The public’s changing views of public employee unions

Public attitudes regarding unions in general and public sector unions in particular are in flux.  Prior to 1960 public attitudes toward unions were favorable.  Yet, in 2009, for the first time in the modern era, less than half of Americans told pollsters that they approved of labor unions.  In a 2012 Education Next poll, only 22 percent of Americans thought that teachers unions had a positive effect on schools, while 40 percent thought they had neither a positive or negative effect. When asked a binary question (positive or negative impact), 51 percent of Americans said the unions had a negative impact and 49 said they had a positive impact. That stands in stark contrast to teachers themselves, 71 percent of whom said unions had a positive impact.  Even in labor-friendly California, citizens have soured on public sector unions, as 44% said they caused more harm and 39% more good, which was part of a net 16 point swing in attitudes about labor unions from positive to negative over the past two years. (This was probably in part the result of the BART strike).  However, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans opposed ending collective bargaining for public employees in 2011. (The extent, then, to which citizens understand all that is involved in collective bargaining—rather than it just being a nice sounding phrase suggesting that we should all work together—remains untapped by pollsters.) All told, Americans appear poised to decide whether they believe public sector unions have positive impacts on public policies they care about.

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