nut and he’s digging a big hole for the reublican party, which is growing deafer by the day. If they continue to listen only to the likes of GA and Wiley they’re doomed. Read just one of those guy’s comments and you can actually feel your brain retch.

  23. sam says:

    “you got a job for me sam?”

    If you work, will you lose your Medicaid coverage?

  24. anjin-san says:

    jKB… union thugs? Like the ones in the fake video on fox? How does it feel to be such a sap?

  25. tom p says:

    Anjin, if you are in a union AND you stand up for your collective bargaining rights, you are a “union thug” … I wear the label proudly.

  26. JKB says:

    Well, let’s see, I never said, union member = union thug but

    If you wear your SEIU t-shirt and attack people at Tea Party events – you are a union thug
    If you use violence, threats or intimidation to keep someone from speaking their view that is opposed to the union’s interests – you are a union thug
    If you intentionally bump or otherwise physically attempt to intimidate someone video union protester – you are a union thug
    If you send emails threatening retaliation to a local t-shirt printer because they produced a t-shirt with an anti-union slogan for a paying customer – you are a union thug.

    But if you are just a union member who peacefully protests something in your interest, you are not a union thug.

    So make all the jumps to conclusions you want but you might wish to consider that the real world is far more nuanced than yours.

  27. sam says:

    @Prof

    “But Walker will have won a victory that puts a permanent dent in the Democratic machine”

    Well, Steve, that’s really what it’s all about, right? None of that fiscal conservative, let’s get our financial house in order bullshit. Just plain destruction of your political enemies.

    We’ll see.

  28. sam says:

    @JKB

    “If you use violence, threats or intimidation to keep someone from speaking their view that is opposed to the union’s interests – you are a union thug”

    Then I suppose these assholes are Christian thugs, right?

  29. An Interested Party says:

    How nice of Bainbridge to expose what this demonization of unions is really all about…one more example of how the supposed party of fiscal sanity doesn’t real give a damn about balancing budgets…

  30. wr says:

    Bainbridge — So what Walker is doing is using the power of his office to slash the pay and benefits of millions of middle class workerssimply to inflict political damage on the other party.

    And you’re cheering him on.

    No doubt in the name of small government and freedom.

  31. anjin-san says:

    JKB… And if you are Fox News showing video of a fake incident (with palm trees!) that never happened in WI and blaming “union thugs” what are you?

    And if you are buying into it, what are you? Oh yea. A chump.

    JKB I notice you don’t have a single link there, much less a credible one. Are we supposed to be impressed because you know how to type?

  32. anjin-san says:

    We have to wonder now if this is the tea party Waterloo. I did not expect it quite this soon.

    At any rate, they have taken the serious issues of dealing with public pay & pensions off the rails, so they are doing real damage to our country much more quickly than I though possible.

  33. anjin-san says:

    Sam,

    The link you provided was pretty disturbing. Woody Allen had it right. If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up.

  34. If you think fighting with public employee unions is bad PR, not fighting would be far worse when Humpty dumpty falls down in beautiful Wisconsin.

    From this humble practictioner of public relations in San Diego, they are doing just fine.

  35. Mario says:

    Clean up on aisle GA is right! The video you showed is an old ploy – take some select frames that seem to prove your point, and pretend to build a solid case on them. I happen to live in Madison. I was there. There was no.”indoctrinated freaking stinky trash the world mob” to be found. Anywhere. At any time. The vast majority of protesters were teachers, college students and state employees, that worked the portion of the day the weren’t rallying. The Madison police actually commended the crowd on its peaceful sense of order.

    As for the “Marxist” unions you speak of – the president of our union is a hard-working, democracy loving Tech College teacher, whose son served in the United States Marines.

    Take your misguided rhetoric, your vicious name-calling and your judgemental attitude and go infect some other issue with it.