A resentment of organized labor,
driven in part by its growing reliance on government jobs, is
hurting unions at the ballot box.
“It’s a feeling the unions have been able to be immune to
wage cuts,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial
relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“What they don’t understand is it is a national revolt against
A poll in August showed 52 percent of Americans approved of
labor unions, down from a high of 75 percent in 1957, according
to the Gallup Organization.
The decline in popularity may have contributed to losses
this week in Wisconsin, where a union-backed recall of
Republican Governor Scott Walker failed, and in a pair of
California cities where voters approved measures to restructure
public-employee pensions over the objections of organized labor.
Union leaders attribute their 7 percentage-point loss in
the Wisconsin recall, spurred by Walker’s drive to restrict
collective bargaining of state workers, to his almost $30
million in campaign spending. That was more than nine times what
was spent by his labor-backed opponent, Democratic Milwaukee
Mayor Tom Barrett.
“We are under attack from anti-worker politicians
bankrolled by billionaires and Wall Street barons,” Gerald McEntee, the president of the 1.6-million member American
Federation of State, County Municipal Employees, said in a
Blaming the loss on the disparity in spending doesn’t
address the sagging popularity of unions, Chaison said. Union
membership last year slumped to a record low of 11.8 percent of
the American workforce.
That membership is increasingly based in government jobs.
Labor unions represented 6.9 percent of employees at private
companies in 2011, while the rate among public workers was 37
percent, according to the U.S. Labor Department. More than half
of all union jobs are on government payrolls.
In addition to this week’s votes, other states have sought
to strip workers’ rights. Indiana in February adopted a proposal
that allows workers to avoid paying union dues, while Ohio last
year passed legislation to limit collective bargaining. Unions
fought back, winning a referendum that repealed the Ohio law.
Richard Sisson, 56, a retired Milwaukee firefighter, said
some union members supported Walker’s changes because they
helped balance the budget without raising taxes and put the
state on the right fiscal track.
“I can’t say we’re all for Walker, but a good portion of
us are,” Sisson, wearing a red “Firefighters for Walker” T-
shirt, said in an in an interview at Walker’s election-night
party in Waukesha. “Sometimes tough decisions have to be
A CNN exit poll showed that 28 percent of union members in
Wisconsin voted for Walker and against the recall.
Unions will need to show they are willing to share
sacrifice in bad economic times if they hope to reverse lagging
support, Chaison said. Voters don’t like to see public-sector
workers benefiting as services are cut, he said.
“It’s like a company that is losing money,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor and director of the Center for
the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of
California at Santa Barbara. “It hard to have a good contract
when the company is losing money. They are being squeezed as
people search for scapegoats.”
Alison Omens, spokeswomen for the AFL-CIO, a federation of
U.S. unions with 12 million members, said the workers have
already made sacrifices resulting from downturns in the economy.
Asking them to take further cuts won’t help, she said.
“Entire middle-class and working-class families have made
huge sacrifices in the past decade,” Omens said. “We need to
bring that balance to the country.”
Political attacks “are making public employees look like
they’re ugly and greedy and riding gravy trains,” said Joe
Zammit, 38, a special education teacher at Milwaukee Public
Schools. “They portray teachers as lazy and greedy and it’s
Winning a few elections and enunciating the importance of
fair benefits and wages will increase the popularity of labor,
“They did lose, but within that loss was the generation of
activists were created,” said Lichtenstein. “That’s not to be
To contact the reporter on this story:
William McQuillen in Washington at
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jon Morgan at
Unions Seen Paying at Ballot Box for Dependence on Public Sector
Andy Manis/Getty Images
- Report: Wisconsin lost 6,200 private sector jobs, gained 300 government jobs in April
- Report: Wisconsin lost 5,900 jobs net in April – AP
- Wisconsin posts biggest US job loss, as Gov. Scott Walker fights for his job
- Gov. Scott Walker Defeats Recall Challenge in Wisconsin
- Wisconsin loses 4,300 private sector jobs in March – AP