Given the BART strike and other recent events, labor unions have their work cut out for them in the new year in bolstering their image among California voters.
A recent Field poll shows Californians now believe unions do more harm (45 percent) than good (40 percent). That's up from three years ago when 35 percent said they believed unions did more harm, while 46 percent said they believed they did more good.
The public perspective of public employee labor unions was no different, with 44 percent saying they believed they caused more harm. Even in union households, the numbers are waning, with the number of those saying unions do more harm having climbed from 18 percent three years ago to 31 percent.
The BART strike in particular has been a public relations nightmare for public employee unions. BART's two largest labor unions had little public support during the impasse, but the unions proceeded with a disastrous four-day strike in July followed by another four-day work stoppage in October that disrupted and frustrated Bay Area commuters.
To make matters worse, BART directors caved and then glossed over the numbers to make it appear the settlement was better than it was. As the Contra Costa Times has been reporting, BART originally said that the employees, who already benefited from one of the best benefit package of any transit agency in the country, ended with a 9.4 percent increase over four years. In fact, according to the Contra Costa Times, the increase is more like 11.7 percent.
In exchange, employees for the first time will start making contributions into their pensions and will pay more toward their medical premiums. But for a transit agency that's confronting significant long-term financial challenges, the gains were modest.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that the poll found voters more open to the idea of banning public transit workers from striking if negotiations reach an impasse. Although statewide, a plurality (47 percent) still supports the right to strike, 52 percent of voters in the Bay Area say they oppose transit workers striking while 41 voters are supportive.
Overall, the softening of public support for unions reflects a general public weariness of union resistance to meaningful reforms — in particular to ones that seek to scale back on generous health and retirement packages that threaten the solvency of many public agencies.
That was demonstrated in the public employee unions' full-throttle opposition to a proposal by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed for a statewide ballot measure that would give public agencies more authority at the bargaining table to reduce benefits to address long-term debt.
The challenge for public employee unions in the new year will be to decide whether to work with Reed and others in developing workable solutions to the financial challenges that still face communities or risk a further drop in the polls with continued resistance toward meaningful change. Unions may prefer the public to believe that there are no problems with the way things are, but, as the polls show, the public isn't buying it.