It's been a rough few weeks for public employee unions.
First, a federal judge in the Detroit bankruptcy case ruled the city's public employee pensions could be cut just like any other debt, challenging the belief that the retirement benefits were untouchable.
Now, a new Field Poll finds Californians are souring on labor unions. The state has traditionally been fairly pro-organized labor, but there's been a marked decline in public opinion over the last two years, according to the independent survey of 1,000 voters.
In March 2011, 46% of voters surveyed felt that labor unions overall did more good than harm, while 35% said they did more harm than good.
The newest survey found 45% believe unions do more harm than good -- a 10-percentage-point increase.
The results were pretty much the same for public employee unions and private sector unions.
The increasingly negative view of organized labor was uniform across Democrats and Republicans, men and women, and political ideologies. Even union households were more down on labor in this latest survey, with 31% of respondents saying unions do more harm than good, compared with 18% in 2011.
So, does public opinion of organized labor really matter? Not much -- when it comes to public employee unions.
Many public employees -- police officers, firefighters, teachers and engineers -- are still among the most respected professionals in the United States.
When elected leaders make decisions on public employee contracts, they're thinking about budgets, workforce morale and politics -- that is, the power of the union to deliver votes and campaign finance support or opposition. If the public is feeling negative toward organized labor, that might make a politician more willing to take a hard line in contract negotiations. (See Mayor Eric Garcetti recently in the Department of Water and Power union contract negotiation.) But those other factors carry more sway.
We may get a chance next year to see how California's increasing grumpiness over unions plays at the ballot box. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed has proposed an initiative to amend the state Constitution to allow changes in future pension benefits for current public employees.
If Reed's initiative makes the ballot, voters could allow cities and counties to roll back public employee benefits.
Or, we could see a repeat in history. In 2005, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put four measures on the ballot to reshape government. Two of them directly targeted public employee unions: One would have lengthened the time it takes for public school teachers to get tenure, and the other would have curbed public employee unions' political spending. The unions put teachers, firefighters and police officers front and center in the yearlong campaign to oppose the measures. California voters sided with the public employees.
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