It’s appropriate that, on the day the people of Wisconsin turned Governor Scott Walker back from the recall exit door, the Wall Street Journal published an article finding a dramatic slide in the favorability ratings of teachers’ unions across the United States:
On behalf of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal Education Next, we have asked the following question since 2009: “Some people say that teacher unions are a stumbling block to school reform. Others say that unions fight for better schools and better teachers. What do you think? Do you think teacher unions have a generally positive effect on schools, or do you think they have a generally negative effect?”
Respondents can choose among five options: very positive, somewhat positive, neither positive nor negative, somewhat negative, and very negative. …
… this year unions lost ground. While 41% of the public still takes the neutral position, those with a positive view of unions dropped to 22% in 2012 from 29% in 2011 …
The survey’s most striking finding comes from its nationally representative sample of teachers. Whereas 58% of teachers took a positive view of unions in 2011, only 43% do in 2012. The number of teachers holding negative views of unions nearly doubled to 32% from 17% last year.
Authors Paul Peterson, William Howell, and Martin West note that those choosing “neither positive nor negative” appear inclined to bolster the unions when the neutral option is removed, with teachers’ more than flipping the balance toward positive feelings. Among the general public, the either/or version of the question found “negative” feelings only two percentage points higher than “positive.”
However, the authors also note that reforms eliminating automatic paycheck-deduction of union dues have cost the labor organizations hundreds of thousands of members. Unfavorable opinions may also be in response to the strains that tight public budgets have put on personnel compensation and the inability of unions to completely prevent reforms.
Locally, National Education Association Rhode Island Executive Director Robert Walsh contradicts the findings. “We regularly poll both our members and the general population here in Rhode Island, and our numbers are a lot better.” Although he did not provide the specific results, the general sense that he gave was in line with Peterson, Howell, and West’s findings when the “neither positive nor negative” option is not given.
To the extent that unions are losing ground when it comes to public opinion, Walsh attributes the trend to concerted (and well-funded) efforts to lay the blame for budgetary difficulties at their door. Conservative forces “have identified public sector labor as one of the central elements and have focused a lot of resources and messaging” on them as part of a larger initiative “trying to dismantle the various political elements” of a generally left-leaning worldview.
The political division of the nation no doubt plays a role. Still, teachers’ unions’ tarnished image cannot entirely be explained by budget stress and conservative activism. To some extent, technology appears to be spotlighting the tactics of union activists, and the public may be forming a different impression than it once had.
Some local examples are online audio from contentious school-committee meetings, digital photography of a union executive giving the finger to a school superintendent, another union executive (subsequently promoted) found guilty of cyberstalking a state representative, and a union rep exchanging fighting words with another elected official. These local examples are in line with other indiscretions that have gone nationally viral over the Internet, such as promises of fraudulent doctors’ notes for teachers skipping school to protest Walker in Wisconsin.
More broadly, videos of public-sector union representatives behaving in objectionable ways have become a regular topic of online conversation. Add into the mix increasing transparency, allowing public display of union members’ compensation packages and benefits, which have seemed especially substantial during the protracted economic downturn.
Whether all of this exposure is bolstered by moneyed interests, as Walsh suggests, or is a more purely grassroots phenomenon, it may prove unwise for labor unions to dismiss findings such as those published in the Journal. Tactics, and even worldview, may have to change with the times.