Politics & Government

Public opinion turns against labor unions in California

Janitors represented by the Service Employees International Union and their supporters protest in 2012.
Janitors represented by the Service Employees International Union and their supporters protest in 2012. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Public support for labor unions has plunged in California, with more voters for the first time saying they do more harm than good, according to a new Field Poll.

A plurality of registered voters – 45 percent – now feel that way, compared to 40 percent who say they do more good.

The poll registers a dramatic, 10 percentage point change in public opinion from two years ago, when voters rated labor unions far more positively. The measure follows heated controversies around public pensions, municipal bankruptcies and political campaigns involving organized labor – one of the most influential forces in California’s Democratic politics.

“It seems like they keep winning the battles,” Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said. “The question becomes, ‘Are they moving the public in the direction where they may lose the war?’”

DiCamillo attributed declining support for labor unions to growing concerns about public pension costs and, in the densely populated San Francisco Bay Area, frustration around recent transit strikes.

“It’s percolating more at the local level,” he said.

Labor unions secured a major victory when voters last year defeated Proposition 32, a measure designed to restrict unions’ ability to raise money for political campaigns. But San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed gained national attention after filing paperwork this fall to place a public pension ballot measure on next November’s ballot, and two Bay Area Rapid Transit District strikes contributed to a proposal by Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, to strip BART employees of their right to strike.

Californians are divided about whether public transit workers should be allowed to strike, with 47 percent of voters saying they should have this right and 44 percent saying they shouldn’t, according to the poll. Despite the San Francisco Bay Area’s liberal leaning, a majority of voters in the area – 52 percent – say public transit workers should not be allowed to go on strike.

The public’s view of labor unions overall is highly partisan, with a majority of Democrats supportive of organized labor and a majority of Republicans opposed.

But labor unions have lost support they once enjoyed among independent voters. While 48 percent of independent voters said in 2011 that labor unions do more good than harm, just 39 percent say so today. Among independent voters, a plurality – 44 percent – say labor unions do more harm.

“All they really care about is getting their dues,” said Thomas O’Ferrall, a 55-year-old heavy equipment operator and Republican from Ione. “When unions started it was a good thing. It was about people and rights and protecting the people. But it’s so far away from that anymore.”

Labor unions continue to register support among Latinos and voters under 30, while whites and older voters rate unions more negatively.

Californians’ view of public employee unions, in particular, is similar to their assessment of labor unions overall, according to the poll. By a 44 percent to 39 percent margin, voters say public employee unions do more harm than good.

Over the last 30 years, the percentage of California workers represented by a union has steadily declined. In 1983, more than a quarter of employees worked under a collectively bargained contract, according to federal labor data compiled by the unionstats.com website. Last year fewer than one in five workers statewide were represented by a union.

“I just don’t see the need for unions as great now as it was years ago,” said Glen Lyons, a libertarian from Diamond Springs.

Lyons, a human resources manager, said labor unions burden businesses with increased costs, hindering their ability to compete. The 42-year-old said people doing some hazardous jobs, such as mining, might still require union protection, but for others the need to organize is outdated.

Patricia Grady, a 58-year-old Democrat from Crescent City, feared people no longer appreciate the significance the labor movement had for child labor laws, the 40-hour workweek and other workplace protections.

“I think most of us have forgotten the history of work in this country and why people fought so hard for the unions, and how bad conditions were,” the retired graphic designer and nursing assistant said. “I really feel whatever vestiges of unions are left need to remain. ... The deck is kind of weighted against the average working person.”

The poll follows a relatively successful year for organized labor at the state Capitol, where lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown approved a bill to raise California’s minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016.

Todd Dewett, a retired professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, said the shift in public opinion against labor unions may only be a temporary product of a weak economy – and of a feeling of inequity among nonunion workers.

“When you see general economic woes increase, that makes it more difficult to say, ‘Hey, good for the unions,’” he said. “I would bet that the numbers, if the overall economy took a serious step forward, would go back to the more positive.”