Unions need to give the public a break

Public sentiment has been turning against public employee unions as pension obligations lead to cuts in government services. Transit strikes don't help either.

Traffic in the Bay Area

With a BART strike underway in October, late-morning traffic backed up near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza. Strikes such as that one are hurting the public's perception of organized labor, according to a poll. (Eric Risberg, Associated Press / October 21, 2013)

Reporting from Sacramento

Even in deep blue California, where Democrats dominate, organized labor is losing public popularity.

That's a general statement, based on nonpartisan polling.

Specifically, public employee unions are tarnishing all labor, according to the pollster.

He pinpoints pension envy: public employees pulling down generous retirement benefits that private sector taxpayers began losing years ago. That's the long-term public gripe.

And recently in the traditional labor stronghold of the San Francisco Bay Area, voters have especially soured on unions because of two very annoying public transit strikes.

"When voters are thinking about labor, they're by and large thinking about public employees," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. Government workers "have a certain amount of negative drag to them."

"Voters have been hearing about local government services being cut because of pension obligations, and that rubs them the wrong way."

That's compounded in the Bay Area — "ground zero for labor support," he says — by rail transit strikes.

A Field Poll released last week reported that voter views of labor unions statewide "have taken a decidedly negative turn over the past 21/2 years.... There has been a net 16-point swing in voter sentiment from the positive to negative side."

Voters were asked whether they thought labor unions do more harm than good, or vice versa. The response was negative: 45% more harm, 40% more good. But in March 2011, the outcome was the opposite: 46% good, 35% harm.

Queried about public employee unions specifically, 44% said they caused more harm, 39% more good. That's roughly the same finding as for all unions, and the pollster theorized voters were lumping public and private together.

Of California's nearly 2.7 million union members, 56% are public employees and 44% work in private enterprise.

In the Bay Area, voter attitudes about unions are still slightly positive: 45% to 41%. But in 2011 they were overwhelmingly upbeat: 50% to 30%.

There has been a striking deterioration in labor's popularity since Gov. Jerry Brown was governor the first time, back in the 1970s. Brown was the guy who empowered public employee unions by granting them collective bargaining rights.

In 1977, the Field Poll found that 51% of voters thought unions did more good than harm. Only 34% figured more harm.

My eyes really opened when I read what longtime labor supporter Willie Brown had to say in his weekly column Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Today's unions are not bucket lunchers," wrote the former state Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor, who now consults on how to influence politicians. "In fact, many of today's union members work for the government, which isn't the greatest place to engender goodwill with the public."

"Clearly," Brown continued, "public employee unions need to adjust their tactics. They can't pretend they're the 21st Century descendants of John L. Lewis, fighting to keep management from forcing them into indentured servitude....

"Public employees need to pull back from attacking management and start acting more like they work for the public."

But Brown predicted there's "not much chance" of transit workers being prohibited from striking — as state Senate Republican Leader Robert Huff of Diamond Bar advocates — because "public unions still have clout in Sacramento, thanks to their campaign contributions."