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 special deals.”
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.
“The perception has been that workers have been given too good a deal,” Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, said of union workers.
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 statement.
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 Unions fought back, winning a referendum that repealed the Ohio law.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 made.”
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 very frustrating.”
Winning a few elections and enunciating the importance of fair benefits and wages will increase the popularity of labor, Lichtenstein said.
“They did lose, but within that loss was the generation of activists were created,” said Lichtenstein. “That’s not to be sniffed at.”