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by Pearl Hahn

It looks like Americans’ perception of unions is changing. According to Gallup, fewer than half of Americans, or 48 percent, approve of labor unions. A year ago, unions had a 59 percent approval rate. Contributing factors may include backlash against the bailouts and an increasing unemployment rate.

Gallup has an interesting breakdown of approval of labor unions by party identification. Democrats are the strongest supporters, with 72 percent approving labor unions last year and 66 percent approving of them this year. Sixty-three percent of Independents approved of labor unions last year while 44 percent approve of them this year. Only 38 percent of Republicans approved of labor unions last year; this year, the rate dropped to 29 percent.

Gallup conjectures that more people believe unions help their own workers while hurting other workers and the economy. They also note that while a substantial number of Americans blame the auto unions for the industry’s problems, more Americans blame auto executives.

It would be illuminating to see a breakdown of those polled by age, education, career, employment status, income, and union affiliation. This may give some indication of whether decline in support comes more from white collar employees who lost their jobs and blame unions (more on this in a bit), or laid off public employees who resent that their union membership couldn’t save them, or recent university graduates who are having difficulty finding employment, or something else altogether.

Possibly, more Americans are perceiving labor unions as detrimental to the economy. After all, they tend to raise wages, increase benefits beyond those in the private sector, make it difficult to discharge or even furlough under-performing workers, and reduce competition.

Unemployment is growing in Hawaii, and the state is experiencing severe revenue shortfalls. It is hardly surprising that when contracts need to be renegotiated, the public employee unions are reluctant to give an inch. Governor Lingle was thwarted in her proposal to furlough workers and ended up handing out layoff slips instead. On September 4, Lingle announced she was planning another round of layoffs, citing the Hawaii Government Employees Association unwillingness to agree to three-day monthly furloughs. The Department of Human Services will cut 367 employees, while the Department of Health will take a hit of 299 employees. The Department of Accounting and General Services will lose 137 workers, and the Department of Agriculture will lose 122 workers.

Currently, hearings between the state and HGEA are closed to the public and news media.

Pearl can be reached at pearl@grassrootinstitute.org