Poll: Support For Labor Unions Remains At Near-Historic Low

February 17, 2011 9:24 a.m.

While protests continue to rage in Wisconsin over a proposal to drastically roll back public employee union’s rights, a new Pew poll finds that less than half of all Americans have a favorable opinion of unions. In fact, their support is hovering near an all time low.

Only 45% of respondents in the poll said they viewed unions favorably, while nearly as many, 41%, said they had an unfavorable opinion of unions. And while the poll was conducted before demonstrators took to the streets in Wisconsin, it underscores the tenuous position in which unions currently find themselves.

Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) proposed plugging a budget shortfall by rolling back the collective bargaining power of the state’s unions. The proposed changes would eliminate the ability for most public sector unions to negotiate for better heath and pension plans, though they could still negotiate on salary.Also troubling for those demonstrating in Wisconsin, a Pew poll released last week found that among a slate of potential state level cuts, rolling back public workers’ benefits was the most popular option. Though respondents were evenly split at 47% over whether or not that was a good decision, they gave a clear thumbs down to every other proposal. Two-thirds opposed cutting funds for transit programs and state universities, while nearly eight in ten opposed cuts to health and public school spending.

According to the latest poll, most Americans think unions have helped to increase unionized employees’ salary (53%) and to improve working conditions for all Americans (51%). The sticking point, however, is that Americans think unions are just plain awful for business. A plurality of respondents said they think unions reduce the number of good jobs in the country and harm America’s competitiveness in a global economy.

Those results correlate to a stunning plunge in Americans’ attitudes toward unions in just the last three years as the economy plummeted into recession. In 2007, Pew pegged support for unions at 58%. Three years later, it had fallen an astounding 17 points.

One prime example of unions bearing the blame for the crisis was the auto industry. When American car companies teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, many people blamed unions, saying it was their plush benefits that drove the companies under by making it impossible for them to compete with foreign companies. Whether true or not, Americans’ opinion of unions likely soured as a result.

And though that instance involved private sector workers, the Pew poll found that there is almost no difference in Americans’ views of public sector versus private unions. Thirty-seven percent of respondents viewed private unions unfavorably, while 40% felt the same way about public sector unions.

One interesting side note is that Americans are more willing to side with unions than the government in labor disputes. In the poll, 44% said they would likely support unions if they took on the government, while 38% said they would more likely back the government.

Public opinion could play a crucial role as the events unfold in Wisconsin. Several Wisconsin state legislators have already introduced amendments to limit the changes proposed by the governor.

The Pew poll was conducted February 2-7 among 1,385 adults nationwide. It has a margin of error of 3.5%.

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