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USA: Labor Unions Gain Sympathy Says Poll

by Will LesterAssociated Press
August 29th, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Americans' sympathy in labor disputes has tilted toward unions over companies in the past couple of years, says an Associated Press poll taken at a time of job layoffs and economic uncertainty.

As Labor Day 2001 approaches, the public generally sides with the unions in disputes by a 2-to-1 margin, according to the poll conducted for the AP by ICR of Media, Pa. Respondents favored unions by a much smaller margin - less than 10 percentage points - two years ago when the economy was booming.

''I used to feel sorry for the companies because I thought a lot of the unions were asking too much,'' said Ted Sklany, a retired lab technician in Charlottesville, Va. ''But the bottom line is that workers are usually getting the short end of the stick.''

His support can depend on the issues in question, but he said, ''If a union is striking for better benefits, I'm for them.''

Young adults were more likely to side with the unions than people over 65, and those in the Northeast and Midwest were more likely than people in the South and West. Republicans were split, Democrats sided with unions by 3-to-1 and independents backed unions by 2-to-1.

Besides any effects of the slumping economy, the tilt toward unions comes at a time when organized labor is in more of an underdog role with Republicans controlling the White House.

General approval for unions runs nearly 3-to-1, roughly the same as in recent years but higher than 20 years ago when it was less than 2-to-1.

Workers who have gone on strike in recent years include nurses at hospitals from Massachusetts to Minnesota, pilots at Comair, baggage handlers at United Airlines in Denver and workers at Verizon and The Seattle Times.

While public sentiment for the unions is on the rise, union membership is not.

The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent, the lowest in six decades, according to the Labor Department. Union officials have blamed a decline in heavily unionized industries, accompanied by job growth in nonunion parts of the economy.

Union jobs in the private sector have declined in the fast-changing economy, a trend the unions have tried to counter by attempting to organize in occupations that don't require hard hats, such as home health care workers or even doctors.

In the new poll, four in 10 people said unions are now at about the right strength, twice the number who think they are too strong.

The poll of 1,010 people was taken from Aug. 22 through Sunday and had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

An AP poll in 1989 indicated that a third of people thought unions were too strong, about the same number that said they were powerful enough.

Michael Morrison, a 24-year-old from Gainesville, Fla., is one of those who thinks unions are about the right strength, adding: ''It seems like a good equilibrium.''

When people talk about unions being too powerful, they sometimes refer to political activism.

Noting the efforts and money spent by the unions in the most recent presidential election, Linda Schaenzer, a 47-year-old government employee from Nashua, N.H., said: ''I would be appalled as a union member if my dues were spent that way.''

People were about evenly split on whether they think unions will get stronger or weaker.

''I do believe they will continue to get weaker,'' said 36-year-old union shipyard worker Cliffton Crisswell of Mobile, Ala. ''The big companies want them out, the unions are less vocal now and they don't push their issues.''

But like many others, 18-year-old Jenny Tower of Roswell, N.M., thinks tough economic times will help support for unions. ''A lot of people keep losing their jobs.''

AP Labor Writer Leigh Strope contributed to this story.

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