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Half of Wisconsinites favor ending automatic union dues deductions for public employees and half don’t think workers should be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Essentially, these results suggest openness to right-to-work laws.
Although Wisconsin voters would prefer public employees contribute more toward their pensions and health benefits, they are uncomfortable with “reducing” worker pay and benefits (53 percent oppose). Somewhat ironically, requiring public employees to contribute more toward their pensions and retirement benefits is a form of a pay cut. In fact, the Reason-Rupe poll finds similar contradictory results in the same poll. Like Gallup, Reason-Rupe finds roughly half of Wisconsinites oppose “reducing public employee benefits” yet 74 percent favor requiring public employees to “contribute more toward their own pensions and health care.” It appears framing these kinds of reforms as increasing contributions rather than decreasing benefits increases public support.
Wisconsin residents also favor several others measures that would reduce the cost of public employee retirement benefits. Sixty-nine percent favor transitioning new public employees from defined-benefit guaranteed pensions to 401(k)-style accounts. Seventy-nine percent favor raising the retirement-benefit eligibility age to at least 60 and half favor raising the eligibility age to 65.
Many Americans are also uncomfortable with breaking agreements on what pensions will pay current retirees. However, a UC Berkeley Field Poll of California voters found that 58 percent favor reducing promised retirement benefits for new employees and future unworked years of current employees. According to the same survey, 52 percent approve of giving state and local governments legal authority to modify existing pension agreements with their current workers.
California voters are also open to several reforms to reduce the overall cost of public employee retirement benefits. Seventy-three percent of California voters favor establishing a salary cap when calculating pension benefits of public employees. Sixty percent favor increasing the minimum age at which public employees can receive pension benefits. Fifty-six percent favor replacing the current pension system for public employees with a new system that would combine 401k-style benefits with reduced guaranteed payments.
Based on the reaction to the Wisconsin public union protests in 2011, it may have appeared the public was unwilling to accept public union reforms. Yet when concrete policy questions are asked, Americans are in fact quite open to reform.
Why Open to Reform?
There are several factors driving openness to reform, namely declining union membership and favorability toward unions, perception of unions’ negative economic impact, and compensation inequality between public and private sector workers.
Over the past decades, union membership has plummeted from 20.1 percent in 1982 to 11.8 percent by 2011. Back in 1982, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 51 percent of non-unionized workers wanted to join a union. However, by 2011 a plurality of Americans say they prefer not to be in a union. A fast-paced, upwardly mobile, and increasingly globalized economy has shown the benefits of non-union membership. Individuals can be compensated for their own work ethic and merit, rather than be tied to the production of their co-workers.
Today, only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are unionized. An astounding 37 percent of public employees, however, are unionized, five times higher than the private sector. In the private sector, expectations for compensation adjusted with economic and social changes. However, much of the public sector continued using a collective bargaining model, promising retirement benefits in the form of guaranteed pension payments and using collectivized negotiation over pay and health care benefits.
The divergence in retirement plans has led to the perception that public employees receive better retirement benefits than private sector workers. For instance, 65 percent of Wisconsin residents think government workers receive “better retirement benefits than workers with similar jobs in the private sector.” Likewise a plurality (41 percent) of Californians in 2011 said public workers’ pensions are “too generous,” up from 32 percent in October 2009. Nationally, about half of Americans think public employees have better benefits than those with similar jobs in the private sector. The difference in public and private sector unionization coupled with the perception of stark compensation inequality likely bolsters support for reform.
Not only has union membership declined, but so has favorability toward labor unions in general. Favorability toward labor unions has steadily declined from a high of 75 percent favorable in October 1953 to 52 percent in 2011. An August 2011 Gallup poll found 55 percent of Americans expect unions to become weaker in the future and 67 percent do not think this is a “bad thing.” In fact, the same Gallup poll found 42 percent would like to see labor unions have “less influence” in the United States, up from 28 percent in 2007.
Americans also tend to believe unions have a negative impact on the economy and global competitiveness. Gallup finds a plurality (49 percent) believe “labor unions mostly hurt the United States’ economy in general.” Although a significant number (35 percent) of Americans think labor unions did little to impact the economy in 2011, a plurality (40 percent) thinks labor unions did “more to hurt the economy.” Likewise a plurality (36 percent) also think labor unions have a “negative” effect on American companies’ ability to compete globally. Interestingly, a survey conducted by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa found that nearly half of Americans think teachers’ unions “hurt” the “quality of public school education in the United States.” In contrast, only 26 percent thought teacher unionization has helped and 25 percent think it has made no difference.