If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survives the recall election tomorrow it will signal to other governors that refoming public employee unions is politically feasible. In-depth analysis of national and state-level public opinion about reforming these unions reveals that although polls often find popular support for public sector unions, this support fades as Americans learn more about this distinct type of labor union.
In February 2011 more than 70 percent of Americans had heard of the Wisconsin protests over Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial budget reform bill to curb public employee union collective bargaining and balance the budget. National media had shown tens of thousands of protesting public workers outside of the Wisconsin state capitol protesting the law’s reform of government labor unions. Myriad polls, for instance see CBS/New York Times, Gallup/USA Today, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Rasmussen, revealed that upwards of 55 percent oppose eliminating “collective bargaining rights” as they were so described. Some concluded the public opposed efforts to reform public unions, see here, here, and here.
Yet a comprehensive analysis of public opinion data collected since 2011 reveals the American public actually favors public sector union reform, even perhaps curbing public unions’ collective bargaining power. This openness is likely driven by declining union membership and favorability toward unions, perception of unions’ negative economic impact, and compensation inequality between public and private sector workers.
Public Unions’ Role and Reform
The figure below summarizes what Americans think public sector unions should and should not do:
Summary Policy Preferences for Public Sector Union Workers
Americans believe workers have a right to unionize, even public employees (67 percent). In the absence of public dialogue explaining important differences between private and public sector union employees, most Americans think they are essentially the same. This is bolstered by a February 2011 Pew poll finding identical favorability (48 percent) of both private and public sector unions. Consequently, Americans overwhelmingly think both kinds of unions should be treated the same, in fact 77 percent think public sector workers should “have the same right to bargain when it comes to their health care, pension, and other benefits” as private sector union employees.
Although Americans think workers should be allowed to unionize, this does not mean they favor union monopoly power over workers; nearly half think workers should have more than one union to choose from. Nevertheless, they think workers should have the opportunity to sit down and talk with their employers about health care benefits (69 percent), salary and wages (69 percent), and pensions and retirement benefits (68 percent). One should not conclude, though, that Americans think unions should get whatever they want. In fact, Americans often oppose what unions want.
Several state-level polls ask specific policy questions of Wisconsin and California voters regarding public sector’ pay, benefits, and collective bargaining. Analyzing these state polls suggest what Americans in general might think about various policy changes for public sector unions in their states.
Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly support reforms that require public employees to contribute more toward their own retirement benefits and pensions. A February 2011 Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll found 81 percent favor “requiring public employees to contribute to their own pensions.” Similarly a January 2012 Marquette Law School poll and a Reason-Rupe poll found upwards of 70 percent favor increasing public employees’ required contributions to their own pensions and health benefits.
According to Rasmussen, 57 percent of Wisconsin voters oppose requiring school districts to buy health insurance from a union-created insurance company. This suggests voters would favor allowing states and municipalities greater flexibility to re-negotiate union contracts. According to the same poll, upwards of 60 percent of Wisconsin voters oppose initiating disbursement of lifetime retirement benefits before early-retired government workers are about 65 years old. This also suggests these voters would oppose “double-dipping,” in which retired government workers collecting lifetime retirement benefits in their 40s and 50s go back to work and receive a paycheck in addition to the retirement benefits.
Wisconsin voters are also open to voter referenda before implementing enhancements to public union benefits. They are evenly divided over whether pay raises for state workers that would increase government spending should require voter approval (41 percent oppose, 40 percent favor). However a plurality (48 percent) of Wisconsin voters thinks increases to pension benefits that increase government spending should require voter approval. This suggests many respondents understand the difference between long-term obligations, such as retirement benefits, and annual pay raises.