Politics & Policy

Organized Labor vs. Public Opinion

Union overreach is fracturing the Obama coalition.

‘Polls show that the vast majority of people think that [Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin] has overreached. . . . His popularity has gone down. So he’s losing.” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said it on Meet the Press, so it must be true, right?

Not necessarily. More than one poll suggests that public-sector unions have picked a bad time to stage massive temper tantrums to defend the status quo. Most Americans are in no mood to preserve government workers’ inflated salaries and benefits. Indeed, ordinary Americans are not sold on the proposition that public-sector employees should even be allowed to form unions and go out on strike.

In a recent poll on the situation in Wisconsin, Scott Rasmussen found that 48 percent of voters take Gov. Scott Walker’s side in the budget dispute while 38 percent support the public-sector unions. And by a similar margin (49 percent to 38 percent), voters question whether public-sector employees should enjoy the legal right to strike. In this, they agree with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who denounced such strikes as “unthinkable and intolerable” because they look “toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it.”

The poll reveals several sizable schisms in the electorate. Men support Governor Walker by a margin of 57 percent to 32 percent. Women side with the unions, though by a smaller margin (44 percent to 40 percent). Young voters are also pro-union, but their elders are decidedly not. Voters age 18–29 support the unions by 52 percent to 36 percent, while seniors side with Walker by a somewhat larger margin (54 percent to 32 percent). There are similar divisions by race and partisan affiliation.

To liberal strategists, this must look an awful lot like the traditional Democratic coalition of disproportionately young, female, minority, and poor voters, a coalition that, though formidable, has never quite constituted a majority of the electorate. To prevail in elections, Democrats have always had to win over additional constituencies. Ethnic union members and conservative Southerners, for example, were essential ingredients of FDR’s New Deal coalition.

More recently, Democrats won elections thanks to their appeal to elite voters, i.e., those with high incomes and lots of education. President Obama carried voters in households with incomes over $200,000 by 52 percent to 46 percent and absolutely dominated among those with post-graduate degrees, winning 58 percent of their votes. Constituting 17 percent of the electorate in 2008 and likely to continue growing as a share of the electorate, the over-educated are a force with which both parties must reckon.

But, when it comes to the budget and labor disputes at issue in Wisconsin, Obama’s majority coalition splinters. Specifically, voters in households with incomes over $100,000 are with Walker 50 percent to 38 percent. Even those with post-graduate degrees are with him by a margin of 48 percent to 43 percent.

Two other significant findings: The “other” category of race (those self-identifying as neither white nor African-American) breaks for the governor by a lopsided 65 percent–to–30 percent margin. And the bellwether group of political independents supports him by 56 percent to 31 percent. It’s never good news for liberals when these voters look a whole lot like conservative Republicans.

The most surprising finding? Voters in union households are split right down the middle. A plurality of 46 percent favor their union brothers and sisters, but 44 percent take Walker’s side. My theory is that union voters who work in the private sector see themselves primarily as stressed-out taxpayers, and therefore see things differently than their brethren in the public-sector unions (the Manhattan Institute’s Steve Malanga calls them “tax eaters”). Again, this is a dynamic that, if it were to spread to other states, could threaten the heretofore successful and unbreakable political formula of the modern union movement.

All this comports with findings in other opinion surveys. According to a recent report issued by the Pew Research Center, “the favorability ratings for labor unions remain at nearly their lowest level [45 percent] in a quarter century.” That decline has been fueled by a growing sense that labor unions have been a drag on the ability of American firms to compete internationally, throttled worker productivity, and crowded out “good jobs” in the economy. Over the last four years, these negative assessments have increased most dramatically among seniors, independents, those with college and post-graduate degrees, and non-union households — the same voter groups Rasmussen found to be so anti-union and pro-Walker in Wisconsin. Affluent voters (defined by Pew to be households with incomes over $75,000) in particular are dismayed by the unions. By a margin of 37 percent to 27 percent they believe unions make good jobs scarce; by 44 percent to 26 percent they say unions hamper worker productivity; and by a resounding 54 percent–to–18 percent margin they believe unions diminish American competitiveness.

The most surprising finding in the Pew poll? Former union members expressed the most skepticism on these matters, even more than those who never worked in a union. Little wonder Trumka and other union bigwigs fear the structural reforms proposed by Governor Walker that would give rank-and-file workers the option of holding on to their union dues. A little taste of freedom, it seems, goes a long way.

— Michael G. Franc is vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Michael G. Franc — Mr. Franc is vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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