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.
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.
There is also concern over labor union power. A clear plurality of Americans, 43 percent, believe labor unions "have too much power" about half of that believe they don't have enough and 28 percent think they have an adequate amount. A plurality of Americans (36 percent) also says "labor unions have too much influence on American life and politics today."
A combination of declining union membership, declining union favorability, belief of unions' negative economic impact, and perception of stark compensation inequality between public and private sectors, have likely created an environment ripe for reform.
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.