Who's winning the fight over public-employee unions?

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Post asked pollsters, politicians and other experts about who's winning and who's losing in the fight over public-employee unions. Below are responses from Scott Keeter, Mike Lux, Dan Schnur, Ed Rogers, Howard Dean and David Bonior.

SCOTT KEETER

Director of survey research at the Pew Research Center

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 percent to 39 percent 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 percent siding more with the public-employee unions than with the governor (31 percent). 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.

JENNIFER PALMIERI

President of the Center for American Progress Action Fund; deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House

I am not sure what Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) hoped to achieve by picking such a ferocious battle with public employee unions, but I doubt it was to reignite the labor movement across the country. Nevertheless, that is what he has achieved.

Unions have been under assault for decades. Arguably, the most insidious and effective attacks against labor have been the ones that have happened in the shadows of the national political debate. Bit by bit, opponents have chipped away at workers' rights to organize and bargain with little serious debate or national discussion.

Walker has given labor the chance to move their fight out of the shadows and into the full light of the national political scene. The media coverage out of Wisconsin has not only given Walker's proposals serious scrutiny, it has brought important related issues, such as growing income inequality and the role unions have played in raising middle-class incomes across the board, into the national debate. Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with labor's argument or decide to side with the movement in some of these difficult state budget debates. But labor and its supporters are getting a fair shot to make their case.

Further, Walker has pumped new enthusiasm into the whole progressive movement. Unions and other grass-roots groups are energized, young people have been motivated to join the protests, and polls show Wisconsin voters souring on Walker.

I thought other Republican governors would look at Madison and decide that Walker's strategy was not a good model. Guess my read of Republican politicians is not great, because Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and others seem intent on going down a similar path. This will make for some difficult fights but, ultimately, labor may find that they produce the unions' best get-out-the-vote opportunity in a long while.

MIKE LUX

Democratic political strategist; special assistant to the president for public liaison from 1993 to 1995; author of "The Progressive Revolution: How America Came to Be"

The all-out war on public-employee unions by right-wing Republican politicians and the conservative movement is going to backfire in a big way. In the short term, the right wing is taking a public opinion hit because most Americans think teachers and nurses and police officers ought to have the right to bargain collectively. But it is over the long term that the Republicans are really hurting themselves.

This will play out in three ways. First, the American middle class is being reminded why union bargaining is a good thing and how the public employees attacked every day by Republicans as faceless bureaucrats are just regular, middle-class folks like them: nurses, teachers, secretaries, cops. Second, Republicans have done organized labor a great favor by putting the movement back in labor movement, creating a level of passion and activism for workers' rights that hasn't been seen in generations. Most important, this attack has forged bonds between labor and others who have realized they may be attacked next: students, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, women, civil rights activists and many others. All these constituencies know that the dream they share for the future - the American Dream that includes decent wages and the opportunity for economic security - is threatened if unions are destroyed.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

For the most reliable forecast on the outcome of the escalating battle over public-employee benefits and pensions, look past the Midwestern states where Republican governors and union leaders are locked in a series of high-profile brawls.

Look instead to the deep-blue bastion of California, where labor's allies hold control over state, and most local, government. Look to Los Angeles, where Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who began his political career as a union organizer, is calling for a freeze in benefits for his city's employees and an increase in their retirement age. Look to Sacramento, where the state's nonpartisan government-oversight body, the Little Hoover Commission, has proposed rollbacks in the pensions not only of future employees but current workers as well. And look to Jerry Brown, California's Democratic governor, who last week told a group of law enforcement officials that their pensions may need to be curbed in order for the state to resolve its budget crisis.

When the 72-year-old Brown then joked that more people might need to work until they were his age, he was met with nervous laughter. The quiet discomfort of the police chiefs' response may tell us more about where this debate is headed than all the protests, rallies and angry epithets that have dominated the headlines about the union wars of 2011. Change is coming, in the form of large-scale rollbacks. The only outstanding question will be their scope.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

It's simple: The public-employee unions are in a losing position right now. In politics, a bumper sticker always beats an essay. The opponents of the public unions have the bumper sticker: Cut government spending; or, Stop the abuse of the government taking care of itself at our expense. The public unions, on the other hand, have an incomprehensible, intellectually dishonest essay. The essay includes bewildering claims about a constitutional right to collective bargaining and completely distorts the idea that the purpose of unions is to protect employees from company abuse and to make sure that workers share in profits.

Also, in politics, if you can't be right, you had better be loud. So the unions are screaming behind the popular image of firefighters and police officers. But too many voters see that facade for what it is: A cynical attempt by bureaucracies to sustain themselves while pretending to be protectors of some of America's most admired workers. The public is fed up and will not be easily distracted from the reality of our dangerous government debt and the obvious conflict of interest within the public-sector unions.

Even though the unions' position is less favorable, Republicans still face the challenge of cutting budgets while not appearing to be heartless and cruel. If the display of firefighters and police officers doesn't work, look for a parade of widows and orphans to come next. America is at a pivot point, and neither side can claim victory so far.

HOWARD DEAN

Former chairman of the Democratic National Committee; governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003

In 1994, after the Republicans took over the Senate and the House, they quickly reminded the American people why they are great in opposition but should not be allowed to govern. They embraced extreme social policy, shut down the U.S. government and began a 20-year process of purging nearly every moderate Republican officeholder.

Does this sound familiar? After extraordinary electoral gains in 2010, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a little-known former Milwaukee County executive with a reputation for refusing to compromise, has become the poster child for Republican extremism, aided in ideological fervor by the new GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

Republicans can't seem to help themselves. They could have won their fight to cut public wages and benefits easily. In fact, they have already won it in Wisconsin, after public-sector unions agreed to cuts. Yet Walker persists in pressing to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Recent polls by NBC, Pew and Rasmussen show that support for the Republican position on collective bargaining is low or collapsing, and that even in Wisconsin, more voters - by double digits - support the Democratic state senators who have moved temporarily to Illinois than support the Republican governor.

The Republicans have once again turned phenomenal messaging discipline into a governing majority and then thrown away their hard-won gains as fast as they could take the oath of office. This fight is not yet over, but the ground has shifted so far, so fast in what was initially a winnable fight that there's almost no chance for any kind of outcome that would make the public glad they elected Republicans.

DAVID BONIOR

Chair of American Rights at Work; former House Democratic whip

In Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states across the country, politicians are using budget woes as an excuse to strip employees of basic rights and scale back hard-earned pay. We don't know yet what the result of these legislative efforts will be, but we do know that the outcomes will have lasting implications for both public- and private-sector employees.

After all, numerous studies confirm that public employees already make less than their private-sector counterparts. If they're stripped of collective-bargaining rights, we'll see an accelerated decline in wages and benefits, and with it further erosion of the middle class. Without the ability to form unions, everyday Americans have no way to hold the line against destructive corporate interests.

But regardless of the immediate outcome, we have reason to be hopeful. In the past weeks, we've seen workers of all stripes - police officers, teachers, nurses and football players - standing together. From recent polls, we know that the majority of Americans haven't been fooled into thinking their neighbors are to blame for our budget woes. And we know that Americans want to address the problems facing the middle class with real solutions - not scapegoats.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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