Public Opinion Turns Against Labor Unions in California

Irv Lefberg33


Check out this story in the Sacramento Bee. 

This story was front page news in some California newspapers, but didn’t get much coverage elsewhere.   As the title of today’s post says, the latest public opinion polls in California – conducted by the reputable Field Poll organization – show a sharp drop in public support for labor unions.

This story is really about growing anger with public sector unions over strikes (e.g., the recent San Francisco transit strike) and (taxpayer supported) government employee pensions.  The sometimes highly generous pensions have been (rightly in some cases, wrongly in many others)  blamed for a lot of municipal government fiscal woes.  California has many more real (and highly publicized) municipal pension abuses than most states.

When public sector unions are the bulk of remaining labor union membership and power, this  is a big problem for the labor union movement.   When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature, last year, stripped public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights, Labor characterized Wisconsin as ground zero,  a critical battle ground, for all labor union rights.

The effort to recall Walker failed, not only because conservative special interest money poured in from outside the state to support him, while national Democrats dithered, but because even in (generally) progressive Wisconsin, liberals are,  at best, ambivalent, about public sector unions.

Public sector unions have always been viewed and treated differently from their private sector relatives. The clearest justification for this is still Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 letter to the National Federation of Federal Employees. .  (Walker invoked FDR’s words in the recent battle in Wisconsin.  His opponents pointed out that FDR, unlike Walker, was generally and ardently pro union, and that Walker’s motives were different).

With the private sector rate of unionization in the U.S. falling to its lowest percent since 1932, labor advocates, who view the decline as the major reason for stagnation of worker wages, face an uphill battle.  How to leverage still strong, but increasingly unpopular, public sector unions in this fight, is a major challenge.  California’s Field Poll confirms that.



3 thoughts on “Public Opinion Turns Against Labor Unions in California

  1. Gerry O'Keefe

    Greed, in public or private sectors, is not good. It will always come home to roost.

    As a long time public servant I am embarrassed by some of the pension scams that have been foisted on the public over the years. In Washington, it seems to take the form of extraordinary overtime pay setting the mark for ridiculously high pension payments for police and firefighters. Management could prevent, or at least reduce, these abuses, but the incentives to do so just aren’t in place.

    With regard to public sector unions, I have to admit to some ambivalence. As long as they don’t over-reach and mess up my pension, I don’t have strong feelings about them. They do, however, create a “special interest” class that can be turned against government in general, as our friends on the right are wont to do.

    Looking further ahead, unions are in a tough spot. They’ll get pressure from the public. Many if not most jobs in the future have not traditionally or culturally been disposed to union representation. But the decline of unions will almost certainly reduce a voice for a more egalitarian distribution of wealth in the United States.


    1. Irv Lefberg Post author

      Thanks, Gerry. Good comments! Appeciated. Yes, even in “pure as the driven snow” Washington, they (we) have had some pension abuses (like the overtime manuevers that you mention). For me, the two main difficulties about public sector unions which are hardest to dispute are: (1) the “sovereignty” issue — unions (sometimes) effectively usurping decisions of the elected branches; and (2) the conflicts of interest for public officials who negotiate with the unions, but depend on them for donations and support. Of course the unabashed buying of politicians by (non union) special interest groups goes beyond even some the worst public sector union abuses…and violates sovereignty also, me thinks.


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