Wisconsin, Collective Bargaining and Public Opinion

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A national Gallup survey released last week suggested that a majority of Americans oppose measures like the one proposed in Wisconsin that would restrict collective bargaining rights for public employees. A New York Times/CBS News poll out today produces almost identical results: 60% say they oppose curtailing bargaining rights of public workers, while 33% favor it.

Poll-watcher Mark Blumenthal cautioned against reading too deeply into last week’s results. He noted that while gauging sentiment toward labor has been common place, few polls have asked respondents about collective bargaining in the last 50 years — just two, and they both referred to sports strikes — and that both the term itself and the specifics of the proposal in Wisconsin may not be widely understood. Instead, he suggested, it’s worth waiting for polling inside Wisconsin where there’s more familiarity with particulars of the debate.

Cue Public Policy Polling, an outfit that has traditionally worked with Democratic clients, which took an automated survey of Wisconsinites late last week and produced results closely in line with national polling: 57% said they thought public employees in Wisconsin should be allowed to collectively bargain on wages, benefits and working conditions, while 37% said they should not.

Proponents of Gov. Scott Walker’s bill are quick to point out that all three of these polls frame the question in terms of “rights.” (Some have also questioned the samples.) In a survey released Monday, Pew asked a question focusing on the politics of the debate rather than trying to describe the measure itself. Pew found that a plurality of Americans, 42%, say they “side with” public employee unions in Wisconsin, whereas 31% “side with” the Governor Walker. It’s still a rosier result for labor and their allies, but by a smaller margin.

As I wrote last week, Democrats lack the votes in Wisconsin and other state legislatures to block collective bargaining restrictions from making it into law. Their hope to is to rally an opposition movement under the banner of public opinion. And there’s every indication they’ve managed to put Republicans on the defensive.

Scott Walker doesn’t face reelection for years. But the Republican Governors Association, which rarely involves itself in issue advertising so far removed from an actual race, has gone up on the air this week in Wisconsin with a 30-second TV ad defending the new governor. Conspicuously unmentioned in the ad: the term “collective bargaining” or anything about that aspect of Walker’s proposal.