Midwesterners generally favor unions, public and private, and overwhelmingly support the right of workers to organize for collective bargaining rights. So says a new poll that indicates that pro-union sentiment is still alive, if not necessarily thriving, across the Midwest.
Yet a union-led drive to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker over just this issue failed, fairly solidly. This raises the question of whether these pro-union attitudes will translate into votes for the Democrats come November.
The poll was carried out by the invaluable Global Midwest Studies program at Monmouth College, a small liberal arts college in Monmouth, Illinois, which has taken the lead in Midwestern scholarship. The director was Robin A. Johnson, a Monmouth political scientist who led a similarly revealing poll last year on Midwestern attitudes toward globalization.
The latest poll reveals Midwesterners divided on whether the economy and their lives are getting better, on whether the Midwestern work ethic still exists and whether good jobs are still available out there for people who are willing to work hard.
But given the battle in Wisconsin and other attempts by governors in Ohio and Indiana to bust public sector unions, it's the attitudes on unions that jump off the page. In brief:
- The poll shows a majority of 53.2 percent who feel unions are necessary to protect workers. Only 35.6 percent said no.
- Private sector unions get higher marks than public sector unions. The public favors private-sector unions by 48.8 percent to 30 percent, but is split -- 38.8 percent unfavorable, 37.6 percent favorable -- on public sector unions. Interestingly, unions today represent only 6.9 percent of private sector workers but 37 percent of public sector workers. In others words, public sector unions have more clout and impact on the eocnomy than their private-sector counterparts.
- An overwhelming majority -- 85 to 8 percent -- support collective bargaining rights for unions in general. This support drops to 66 percent for public sector bargaining rights, but is still solid.
- By a big margin -- 43 to 13 percent -- Midwesterners think public employees get paid more than comparable private-sector employees.
- When it comes to politics, Midwesterners feel -- 63 to 31 percent -- that public sector unions have too much influence over elected officials.
- But in the same breath, the same Midwesterners think that corporations have more political clout than unions. That margin is nearly as big, 56.8 percent to 27 percent.
- All this comes down to the current big political issue -- attempts by states to reduce collective bargaining rights of public employees. On this, Midwesterners back the public sector unions, opposing by 52.8 percent to 30.2 percent any legislation "that would reduce collective bargaining rights of public employees."
- By a similar margin of 50 to 33 percent, Midwesterners oppose right-to-work laws. Such a law was recently passed in Indiana, banning workers from paying union dues if they choose not to belong to a union.
Not surprisingly, attitudes differed wildly between Democrats and Republicans, and between households with union members and households with no union affiliation. They also revealed considerable confusion in the public mind, with the same people opposing unions but supporting the right of workers to bargain collectively, which is what unions do.
By and large, though, the Monmouth poll shows a broad support for both public and private-sector unions and an opposition to attempts by state governments to erode their powers.
Which raises the question of why the unions failed to unseat Wisconsin Gov. Walker, and why a pro-union vote might not be decisive in November.
The meaning of the Wisconsin vote is still being debated. Corporations and pro-corporate PACS poured millions of dollars into the Wisconsin recall election, far outspending pro-union forces, and it's reasonable to assume that this spending had an impact. But anecdotal evidence exists that many Wisconsinites opposed Walker's anti-union activities but felt that a recall election was too blunt a weapon. Generally, governors, like presidents, are elected for four years and allowed to serve out their terms, with the voters getting a chance at the next election to pass judgment on their records. Most people seem to like this system and felt the Wisconsin recall poll violated it.
Walker's sin, in the eyes of unions, was to push through legislation limiting collective bargaining rights of most public employees. Earlier, Ohio Gov. John Kasich led passage of a similar law there: in that case, Ohio voters threw it out in a special referendum. More recently, Indian Gov. Mitch Daniels abolished collective bargaining for public employees and led legislation that turned Indiana into a right-to-work state.
The Monmouth poll shines a light on public attitudes, but is an uncertain guide to what this means at the polls. Politicians would be smart to know that most voters, union members and otherwise, retain some support for unions. But the same politicians, viewing the Wisconsin results, would be equally smart not to assume that this support means automatic votes for pro-union candidates.