Americans oppose Republican attack on unions in benefits poll

Demonstrators at the Capitol building in Madison are protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation to cut public employees' benefits and eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights.
By William Selway
(c) 2011 Bloomberg News
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 6:28 AM

Americans reject Republican efforts to curb bargaining rights of unions whose power they say is dwarfed by corporations, a Bloomberg National Poll finds.

As battles rage between state workers and Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, 63 percent don't think states should be able to break their promises to retirees, and respondents split over whether governors aim to balance their budgets or weaken unions that back Democratic foes, according to the poll conducted March 4-7.

The poll shows that political challenges to government workers are failing to draw broad support from a public more concerned about unemployment than government deficits. Respondents are divided over whether public employees should sacrifice to help states ease their fiscal crises: About half say governors are unfairly targeting unions and 46 percent say public employees should be willing to accept benefit cuts. The fracture largely reflects party lines.

"The Republican Party sees an opportunity to attack and possibly destroy the base of their opponents' political power," says poll respondent Dale Palmer, 59, a Democrat and retired teacher from Zephyrhills, Florida.

Palmer says budget deficits are a result of the economy and years of tax cuts, not the actions of public employees. "They're putting it now on the backs of their enemies even when these particular unions are willing to bargain," he says.

With states facing budget deficits of $175 billion over the next two years, tax revenue yet to rebound from the recession, and pensions strained by investment losses, even government workers in Democratic-led states including New York and California are facing job losses, pay cuts or challenges to retirement benefits.

States have cut 82,000 jobs, or 1.6 percent of their jobs, since their payrolls peaked in August 2008, a month before the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. accelerated the financial crisis, according to Labor Department data.

Rising tensions between Republican politicians and state workers sparked protests in the Midwest. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich, first elected in the November races that also put their party in charge of a majority of states and the U.S. House, are seeking to roll back the collective bargaining rights of government workers. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also has challenged worker benefits he says threaten to hobble his state.

Poll respondents differ over whether government workers do better than their private-sector counterparts: 43 percent say government workers are better compensated, 21 percent say they are compensated less, and 27 percent say about the same.

Sixty-three percent of those surveyed -- including a majority of Democrats and independents -- say corporations wield more political clout than unions. Public employees, meanwhile, are viewed favorably by a large majority: 72 percent, compared with 17 percent who have an unfavorable view.

Government employees account for the majority of union members in the U.S. as a result of the long decline in manufacturing industries. In 2010, 7.6 million of the 14.7 million U.S. union members worked in the public sector, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Sixty-four percent of respondents, including a plurality of Republicans, say public employees should have the right to bargain collectively for their wages. Sixty-three percent, including 55 percent of Republicans, say states without enough money to pay for all the pension benefits they have promised to current retirees shouldn't be able to break those obligations.

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