Based on the media coverage of the last few weeks, one might imagine unions are on the rise in public opinion. Actually, I've found three polls since Friday showing quite the opposite is true. I've also found data that Democrats have dropped a percentage point or two on a general congressional ballot, while Republicans have remained steady. Republicans are about 1.5 percent ahead of Democrats, which doesn't mean much since some districts are very lopsided.
So, how bad are the perceptions of unions in general? According to Gallup this weekend:
Republicans Negative, Democrats Positive in Describing UnionsAmong all Americans, 38% have a negative image, 34% positive, and 17% neutralAmericans are slightly more likely to say something negative rather than positive when asked what word or phrase comes to mind when they think of "labor unions." By about a 3-to-1 ratio, Republicans have negative rather than positive things to say about labor unions. By better than 2 to 1, Democrats' impressions of unions are more positive than negative.
Notice this question was generic, not about "public employee unions." It is my guess, and only a guess, that PEUs would poll slightly lower than the labor movement in general. However, this would also depend on the questions asked. If you ask, "How do you feel about teacher, firemen, and police officers?" and then ask how you feel about unions for those groups… trust me, they'd poll better. You can "prime" a poll with questions that remind people of favorable impressions. It's a common stunt, one I've seen in the raw polling methods of groups across the political spectrum.
The question unions should be asking is why if things seem so great in the media and at rallies in Wisconsin have unions not gained broadly from recent events?
When I talk to my liberal / progressive friends and colleagues, they suggest the vast, vast majority of people support unions. The common refrain is, "Didn't you see all the protesters during the week? Didn't you read the polls?"
Okay, there are two clear problems with those points: 1) People with jobs and business owners don't counter-protest during business hours, if at all. 2) The polls asked some rather leading questions.
The question, "Should public employee unions be stripped of collective bargaining rights?" was misleading in several ways. First, the Wisconsin legislation signed by Gov. Walker did not strip PEUs of all collective bargaining. More accurately, the legislation limited the issues subject to bargaining. That's a major point. Second, when you describe almost anything as a "right" the tendency in polls seems to be that voters do not like any "right" infringed. If instead the question asks about "contract negotiations" without the mention of "rights" the polling data are different.
Polling with questions of "limiting" or "reforming" PEU negotiations gives you a different result than polling on "taking away rights." Recent polls were, intentionally or not, slanted to imply Wisconsin was ending all collective bargaining. It is restricting bargaining substantially, but that is different. The polling questions were not accurate and therefore did not capture the national mood.
In the end, people are torn between wanting to reward civil servants, especially teachers and emergency personnel, and the realization that local governments and school districts are financially struggling. Raising taxes in states that have declining tax bases isn't feasible. We can tax "the rich" more, but that will not offset the deficits locally. It just won't -- no matter how you do the math. Taxpayers believe they can't give much more. Schools, generally supported by local property taxes, are especially hard-hit by declining property values, foreclosures, and out-migration from the Midwest and manufacturing centers.
I'm not vehemently anti-union (I belong to a union), but I can see the trends in public opinion aren't good for unions. Unions are going to struggle for years to come. They have not reformed, which they must do, and taxpayers will continue to drift away from supporting labor organizations.
Unions did not win nationally while losing the battle in Wisconsin. There's just not enough evidence to support that claim. The media are making it seem that way, and union supporters are telling each other this is a turning point for unions. The unions and their supporters are engaging in wishful thinking. That's easy to do when everyone around you sees things the same way.