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Public Still Supports Unions

POSTED: March 02, 2011, 12:00 am

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Two recent polls should give public sector labor union members some relief as they endure politically charged attacks in several states. With much of the nation’s focus on Wisconsin and Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to take away unions’ collective bargaining rights, the episode has called into question whether labor is witnessing its demise. A New York Times/CBS News poll suggests all is not lost for the labor movement, as Americans might be more willing to question their role but seem uncomfortable with current efforts to take away workers’ rights.

The New York Times/CBS poll reveals that 33% of respondents had a favorable opinion of labor unions and 40% of those surveyed said that they would rather increase taxes to reduce their state’s budget deficit than decrease benefits of public sector employees. At the same time, the survey reveals that people do not see unions as having outsized influence over American life and politics. Just 37% of those surveyed thought unions had too much influence, while 29% said labor has just the right amount of influence and 19% believe unions have too little influence. This is in stark comparison to the Reagan era when the same question was posed. At that time, 60% of respondents indicated they felt that unions had too much influence. It was clearly a reflection of those times as President Reagan did not hide his disdain for unions and unilaterally shut down the air traffic controllers’ union and fired its members.

Even more revealing is a poll from Public Policy Polling surveying Wisconsin voters. The state has become the epicenter of the Republican v. unions grudge match as Governor Walker has targeted public sector unions as the culprit in the state’s fiscal woes. While other Republicans around the country have sought to limit the wage and benefits of union members, Walker has taken the most extreme stance by pushing for the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public workers. His stance sent state Senate Democrats scrambling out of Wisconsin to prevent a quorum and a vote on Walker’s proposal. Workers have converged on the Wisconsin state capitol and have occupied the state house in protest of the governor’s plan.

Despite all the drama, voters in Wisconsin appear to be sticking by labor. The Public Policy Polling survey shows that 52% of the respondents side with the Senate Democrats over the issue of workers’ rights and 49% of those surveyed has a favorable impression of labor unions. Most importantly, 51% of the voters surveyed side with labor unions in this battle. The state’s politicians, though, should have some concern over the sentiments of voters regarding Wisconsin’s political leadership. Survey respondents were split evenly on the question of whether Governor Walker should be recalled from office - with 48% saying he should and 48% opposing any effort to end his term early. Similarly, voters are split on whether they view the 14 senators who left the state favorably or unfavorably.

Historically, the ascension of Blacks into the middle class was through unionized jobs that provide good wages and benefits. African-Americans benefited from employment in the private and public sectors, in union jobs in the automobile industry, other manufacturing sectors, and public service jobs in teaching, government, and law enforcement. If the protections that gave workers the tools to negotiate for better wages and work conditions are stripped away, the Black middle class, and by effect the Black community, will be disproportionately impacted.

This confrontation between Republicans and labor has major implications for the 2012 presidential campaign. If the GOP is successful in demonizing organized labor and diluting its role in electoral politics, it could work to the eventual GOP presidential nominee’s advantage. Democrats have traditionally counted on labor’s votes and financial resources to counter Republican fundraising. The issue is even more critical for Democrats in 2012 with the Supreme Court ruling that seemingly opens the door for the influx of corporate dollars in political campaigns.

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