As labor battles erupt in state capitals around the nation, a majority of Americans say they oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and are also against cutting the pay or benefits of public workers to reduce state budget deficits, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Labor unions are not exactly popular, though: A third of those surveyed viewed them favorably, a quarter viewed them unfavorably, and the rest said they were either undecided or had not heard enough about them. But the nationwide poll found that embattled public employee unions have the support of most Americans — and most independents — as they fight the efforts of newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio to weaken their bargaining powers, and the attempts of governors from both parties to cut their pay or benefits.
Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent. While a slim majority of Republicans favored taking away some bargaining rights, they were outnumbered by large majorities of Democrats and independents who said they opposed weakening them.
Those surveyed said they opposed, 56 percent to 37 percent, cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce deficits, breaking down along similar party lines. A majority of respondents who have no union members living in their households opposed both cuts in pay or benefits and taking away the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
The new poll reported in this morning’s Times will, I suspect, come as a shock to many political commentators. Quite a few news analyses of the assault on public-sector workers have simply assumed that the move was a political winner, with little if any thought given to the possibility that the general public wasn’t actually ready to go along. But whaddya know: while people don’t necessarily love unions — hey, I personally don’t necessarily love unions — most people apparently see them as having a legitimate role.
Again, I’m having Iraq flashbacks: there was a prolonged period when the inside-the-Beltway view was that only crackpots believed that Bush had misled us into war, even as polling indicated a substantial fraction, and eventually a majority, of the public already believed just that
Fully 62 percent of independents (and 70 percent of Democrats) oppose weakening collective bargaining. As usual, the question provides no background on PEUs and why they present a unique problem for state budgets, especially when there’s a Democrat in the governor’s office:
On the other hand, the question about cutting public workers’ pay does explicitly mention state budget deficits — and there’s still heavy majority support for workers:
A near majority (49 percent) also supports letting cops and firefighters retire after 25 years with full pensions even if they’re in their 40s — which, in some cases for people of average lifespans, would mean more pay during retirement than while they were on the job. CBS, which co-sponsored the poll, asked Chris Christie for reaction. Quote:
Christie, who has been critical of teachers’ unions in his state, said the collective bargaining story was “entertaining,” though he said it wasn’t an issue in his state or most states. He then told a CBS News reporter that he was “sure you worded the poll in a way that kept [the story] going.”
“I’m the governor, I think I’ve got a better idea on public opinion in my state than CBS News does to tell you the truth,” he said. “If not, Katie Couric should run for governor of New Jersey.”
That’s cute, and I’m sure some will quibble with the sample (36D/26R/36I and 19L/37M/36C), but even if you tweaked it to add a few more Republicans, these numbers wouldn’t shift dramatically. And why should they? Remember this graph from Pew’s poll on America’s budget crunch a few weeks ago?
Up and down the line, not a single item draws a clear majority in favor of cuts. And what about this one?
Even tea partiers go wobbly when it comes to cutting spending on education and Social Security. For whatever reason — misinformation or simple denial — the public isn’t remotely serious yet when it comes to making painful choices on spending. When asked if budget cuts are a good thing in the abstract, they’re plenty supportive, but start identifying specific programs and industries that’ll have to make do with less and those cold feet start turning icy. If you can’t even get 50 percent to say they’re prepared to cut foreign aid, how on earth will you get 50 percent to support cuts to the “working man” in the form of public employees?
I don’t know what it’ll take to build popular support for greater austerity. Maybe nothing. Maybe we’re going to have to elect a bunch of Republicans who are fully prepared to sacrifice their careers by taking tough but necessary votes on the budget. Here’s Christie from yesterday’s “Face the Nation” gently reminding viewers that collective bargaining rights aren’t inscribed on the Mt. Sinai tablets.
The poll closely mirrors the results from Gallup last week, but offers more details about public attitudes. In this case, nearly all of those details suggest the arguments from the right are failing badly.
Indeed, one result in particular may cause heart palpitations in some GOP circles: “Asked how they would choose to reduce their state’s deficits, those polled preferred tax increases over benefit cuts for state workers by nearly two to one.”
That’s probably not what Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) wanted to hear.
What’s more, people in every income group oppose compensation and benefit cuts for public employees. Cuts had the most support from those making more than $100,000 a year, and even within this group, a plurality opposed cutting pay or benefits.
If Walker and his allies assumed Americans would rally behind them, these Republicans badly misread public attitudes.
Postscript: And in case that weren’t quite enough, a new survey from the Pew Research Center found Americans siding with workers over Wisconsin’s Walker, 42% to 31%.
Tim Cavanaugh at Reason:
Forget the pitiful polling performance, the shucking of friendly legislators, the phone punk that will live in infamy. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s greatest gift to the left is hidden in plain sight: He managed to turn a consensus position based on straightforward math into what looks like a partisan issue.
Just two weeks ago, the crisis of government employee pensions was an issue for Democrats. If you look closely at states around the country, it still is. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, California Gov. Jerry Brown, even Rahmbo himself, all are engaged to varying degrees in open campaigns to roll back compensation packages for government employees. In the Nutmeg State, Gov. Dan Malloy is seeking billion-dollar cuts in public sector compensation spending in his next budget. These Democratic executives and candidates are not alienating their union donors out of limited government principle; they’re doing it because they see the logarithmic cascade of pension liability as a threat to public parks, environmental programs, rail transit, and other budget items Democrats like.
All that has now been lost in a fog of Republocrat positioning. You’d think everything was going swimmingly until the meddlesome voters gave Republicans the upper hand in so many states.
It was probably inevitable that the government employee unions would find some Republican villain to be the foil for a George Lakoff-style reframing of the state fiscal crisis — and what do you know, here’s great Lakoff himself to suggest a new conceptual framework in which public employees’ unions, by seeking the maximum payout from taxpayers, are “raising deeper issues in which wealthy corporations and individuals play a huge role.”
But Walker’s angle of approach has allowed this national issue to bog down in sniping between people who think there’s a difference between the two parties. I can’t blame Walker for trying to use this moment to weaken the political power of government employee unions. (Though it’s not totally clear that collective bargaining is the decisive factor in fat government worker contracts or government employee political clout; some of the most crushing burdens — including California’s SB 400 — were accomplished legislatively rather than at the bargaining table.) But as Arnold Schwarzenegger found out with his failed ballot initiatives of 2005, directly targeting union political power is a great way to get your ass kicked. And Walker seems to have even less finesse than Arnold.
The problem is that once you’ve moved this national issue into the realm of left-right politics, you open the floodgates of horse pucky. Sure enough, The New York Times now would have us believe most Americans want to increase their own taxes and save less for their own retirements so that so that higher-paid cops, firefighters, and teachers can retire earlier with better pensions and benefits. Public Policy Polling claims Republicans in the Badger State are turning against Walker.