Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

There is power in a union

By Rosemary Joyce

And it turns out, the American people value the rights workers gain through unionization, opposing efforts to weaken bargaining rights of public employees by 60% to 33%-- almost two-to-one in favor of maintaining the rights of union workers to organize and bargain collectively.

(Pause for the red meat critics to begin fuming and spewing incoherent objections.)

Now back to the reality-based world: a poll reported in the New York Times today found that

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.

This should come as no surprise, since polling has consistently shown support for unions, and opposition to Wisconsin Governor Walker, in particular, has risen so high that voters in Wisconsin polled now would not elect him if he were running today.

Yet much effort has been expended to try to muddy the waters by characterizing worker's rights gained through unionization as an unfair advantage not enjoyed by those unprotected by unions. Even though the obvious solution to be unprotected in labor negotiations is, in fact, to get your act together and act collectively, commentators have claimed that there is a nationwide repudiation of unions, and in particular, of public sector unions.

The NY Times/CBS poll shows support not just for the right to bargain collectively, but opposition to asking for concessions in pay and benefits like those that Wisconsin's public unions actually offered to accept (even though, as David Cay Johnston argues, pensions are deferred compensation that public employees accept in lieu of competitive wages):

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.

Support for the right to bargain collectively is of huge importance, as it indicates that Americans understand that this is a fundamental way that workers maintain an ability to influence their own working conditions.

But support for fighting pay and benefits cuts, which registers at 57% of those polled, is more surprising. Governors in many states are targeting public employees pay and benefits as low hanging fruit, because it has appeared that the false argument that public employees are enjoying unearned benefits had gained traction.

Apparently not:

61 percent of those polled — including just over half of Republicans — said they thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees were either “about right” or “too low” for the work they do.

In fact, as numerous studies have shown, public sector workers tend overall to be paid lower than workers with the same education level in the private sector.

(A recent New York Times article that separated workers by education level suggests that public sector workers without college degrees actually did as well or better than their private sector counterparts; but that those with college degrees do notably worse. Somehow, though, I don't think the rhetoric of privilege is directed at janitorial staff who may be getting something closer to a living wage by working for states; it is specifically aimed at the more educated public sector workers, including teachers. And for these more-educated workers, public sector compensation lags.)

This is powerful news.

But the poll has even more to offer, both positive and negative.

On the positive side, even a majority of those who did not have a union member in their household were opposed to stripping unions of bargaining rights and asking for concessions from public employees. So this support is not simply by those with something to lose.

But the bad news is that the highest proportion in favor of cutting pay and benefits for public employees is found among those earning $100,000 or more. Since much of the rhetoric about this issue has posed this as a question of being fair to workers of modest income, it is disheartening to realize that the most enthusiasm for cutting the compensation of public workers actually comes from those who, by virtue of their income, likely have good benefits themselves.

Resentment of unionized public employees may actually be a sign of the corrosive effects of growing inequality on the concept of an American commitment to shared prosperity, not among those losing most ground, but among those closer to wealth-- but seeing it retreat little by little as it is concentrated in the hands of the very tiny minority that is gaining the economic upper hand. And tragically, as those nearer to wealth feel poorer, they apparently identify as the culprits those who are losing the most in our current retreat to the economic relations of the '90s — the 1890s, that is.