UnionWatch recently commissioned a survey of 800 voters in California to explore public support for measures to rein in the power of public employee unions. Here are the principal findings and conclusions. The interviews were conducted between September 29th and October 5th, 2010. The margin of error associated with the results is +/- 3.5%. To summarize some of these:

Do California Voters View Public Employee Unions as Having Too Much Influence?

People tend to view public employee unions as very influential: The survey looked at this in some detail and found the same: 51% of the voters believe labor unions representing public employees have too much influence in state and local government.

Questions about specific public employee unions only yielded the result that the CTA is seen as too influential, followed by the Correctional Peace Officers. Even those two specific unions are less likely to be seen as influential than the generic phrase ‘labor unions representing public employees.

For the most part all subgroups of the electorate agreed with this question; we found some differences but they were relatively small. Significantly more likely to feel public employee unions have too much influence are:

√ Males over 45: this group is both more likely to pay attention to the news and more informed of current affairs, and is more conservative particularly on fiscal issues.

√ Conservative Republicans

√ Males who are political independents; in the last few years this has been a fairly conservative group on fiscal issues

Significantly less likely to feel this way are

√ Union members

√ Younger women (under 45)

√ African Americans

Other salient union issues raised with voters were inability to fire, followed by pension abuse, followed by salary disparity. Here are the survey results on these topics:

√ 62% feel it is accurate to say that unions make it impossible to for a government employee who is not doing his or her job

√ 64% feel it is accurate to say that unions use their political influence to get pay and benefits for public employees that we simply cannot afford.

Also:

√ 43% feel public employees make more than people in comparable positions in the private sector, 19% about the same amount and 16% feel they make less. Twenty-two percent did not know enough to say.

√ 62% feels public employees get more generous pensions than people in the private sector, 13% about the same and 9% feel public employee pensions are less generous. We asked a different version of this question which included a more complete description of benefits, mentioning health and dental, paid vacations and sick leave. The results were the same, however.

More information does make a difference. Respondents were asked relatively early in the questionnaire whether people felt something needed to be done to limit the influence of public employee unions, and asked a similar question at the end of the questionnaire; in between our respondents were exposed to a large number of the pro’s and con’s of doing so. The later question shows a substantially higher level of support for limiting the influence of public employees:

Question 15: is legislation needed to limit the influence of unions representing public employee?  Needed 45 Not needed 45

Question 60: Would you support or would you oppose passing laws to limit the influence of public employee unions? Support 60 Oppose 34

The most problematic question is what to do. Here are responses to three options:

A follow up question asking people to select which proposal they liked best provided a slightly different view of things, this one suggesting voluntary membership is a somewhat stronger candidate:

People don’t ‘get’ the connection between union dues and excessive pay and benefits.

When we asked questions connecting the dots between union influence and pay and benefits people agree the questions were accurate by 2 to 1 margins.

People don’t want to deal with part of the problem (union contributions) they want to deal with all campaign contributions (and include corporate contributions). The survey confirmed this finding. As we reported earlier, 59% of the voters support a measure to no longer allow government to withhold that portion of dues that is used for political purposes. We half sampled this question with a different version that banned both government withholding and corporations withholding political contributions from their paychecks. We found substantially stronger support for the version of the question that included the language on corporations (70%) then the language that did not (59%).

A different question on this issue looked at it from the opposite angle, by looking at the impact of the argument unions have used against previous reform efforts. A clear majority finds it convincing that it is unfair to restrict public employee unions without also doing something about the influence of corporations:

The survey also looked at the context in which this issue is likely to be debated. The findings of these questions generated few if any surprises. The dissatisfaction of the voters with the direction California is going in has been document in many other surveys; also well known is that this dissatisfaction goes well beyond a concern about the economy, but also includes governance. Our look at this confirmed this, finding in addition that there is a large difference between state government and local government. People are far more likely to think that state government in Sacramento needs to change than that their local government needs to change:

The same difference was found for the extent to which people feel decision making is driven by special interests, rather than made to the benefit of the citizenry. When it came to state government, 72% felt decisions are made to benefit special interests. In the case of their region’s local government 46% felt this was the case, while 45% felt decisions are made for the most part to benefit residents.

The pension crisis in particular is likely to be an on-going problem that will provide support for the argument that change is needed to limit the influence of public employee unions. As we have mentioned most people are aware that public employee pensions are too rich and agree that you can connect union influence to excessive pensions. In addition to these we found substantial support for pension reform, even when questions were asked the ‘pushed back’ with the opposing point of view:

√ 67% supports a proposal to shift new hires to a 401K plan, while keeping current employees on the retirement system that is in place today.

√ Support for this proposal was dramatically lower (48%) when a carve-out was included for police and fire fighters. People who want pension reform want to reform all pensions. The open ends suggest that there is some awareness of the contracts with the prison guards, although very few people mentioned it.

√ 48% agreed reform is needed in view of the $500 billion unfunded liability, while 39% agreed there was a problem, but that we should not reduce pensions, for police and fire fighters in particular.

Fundamental attitudes:

Our previous work on attitudes towards labor unions has found consistently that the voting public can be divided into 3 groups. First a group of hard core union supporters, typically on the left or members of union families. Second a group of hard core anti-union folks, typically conservative men. The 3rd is an in between group which does not have strong feelings one way or the other.

The problem with union reform measures is that the core anti-union group is well short of 50% of the vote, and unions have been successful in persuading the middle group to vote with union supporters.

It may be that as a result of the pension scandal the math is changing a bit, at least as far as California is concerned. When at the end of the questionnaire we attempted to do such a segmentation we found that the size of the anti union group was well over 50% of the vote. This is not to say that this is true in California today. We used questions at the end of the sample to conduct this segmentation, and found it after our sample had heard about and been asked about a variety of pension / budget etc., and that our questions were focused specifically on public employee unions. In other words, the data suggest that with some education a coalition greater than 50% of the vote can be built.

It continues to be true that majorities of the voters agree with both sides of the debate; for instance:

√ 60% agree that unions are doing to government what they did to the airline, auto and steel industries.

√ 65% agree police officers need strong union protections

However, the current fiscal crisis and news coverage of the pension abuses have created an opportunity in which a majority of the voters supports reforms. A question (Q39) that best summarizes the relative balance of opinion found the 54% agrees with the premise that reform is needed, while 37% feels it is unfair to limit public employee unions without also limiting the influence of corporations.

This question also allows us to look at demographic segmentation:

√ Political ideology appears to be the most significant driver: liberals oppose reform, while conservatives support it. Partisan differences match ideological differences as do regional differences.

√ Other demographics don’t have much of an effect; age and gender differences are minimal, for instance.

√ Among people who are currently union members 40% agrees reforms are needed, while 50% agree with the union point of view. Former union members and people who have never been union members agree with the case for reform 60% of the time.

Persuasion:

We tested a variety of arguments for their persuasive effect and found there were some with a reasonably good impact. We use a scale that asks people how convincing they find an argument; our rule of thumb is that to pack some punch at least 30% should find something very convincing. If 40% responds that way you’ve got something and scores of 50% or higher are very powerful. Most of the arguments we tested (Q40 to Q48) hit the 30% benchmark and a few hit the 40% level:

√ Public employee unions spend $250M / year on political activities

√ Double dipping on pensions, make more in retirement then when they were working

√ LA unfired spends millions on teachers it cannot fire

Conclusions:

1. Because of the budget crisis and publicity covering the pension abuses a measure to limit the influence of public employees has good odds of passing. Core attitudes are not violently anti-union, but there are enough people who see problems with public employee unions. It is important to remember that we only got a clear majority of support for reform at the end of the questionnaire. In the early portions of our interview our sample split down the middle on the question whether reform is needed.

2. There are good arguments to support reform, mostly highlighting the magnitude of the influence of unions and the abuses that have resulted. The pension issue is a big one, but the public is impressed by other problems as well.

3. While the impact of arguments is good, it is our belief that it is more important to get the correct measure. The differences in support levels between the various options we tested is very large; although this is an apples to oranges comparison the differences in support for policies is larger than the differences in impact of various arguments. To put this point differently, there is a majority support for reform, but the specifics of reform will be at least as important as the arguments in determining the ultimate outcome;

a. Easiest to sell is making union membership voluntary.

b. Hardest to sell (probably) is a measure to ban government collection of dues for political purposes.

c. It will be a lot easier to sell a measure that deals with both corporate and union contributions than with one that only deals with union contributions.

To view the entire survey results, click here.

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