WASHINGTON — The teachers strike in Chicago this week could be a bruising battle on the picket line and in the school of public opinion.
The job protections and benefits packages enjoyed by public-sector union members have started to breed resentment among some Americans who have lost their jobs, seen reduced benefits packages or suffered pay cuts – sometimes multiple ones – during the economic recession.
Support for unions hit its peak in the 1950s, when 75 percent of Americans said they approved of labor unions. Only about one in five Americans now say they trust unions, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in August. The poll didn’t differentiate between public-sector and private-sector unions, but the waning labor support gives politicians like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel greater backing to confront public employees in the name of fiscal responsibility.
Chicago teachers are striking about a reform package that includes teacher evaluations, job security and merit pay. While the strike was not reverberating politically at the moment, it could, if only because any unexpected news event so close to the Nov. 6 elections is going to be scrutinized, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut.
“It gets the whole issue of managing government and collective bargaining back into the picture,” Brown said.
Federal labor statistics show that median wages have risen for both private and public workers. Still, a Chicago public schools teacher makes on average more than the average private-sector worker in Chicago, according to Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data. It’s difficult to compare wages for different industries, but there is little doubt that public-sector workers enjoy benefits that remain the envy of private workers, said Gary Chaison, a labor professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Politicians until recently turned to unions of teachers and firefighters and asked for their endorsement. But the unions’ influence is plummeting.
“Now the endorsement is the kiss of death,” Chaison said.
It’s very difficult to lay off a public unionized teacher, for example. Public-sector employees also often pay less into their pension plans and health care benefits, which are then covered in part by taxpayers.
Drops in union membership have only fueled the cycle of decline. Labor unions’ primary source of income is membership dues. Less money can be spent on organizing as fewer people pay dues.
Private-sector union membership in 2011 equaled a record low of 6.9 percent set the year before. Public-sector union membership is stronger at 37 percent, but experts say public employees like the Chicago teachers are facing increasing pressure to make concessions as public sentiment shifts.
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker revealed the weaknesses of organized labor’s once mighty clout this past spring when he withstood a union-led recall effort after he rolled back collective bargaining rights for state employees. His 7 percentage point victory in the recall sent a message to politicians that you can be confrontational with union workers and still be re-elected.
Unions also lost critical votes in California when voters in San Jose and San Diego passed ballot measures this summer that will cut retirement benefits for city workers.
It hasn’t all been bad for public-sector union workers. In November, Ohio voters overturned a state law that had limited collective bargaining by public employees.
Still, Alison Omens, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman, acknowledged that unions have been in the political crosshairs, and public opinion of them has been in decline. But she also pointed out that in today’s bad economic environment, public opinion of Congress, Wall Street and other institutions also have taken hits.
“We (unions) haven’t done a good job in explaining what unions are and what they do,” Omens said. “And the right wing has invested a ton of money in telling the story of the ‘big, bad unions doing bad things.’ And that has taken its toll.”
Labor unions were not among the biggest contributors to federal campaigns. Through July 2012, unions gave $69.5 million to candidates for federal office. Among different sectors of the economy, unions ranked 10th, well behind first place finance, insurance and real estate at $372 million.
The National Education Association has been the most generous, contributing $6.8 million, followed by the Service Employees International Union, $5 million; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, $4.2 million; and the American Federation of Teachers, $3.4 million.
Nearly nine of every 10 dollars contributed by unions went to Democrats. So far this cycle, union “soft” or “outside” funds, generally offered through the organizations known as “super” PACs, have given $27.2 million, nearly double what they gave in the entire 2008 presidential cycle.
The Chicago teachers strike is a vivid reminder of how public unions can be easily vilified – and used against Democrats.
Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided on unions: 74 percent of Democrats approve of unions, 48 percent of independents approve of them, and only 31 percent of Republicans approve of them, according to the Gallup poll.
Republicans are eager to remind voters how Wisconsin, usually a Democratic state, turned back the union-led drive to oust Walker. Ironically, key Republicans have praised Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff. They see Chicago as a fresh example of union overreaching.
“We see this over and over again,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. “Certainly it sends a message to people all over the United States that unions are centered on their own goals, rather than those of their people.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney agreed. “Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet,” he said.
Democrats insisted this was not a national issue.
“Republicans are always saying they want the federal government out of local affairs,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee. “So let the mayor of Chicago work this out. He’s the one who has to exercise leadership.”
David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed.