In one of the nation’s bluest states, public opinion is souring on California’s powerful labor unions amid heated debate over funding for public pensions, a rash of municipal bankruptcies and a recent public-transportation strike, according to a poll released Friday.
The Field Poll found that for the first time, a plurality of California voters have a negative view of labor unions. The survey showed 45 percent say unions do more harm than good, while 35 percent said they are on balance a positive force.
That’s a stark contrast from the results of the Field Poll’s March 2011 survey, which found 46 percent of those surveyed said labor unions did more good than harm, a 16 percentage point swing in less than three years.
The shift was most dramatic among independent voters, who went from 48 percent saying unions do more good than harm in 2011 to just 39 percent in the latest poll. Meanwhile, 44 percent of independent voters now say they do more harm than good.
The poll follows two Bay Area Rapid Transit strikes in July and October that took a huge toll on commuters and businesses in the heavily populated San Francisco-Oakland area. As a result, Republican state Sen. Bob Huff introduced legislation to strip BART employees of their right to strike.
The poll found voters split on the right to strike, with 47 percent saying that public-transit employees should have the right to strike, while 44 said they should not.
Despite the shift in public opinion, California’s labor movement continues to wield influence at the ballot box. In 2012, pro-union forces were successful in beating back Proposition 32, which would have prevented labor unions from using payroll-deducted dues for political purposes.
Another battle is looming. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed has proposed a state ballot measure for November 2014 that would reform the state’s public-pension system.
Democrats, minority voters and those younger than 30 are more likely to hold positive views about labor unions, according to the survey.
“However, when comparing the changes in voter sentiment toward labor unions over the past 2 1/2 years, virtually every voter subgroup now displays a shift toward a somewhat more negative view of labor unions than they had expressed previously,” the Field Poll’s news release says.
Nationally, according to the Gallup polling firm, a slim majority of Americans approve of labor unions. In August 2012, the last time the question was asked, 52 percent said they approve of labor unions, up from an all-time low of 48 percent favorable in 2009 at the depth of the global financial crisis. Some 42 percent said they had an unfavorable view of unions in the latest Gallup poll.
The popularity of the labor movement has been dropping over the decades: Labor union approval nationally peaked at 75 percent in January 1957 and was still hovering around 60 percent as late as 2008.
Party identification also matters: Gallup found in 2012 that 74 percent of Democrats approved of unions, but only 48 percent of independents, and 31 percent of Republicans said they had a favorable view.
The Field Poll survey of 1,002 registered voters in California was conducted Nov. 14 through Dec. 5.