With Public-Sector Unions in Spotlight, How Does Voting Public View Them?

BY Dante Chinni  February 25, 2011 at 12:34 PM EDT

Firefighters at Feb. 19 rally in Madison, Wis.; Flickr Creative Commons photo courtesy CindyH Photography flickr.com/wxmom/

Firefighters at Feb. 19 rally in Madison, Wis.; Flickr Creative Commons photo courtesy CindyH Photography

What started in Wisconsin as a budget fight about the wages and bargaining power of public-sector unions has grown into a national fight as protests have spilled over into other states including Ohio, Indiana, Rhode Island and Colorado.

And in the process, the fights have grown to be about a lot more than balanced budgets, they are fundamentally about the future of unions and cold hard politics. The GOP, in the form of new governors in Ohio and Wisconsin, is arguing that unions must be weakened if the U.S. is to survive and thrive in a changed world. Unions, in return, argue that small concessions could fix the fiscal problems and the Republicans simply want to break organized labor.

Where is the public on that debate? That depends.

Despite stories about declining membership and support (very real trends), many still see value in unions. In nine of Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types a majority say they hold favorable opinions of unions, according to data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. And the numbers are bit more favorable when the question turns just to public sector unions – nine of the 12 types still hold “favorable” views, but most by larger margins.

What is your general opinion of unions that represent people who work for state or local governments?

Community TypeFavorable %Unfavorable %
Monied ‘Burbs5347
Minority Central59.540.5
Evangelical Epicenters61.438.6
Tractor Country64.335.7
Campus and Careers56.343.7
Immigration Nation53.846.2
Industrial Metropolis57.742.3
Boom Towns56.543.5
Service Center44.455.6
Empty Nests54.845.2
Military Bastions44.155.9
Mormon Outposts42.557.5

Source: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll

Also of note as the 2012 election is on many minds, the three most populous county types – the wealthy Monied Burbs, big-city Industrial Metropolis and formerly growing Boom Towns – all favor public-sector unions. The only three county types who hold unfavorable views toward public unions are less populous and reliably Republican – the small town Service Worker Centers, the Mormon Outposts and the Military Bastions near armed forces installations.

In essence, while it may be early in a protracted fight over the future of unions, it looks like there may be political challenges that come with the Republican strategy.

Follow the Money

The Burbs, Industrial Metros and Boom Towns are very different places, but they share a common trait: higher than average median household incomes. And those higher wages may have a little to do with their support of unions.

There may be anger in some of these places over the economy – for example, the Boom Towns have had deep problems in the housing crunch – but overall people are still earning a decent wage and that may make them less interested in asking other for cuts. And, as we have noted in recent posts, the Monied Burbs in particular seem to be bouncing back from the recession ahead of everyone else. That may lead people to dial back on their concern and anger.

Compare that with the attitudes in the Service Worker Centers, which were hit earliest in the economic crunch and which continue to struggle. Those places also have many people without health insurance or real benefits – many hourly workers barely getting by.

In our visits to Lincoln City, a Service Worker Center on the Oregon Coast, we have seen struggles of the local hospital and clinics, which have seen deep cuts since the recession began. As Kip Ward, who owns the Historic Anchor Inn, told us in a deeper analysis of those places, “No one has health insurance. It can be pretty tough for people.” We have chronicled the struggles of the city over the past three years – with many longtime businesses shuttering their doors.

In places like that it would make sense that there would be high frustration not only with the economy, but with employees that have stable jobs with good benefits – and perhaps increased demands that those employees pay more.

Of course, depending on how long the economic downturn continues there may be other communities that experience those same problems – and some communities that grow to feel the same way about unions. There are certainly signs that there is a bigger economic restructuring going on in the United States.

Just Beginning?

But the fight over unions is likely just beginning as well. Sometime during the last week, the budget fight in Wisconsin grew to become a more fundamental part of the political culture wars in the United States – with both sides arguing the stakes are about more than just current skirmishes.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, the states are not just asking for benefit reductions and higher employee co-pays, they are trying to weaken the ability of public unions to collectively bargain for elements of their contracts.

Americans are engaging on the issue of organized labor in new ways now, ways that may make them challenge their own political and economic views. In a New York Times piece on Wednesday, Jeremy Mendenhall, president of the Ohio Troopers Association, a registered Republican, worried his party was pushing too far, saying: “People won’t forget this in 2012.”

The way the current fights are escalating he may be right. In fact, the GOP may be counting on that, thinking the close splits in public opinion combined with a lengthy debate on the topic may work to their advantage – especially in the current austere environment.

But that’s far from certain. Support for unions may be down, but so are the “favorable” numbers for many American institutions, particularly that steady Republican ally: the business community.

In that same Pew poll, seven out of 12 Patchwork Nation county types reported they had predominantly unfavorable attitudes toward business.