Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) jihad against public employee unions is about 30 years late and likely to make Republicans even less popular with voters, who endorse collective bargaining rights for public employees — professionals for whom they have abiding respect. It’s no wonder smart Republican governors, who are a bit closer to their constituencies than their congressional counterparts, regularly demur when asked to endorse Walker’s approach.
Once upon a time, Americans were worried about what they regarded as inordinate “union power” — that was back in the 1980s. In 1981, 60 percent of Americans told a CBS/New York Times poll that labor unions had “too much influence.” Today, just 37 percent express that fear. In Gallup’s data, anti-union sentiment, never very prevalent, also peaked in 1981.
Walker and his acolytes seek to foment animosity between public- and private-sector workers — an envy not justified by the facts. Perhaps as a result, the Walkers of the world have been ineffective in sowing the seeds of division.
Just a quarter of Americans believe the salaries and benefits of most public employees are too high, with a nearly equal number saying they are too low. Think about it. How many people walk around complaining that teachers or police officers or firefighters make too much money? Damn few.
Voters are not fools. We can’t be sure whether Walker is foolish or merely demagogic. The right argues that government workers enjoy better pay and benefits than those in the private sector. Before swallowing the attendant sixth-grade statistical analysis, do the following thought experiment: Would you expect people with higher levels of education to have higher salaries and benefits, on average, than those with lower levels of education? Of course you would. Public employees tend to be better educated than their private-sector counterparts. One careful study revealed that while 28 percent of private-sector employees had a college degree, 53 percent of state and local employees had attained that level of education.
A proper comparison juxtaposes public and private employees with similar levels of education and reveals that public employees make about 7 percent less in salary and benefits combined than their private-sector counterparts, generally, and about 10 percent less than those at large private companies.
With Wisconsin’s public employees already offering concessions on salaries and benefits, the real issue is collective bargaining. Here, too, the evidence indicates Walker’s views are out of touch with mainstream America.
When the USA Today/Gallup poll found 61 percent opposing a bill that would end collective bargaining for public employees, and only 33 percent in favor, some criticized the question on two related grounds. First, they observed, quite reasonably, that words like “collective bargaining” are not part of the common lexicon and therefore responses might be heavily conditioned by the poll question itself. Second, critics noted that this particular question talked about taking away “bargaining rights” — a positively charged word — and specifically mentioned highly regarded teachers.
However, the new CBS/New York Times poll employs a different question but produced remarkably similar results, increasing our confidence that the polls are tapping real, not non-, attitudes. CBS/New York Times pollsters defined collective bargaining as “negotiations between an employer and a labor union’s members to determine the conditions of employment” and found 60 percent opposed to taking collective bargaining away from “public employee unions.” Just 33 percent supported the Walker position.
By misunderstanding public opinion and misrepresenting the facts, the Walkers of the world risk further isolating the GOP.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.