A recent Public Opinion Court focus group session empaneled by the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. on Worker Freedom and Economic Progress found a generally favorable opinion of labor unions, but a lack of support for the special privileges that unions currently enjoy within the Pennsylvania political and policy structures.
The Public Opinion Court is a research vehicle developed by the Lincoln Institute to allow for more in-depth probing of an issue area than can be accomplished by a public opinion poll. Members of the focus group are not told in advance what issue they will be discussing. Thus they come into the session with common knowledge of the issue. The process begins by having the focus group take an entry survey. Following the entry survey an advocate addresses each side of the issue. The advocates speak separately, with focus group members given time to ask questions. After each advocate speaks, the group engages in a roundtable discussion on the issue. The focus group then concludes with an exit survey designed to measure how opinions may have changed as the group went from common knowledge of the issue to being more informed.
For this Public Opinion Court session the issue advocates were Rick Smith, host of The Rick Smith Show, a labor union-backed public affairs radio program. David Taylor, President of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association advocated for the pro-growth position. Each speaker was given 20 minutes to make a presentation, followed by 10 minutes of Q & A with the focus group participants.
The Public Opinion Court focus group session was held on Monday, September 19, 2015 at the Reckner research facility in Chalfont, Bucks County. The focus group participants were recruited from the five county Philadelphia metropolitan area. The focus group was balanced by age, gender, race, political party affiliation and, to the degree possible urban/suburban. The goal was to make the group as closely representative of the state at-large, although it more accurately reflects the composition of the electorate in southeastern Pennsylvania.
A major theme that emerged from the group discussion was the lack of information voters in southeastern Pennsylvania receive about state government. While all of the participants were able to correctly identify Mitch McConnell as the leader of the U.S. Senate and John Boehner as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, none could identify Joseph Scarnati as the President Pro Tempore of the Pennsylvania Senate or Mike Turzai as Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The group agreed that media coverage of state issues in southeastern Pennsylvania is inadequate.
The group was more familiar with bigger picture labor power issues, such as Right to Work, but significantly less familiar with state-related union power issues like dues deduction and carve-outs for activities such as stalking, harassment and threats to use a weapon of mass destruction. They were also largely unaware of the influence labor unions wield over politics and public policy in Pennsylvania.
Included in the focus group were two individuals who currently are members of a labor union and two participants who are retired, but were labor union members during their careers. Of the two currently enrolled as a union member, one is a member by choice and the other a member as a condition of employment.
In both the entry and exit survey the participants held a generally positive view of labor unions. Entering the session two had a very favorable impression of unions, seven a somewhat favorable view. Four offered a somewhat unfavorable opinion, nobody viewed unions very unfavorably. There was only slight movement in the exit survey, so no major shift in opinion occurred as a result of the group discussion. Entering the session, six participants agreed with the statement that labor unions were needed at one time to ensure workplace safety standards and fair wages, but are not generally needed in today’s society. Seven disagreed with that statement. In the exit survey one person switched from agreeing to disagreeing with the statement.
Although viewing labor unions favorably, there was strong support for a Right to Work law. When asked if they favor or oppose enactment of what is commonly known as a Right to Work law, whereby a worker cannot be compelled to join or pay fees to a labor union as a condition of employment, in the entry survey four strongly favored such a law, eight somewhat favored a Right to Work law. One person somewhat opposed such a law. Nobody changed their opinion on the exit survey. This result is significant given there were two active and two former union members in the focus group indicating opposition to a Right to Work law by union leaders does not trickle down through union membership.
Significant time was devoted to a discussion of exemptions in state law that allow stalking, harassment and threats to use weapons of mass destruction during a labor dispute. The group was in disbelief that such carve-outs in state law even existed. There was a lack of knowledge that labor union leaders have been blocking legislation in Harrisburg that would eliminate those carve-outs. The group unanimously – in both the entry and the exit survey – indicated the carve-outs should be eliminated.
The group also unanimously agreed that there is never a circumstance in which acts of violence are justified to force a company to use union labor on a project. The group was split, with six having heard of and seven not knowing about the recent case in Philadelphia involving the indictment and conviction of numerous Iron Worker union officials for crimes including violence, threats and vandalism.
Currently governments at all levels – state, county, school district and municipal – at taxpayer expense deduct labor union dues from members’ paychecks and forward the money to unions. There is legislation being considered in Harrisburg that would end the practice and require labor unions to collect their dues money through private, rather than government means. Nine members of the focus group oppose such forced deduction of labor union dues, four favor it. Views did not change in the exit survey.
When a group of employees are voting on whether or not to form a labor union they currently do so by secret ballot. Labor union leaders would like to change to law to make the voting process public. Such a move raises concerns that the lack of anonymity would put pressure on employees to vote in favor of unionization. The Public Opinion Court focus group unanimously agreed in both the entry and exit survey that such decisions should be made by secret ballot.
Raising the minimum wage, however, resulted in a split decision. Nine entered the session favoring an increase in the state’s minimum wage, four opposed. But, when asked if raising the minimum wage would result in fewer jobs and/or less hours being available for minimum wage workers, support for raising the minimum wage dropped to four participants with nine indicating opposition.
During the group discussion phase of the Public Opinion Court session several issues arose that were not included in the entry/exit survey process. Several times the group returned to the state budget impasse. While there was general knowledge about the stalemate, the group was largely unaware of such significant developments as the partial veto over-ride attempt, the second budget offer made by legislative Republicans or a then-pending vote for a stopgap budget. The group also lacked comprehensive knowledge of the size and scope of Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed tax hikes.
The state’s public employee pension crisis also arose during group discussion. There was general awareness of the problem and its significance to taxpayers. The group was in unanimous agreement that those already retired and those currently employed should remain in the current defined benefits pension system and that the state should honor its pension obligations. However, the group also unanimously agreed that the current system is unsustainable and that the state must move to a 401k-style defined contribution system. Most were unaware of the passage of legislation last June to do just that and the fact Governor Wolf vetoed that legislation due to opposition by labor union leaders.
On each occasion when the group discussed government dysfunction, the participants fell back on one prescription for change: term limits. Term limits were not mentioned in either the entry or exit survey, nor were they brought up by either speaker or the panel moderator. Despite that, the group repeatedly and unanimously and with enthusiasm felt that career politicians were at the heart of the state (and national) government’s woes. For example, when discussing the state’s pension crisis and the cost of legislative pensions to taxpayers, the group offered term limits as a solution which would make legislative pensions obsolete.
Efforts in Harrisburg to curtail special treatment for labor unions have failed repeatedly due largely to an alliance between Democrats and suburban Philadelphia Republican legislators who unite in opposition to such reforms as enactment of Right to Work legislation; ending union dues deduction and eliminating carve-out that allow for harassment, stalking and threats to use weapons of mass destruction during labor disputes.
That handful of suburban Republican senators and representatives who have stymied reform efforts claim they are representing the views of their constituents and must vote with organized labor in order to win re-election. Results of this Public Opinion Court focus group session indicate that argument is not valid. While labor unions are generally viewed favorably, on issue after issue the focus group supported reform measures, with even some current and former union members in agreement. The political equation in Harrisburg has changed with the coming to power of enhanced Republican majorities in the current legislative session reducing the influence of union-backed GOP members. However, Governor Tom Wolf – whose campaign was heavily financed by organized labor – now wields a veto pen over labor policy reforms.
The Public Opinion Court focus group session on labor power issues was balanced by gender, seven males and six females. There was at least one participant in each age group, with the largest participant group being between 50-65 years of age. Income skewed high, as expected in the Philadelphia suburban region but did include those in the middle income categories. The group included seven Democrats, five Republicans and one Independent. The focus group included four members with graduate degrees, six with a four-year degree, one with a post-secondary certificate, one with a high school degree, and one with secondary education. Ten of the participants lived in a suburban area, two in an urban area and one in a rural area.
(The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. is a 501c3 nonprofit educational foundation based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that focuses on pro-growth economic issues.)
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