Posted on Mar 3, 2011
By Joe Conason
If you are a normal, trusting consumer of American journalism, you might well have gotten the impression by now that the current attempt to break public-sector unions—with its epicenter in Wisconsin—is overwhelmingly supported by the nation’s voters.
You need not be a devotee of Fox News Channel or Rush Limbaugh to believe that Americans despise the unions that represent cops, teachers (especially teachers!) and firefighters. You might reasonably believe that simply because far more authoritative news sources have repeatedly suggested it.
You might think so, for example, because the New York Times Sunday magazine told you so in a cover story written by one of the newspaper of record’s top political analysts last week, or because the Wall Street Journal editorial page said the same thing a few days ago.
But if you believe that the American people are now eager to follow Gov. Scott Walker’s example, in Wisconsin or across the nation, it turns out that you (and those who have misinformed you) are unmistakably and profoundly wrong. For as one poll after another has indicated over the past two weeks, Americans soundly reject Walker’s union-busting gambit.
The polling organizations span the political and journalistic spectrum, from Republican-leaning Gallup and Rasmussen to the Pew Research Center, NBC News/Wall Street Journal and CBS News/New York Times, yet their results are remarkably consistent. While many voters surveyed in all of the polls say that it is fair to require public employees to contribute more to their health and retirement benefits, a clear majority object to any attempt to curtail their collective bargaining rights.
Asking about the struggle in Wisconsin, the Pew researchers found that 42 percent stood with the unions versus only 31 percent who sided with Walker. The CBS News/New York Times poll was considerably stronger, with 60 percent supporting the right of public employees to bargain collectively and only 33 percent in opposition; those numbers closely matched an earlier Gallup Poll that showed 61 percent supporting labor against the governor.
And again, in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 33 percent say that it is “acceptable” to abolish those rights as a supposed way to address state and local budget deficits. Just under twice as many—62 percent—say that eliminating those rights is “unacceptable.”
That finding coincided embarrassingly with a Journal editorial assuring its readers that Walker and his allies are prevailing because “the public in Wisconsin and around the U.S. seems to be listening and absorbing his message. The cause has been helped by the sit-ins and shouting of union members, the threats toward politicians who disagree with them, and by the flight of Democratic state senators to undisclosed locations in Illinois.”
Actually, the vigorous resistance to Walker appears not to have damaged the union cause at all, but to have drawn attention to the gross partisan overreaching of the Republican governor and his corporate friends. In Wisconsin, many voters are now expressing buyer’s remorse over their choice of Walker, and tell pollsters they are evenly divided over whether to recall him.
The ruckus in Madison, which he brought upon himself, has called attention to his budget’s favoritism toward upper-income taxpayers and its destructive impact on educational standards and public safety. Naturally, the good people of the Badger State are starting to wonder whether they cannot do better.
The battle over the rights of public employees—and labor’s future in this country—is far from decided. Indeed, the debate over how to restore the middle class and the prospect of a better future is about to begin again. But the next time a blustering pundit tries to persuade you that some right-wing crusade is trendy or popular, just remember Wisconsin.
Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.