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Survey: Americans say unions good for U.S. but split on required dues

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Teachers join NOC and other activists.
Teachers join Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and other activists in this July 2016 photograph.
Angela Jimenez for MPR News 2016

While the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a major blow Wednesday to organized labor in its Janus ruling, most Americans think the country would be better off if unions were stronger.

But on the central question in the Janus case — whether union workers should have the choice to pay no dues — people are evenly split.

The  APM Research Lab survey  of 1,000 adult Americans found 62 percent said they thought America would be stronger with unions. 

The early June survey was done in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case. It has a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points. 

 Lukewarm support for dues

In a 5 to 4 vote, the court overturned an Illinois law that allowed unions representing government employees to collect fees from workers in a bargaining unit who refuse union membership.

On its face, the lukewarm enthusiasm for mandating dues runs counter to the strong support for unions. Letting workers covered by a union contract skip paying dues undercuts a union's power and possibly survival. 

Support for the apparently contradictory positions was most evident among lower-income people, according to survey results.

"A lot of the lower-income folks we surveyed indicated that they would like to have the option not to pay union dues and they would also prefer stronger unions," said Craig Helmstetter, managing partner of the  APM Research Lab.

The research group is a division of American Public Media, which is the parent company of MPR News. 

The APM survey is a national survey of Americans age 18 or older. It was funded with internal resources and was not conducted on behalf of, or in conjunction with, any other entity or initiative beyond the survey's partners, which included MPR.

John Budd, a labor relations expert at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said it's odd that people would favor strong unions but oppose mandatory dues for people covered by union contracts.

"These generally work against each other," he said. "So there is a bit of a contradiction in the responses."

Pension rally
Teamsters Local 120 members gather June 9, 2018, in Blaine.
Nina Moini | MPR News

There may well be some logic behind the contradiction, Helmstetter said.

"That looks like a very  pragmatic or practical response: wanting to save money but receive strong benefits at the same time."

Only about 11 percent of the U.S. workforce is unionized, according to the  U.S. Department of Labor. In Minnesota, 15.9 percent (428,000) of employees were covered by union contracts last year and 15.2 percent (411,000) of workers were union members.

The APM survey found that 40 percent of adults — or members of their households — have been in a union.

Support for more powerful unions was high among Latinos and African-Americans as well as women, those earning less than $50,000 annually and Democrats.

Support for "weaker" unions was relatively thin.

Only 23 percent of respondents said the nation would be better off with weaker unions.  

 Right-to-work vs. fair share

Among households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more, Republicans and those favoring "right-to-work" policies over a "fair share" approach to unionization, about one-third considered weaker unions better for the nation. But even among those groups, about half voiced support for stronger unions.

On the issue of mandatory dues payments, about 45 percent of respondents said all bargaining unit workers should make some "fair share" payment.

Striking in the heat.
Hundreds of nurses for Allina Health went on strike in 2016 at four Twin Cities hospitals over a contract dispute.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"If you are going to benefit from it, you should pay into it," said one respondent. Another said, "If you are going to get a job that is a union job, then you should pay union dues."

The "fair share" approach is favored by about 60 percent of Democrats, people living in the northeastern U.S., and people who have direct union experience themselves or through a household member.

Budd said he expected support for mandatory dues would be even stronger among those groups.

"This suggests that the labor movement has a lot of work to do," Budd said. "This should be where the support for fair-share arrangements is strongest. And it is, but it's not overwhelming.

"That they can barely win support for fair share arrangements in union households suggests that they face a real uphill battle winning the hearts and minds of the rest of the population."

About 45 percent of the people surveyed supported right-to-work policies that ban mandated dues payments, but only 5 percent of right-to-work-advocates cited the cost of dues as a primary factor.

The most-often cited reason for their position involved freedom of choice. Respondents said things such as, "I think it should be left up to the individual. They should have choices," and, "Why should somebody force someone to do what they don't want to do?"

Budd said he sees the influence of conservative groups' in those responses.

"The campaign by conservative groups seems to be taking hold in that individual freedom is the No. 1 reason cited for preferring a right-to-work law," he said. "Somewhat surprisingly, union dues is not given as a key reason, even though that is also normally part of the anti-union rhetoric."