Americans favor or oppose limiting public unions’ collective bargaining power depending on how pollsters ask the question. If polls describe collective bargaining as public unions’ right to bargain, the wording predisposes respondents to oppose policies purported to take away rights.

A Reason-Rupe poll of 700 Wisconsin residents on landlines and cell phones asked half the sample if they “support or oppose reducing collective bargaining rights for public employee unions” and 52 percent opposed. The other half of the sample was asked if they “support or oppose limiting collective bargaining for public employee unions” and 51 percent favored. The primary difference between these two polls is using the word “rights” when describing collective bargaining.

 

Before a political battle erupted over Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to curb public unions’ collective bargaining, little national media covered public sector unions and the looming government employee pension crisis facing many state governments. Moreover, few Americans had heard of how public unions negotiate contracts or that public unions are distinct from private sector labor unions. Consequently, when national pollsters surveyed Wisconsinites and Americans nationally in spring 2011, question wording in the polls highly influenced responses.

In early 2011, much of the early polling framed the dispute over public unions’ collective bargaining in terms of “rights.” For instance, numerous pollsters found upwards of 55 percent oppose measures to “take away,” “eliminate,” “weaken,” or “reduce” “collective bargaining rights” as they were so described.

A problem interpreting these poll results is that many Americans do not understand the collective bargaining process. In fact, only about 20 percent of Americans say they are “very familiar” with the process of collective bargaining. Consequently, wording of the question on surveys can highly impact response.

Querying the Roper Center iPoll database for “collective bargaining” or “union” in 2011 finds nine national polls asking about curbing public sector union collective bargaining power. Seven of the nine polls describe collective bargaining as public union’s “right” to bargain; these polls find strong majority opposition to limiting public union contract negotiations. Two polls do not use the word “rights” in their questions about collective bargaining, and these find pluralities support limiting collective bargaining.

Survey Questions Using Word “Rights”

Survey Questions Not Using Word “Rights”

Americans are not clear on the public union collective bargaining process. Consequently, framing questions about public sector reform in terms of taking away rights confounds survey response. America’s rich historical narrative of protecting individuals’ rights predisposes respondents to oppose policies purported to take away rights.

Full poll results can be found here and cross tabs here.

ORC International conducted fieldwork for the poll, May 14th-18th 2012 of both mobile and landline phones, 708 Wisconsin adults, margin of error +/- 3.7%.  Likely Wisconsin voters (609, MOE +/-4%) include registered respondents who said they are absolutely certain to vote or very likely to vote in the June 5th recall election for governor.

Emily Ekins is the director of polling for Reason Foundation where she leads the Reason-Rupe public opinion research project, launched in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @emilyekins.