by Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center
Special to the Washington Post
In its Topic A feature for Sunday March 6, 2011, the Washington Post asked several experts who’s winning and who’s losing in the fight over public-employee unions. Here is Scott Keeter’s reply.
Public attitudes about labor unions have been largely stable since the start of the battles in Wisconsin and other states. A Pew Research poll last week found favorable opinions of unions outnumbering unfavorable opinions by a 47%-to-39% margin, essentially unchanged from a poll conducted in early February. But the battles have energized union households and liberal Democrats. Among both groups, very favorable attitudes about unions jumped sharply in the past few weeks.
Most polls have found majorities opposed to recent efforts to limit or eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. A late February Pew Research poll about the Wisconsin dispute found 42% siding more with the public-employee unions than with the governor (31%). Despite recent Republican criticism of public-sector unions, Pew Research’s polling has found little difference in opinions about public-sector vs. private-sector unions.
Attitudes about all of the parties involved in labor disputes — governments, labor unions and businesses — are significantly more negative today than they were a decade ago. But half or more of the public believes that labor unions have had a positive impact on conditions for all American workers, and only a minority believes that union agreements give union workers unfair advantages. Still, the public has mixed views of the impact of unions on workplace productivity, the global competitiveness of U.S. companies and the availability of good jobs in the country.