WASHINGTON -- Pollsters are beginning to track reactions to the ongoing protests in Wisconsin over the attempt by Gov. Scott Walker (R) to reduce the collective bargaining rights of public employees, but the most critical question is difficult to measure. A Gallup result reported earlier this week suggests wide support nationally for "collective bargaining rights" of public unions, but it may be too soon to know just how much Americans care about preserving those rights.
The USA Today/Gallup poll conducted on Monday night asked the following question:
As you may know, one way the legislature in Wisconsin is seeking to reduce its budget deficit is by passing a bill that would take away some of the collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers' union. Would you favor or oppose such a bill in your state?
Gallup found 33 percent of adults nationwide in favor, 61 percent opposed and 6 percent with no opinion.
Like many, Washington Post Plum Line blogger Greg Sargent saw the result as evidence of a "bipartisan consensus" surrounding worker bargaining rights, but Politico's Ben Smith countered that such a consensus seems "unlikely" and expressed doubt that "most Americans have strong views, or even much knowledge" about the right of public employees to join unions.** He noted that "polling on this subject has been screwy and heavily subject to the phrasing of the question because most people don't know much or think often about these issues."
He could have added that pollsters have rarely asked this sort of question. The phrase "collective bargaining" turned up just five times before this week in the Roper Center's iPoll Databank, a collection of more than 500,000 survey questions asked on polls since 1935. Of the five referencing collective bargaining, only two were asked in the last 50 years, and both of those used the phrase as part of more general questions about potential professional sports strikes. None of the other three, all asked in the 1940s and 1950s, asked a simple "favor or oppose" question about unions' bargaining rights.
Pollsters have studied perceptions of unions in great depth, of course. Just this month, for example, the Pew Research Center asked a series of questions about unions and their impact (which were judged generally positive for their effect on worker salaries, benefits and working conditions, but negative on U.S. global competitiveness). Specific questions about bargaining rights, however, have been rare.
Even though the Wisconsin protests have received considerable news coverage, not all Americans are following the story. In fact, the Pew Research Center's weekly News Index survey finds only 26 percent of Americans who said that they heard "a lot" about the Wisconsin protests last week, 34 percent who heard "a little" and 40 percent who said they heard "nothing at all."
So we need to be wary of national survey questions that presume too much knowledge of the ongoing Wisconsin story. Those that analyze polling data should remember that respondents' answers to such questions often involve opinions formed on the spot in reaction to the verbiage presented.
As such, Republican pollster Adam Geller may have a point when he argues that some respondents may have heard the word "rights" in the Gallup question to mean something broader than just collective bargaining, but without a formal experiment we cannot know for certain. That said, let's not confuse what respondents hear with substance: Current Wisconsin law gives state employees "the right, if the employee desires, to associate with others in organizing and bargaining collectively through representatives of the employee's own choosing, without intimidation or coercion from any source" (emphasis added, Subchapter I, 111.01(3))
Geller also argues that the Gallup collective bargaining probe crosses a line between a "balanced 'up the middle'" question and the testing of "rhetorical argument." On a topic like collective bargaining, however, that line may be fuzzier than most pollsters want to admit. Many respondents will not know the term without further explanation, and whatever language the pollster uses may influence the respondents to some degree.
The good news is that over the next few weeks, we can count on five to ten media pollsters to ask questions about union bargaining rights in a variety of different ways, using different language and formats. These probes may not be formal, controlled experiments, but they will give us a good idea of how much wording matters and a generally more nuanced measure of opinion. As a wise friend reminded me a few years ago, we often wrongly assume,
that there is a "right" or "unbiased" way to ask a question about any given public issue. There is no such thing. Everyone who works within the polling field is well aware that small changes in wording can affect the ways in which respondents answer questions. This approach leads us into tortuous discussions of question wording on which reasonable people can differ...
The answer is NOT to find a single poll with the "best" wording and point to its results as the final word on the subject. Instead, we should look at ALL of the polls conducted on the issue by various different polling organizations. Each scientifically fielded poll presents us with useful information. By comparing the different responses to multiple polls -- each with different wording -- we end up with a far more nuanced picture of where public opinion stands on a particular issue.
Polls in Wisconsin will present a different sort of natural experiment, as voters there have no doubt been exposed to far more coverage and discussion of the ongoing controversy. How they react and how they rate their governor, state legislators, the public unions and protesters will help answer how strong opinions really are on labor bargaining rights.
**Correction: The original version of this article also included Ben Smith's comment that the right of public employees in some states to join unions "doesn't exist in federal law." While the The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the main statute that deals with unions and collective bargaining, applies mostly to private sector employees (U.S. Postal Service employees are an exception), other federal statutes do give many federal government employees the right to collective bargaining (examples here).