Over at LP, Mark Bahnisch asks whether the government’s attack on union power under Rudd will work:
There’s an unexamined premise in commentary about this tactic of the Government – that unions are wildly unpopular. But how true is that? Unfortunately, there is no time series data on union sympathy. But there are three large-scale surveys conducted this decade that reveal some fascinating results.
Actually, there is time series data on union sympathy – I reported on nearly twenty years of fairly consistent questions in this 2005 article. On the the issues of whether unions have too much power and whether there should be stricter regulations of trade unions there is a clear decline in hositility towards unions. All the polls prior to 1990 (including earlier polls with different questions that I did not show in that article) showed between two-thirds and three-quarters of respondents thought that unions had too much power. This century, less than half of respondents have thought that.
This accords with changes in objective conditions. In the worst year of union havoc inflicted on Australian society, 1974, a staggering 6.3 million working days were lost to strikes. In the year to March 2007, there were just 109,500 days lost. It is unsurprising that there has been a change of mood among voters, whose lives are no longer disrupted by unions almost every week – or least that’s how it seemed when I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Mark reports on some recent polls finding some positive views about unions, especially their role in the workplace – worth distinguishing, as Mark does, from their potential influence on politics generally. But the government is probably right that there is political mileage left in reminding people of the bad old days of union power.
The best way to assess this is to take out of surveys people who identify with Labor or Liberal, both because they are most likely to vote according to their underlying party ID, and because they hold predictable views on unions – in the 2004 Australian Election Study only 8% of Liberals disagreed that unions have too much power, and only 19% of Labor voters agreed that unions have too much power.
Of those who give no party ID in 2004, a third think unions have too much power, and nearly 40% neither agree nor disagree. Not entirely consistently, slightly more think that there should be stricter laws to regulate trade unions, with 46% neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the proposition. With a clear majority of unaligned voters either already against or undecided on unions, there is scope for a scare campaign. It won’t be as powerful as it would have been 20 years ago, but this old Liberal theme is not exhausted yet. Expect to see Dean Mighell and CFMEU thugs feature in Liberal advertising.