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Wisconsin protests: Do Americans agree with tea party view of unions?

In recent years, public support for labor unions has begun to wane. Will this trend continue as state and local governments face budget challenges? Protests in Wisconsin may be an indicator.

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A union advocate, left, and a tea party supporter argue in Madison, Wis., Saturday on the grounds of State Capitol over the governor's proposed budget bill. Gov. Scott Walker is pushing a measure that would require government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and largely eliminate their collective bargaining rights.

Andy Manis/AP

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The tea party movement casts it as a battle to take state politics back from labor-union bosses and liberal interest groups. Union supporters say Republican lawmakers are putting the basic rights of working class Americans at risk.

Which view do more Americans agree with?

As union contract issues reverberate as state-budget sticking points in Wisconsin and other states, the American public doesn't fall neatly into either camp. The public's view on the subject is evolving, and how it shifts in coming months could help determine the near-term course of state politics and finances.

In one survey taken early this month, the Pew Research Center asked a cross-section of Americans whether their view of labor unions is favorable or unfavorable.

Although the share of respondents taking some form of favorable view (45 percent) was slightly larger than the camp with unfavorable views (42 percent), support for unions has clearly ebbed over the past decade. When Pew asked the same poll question in 1999, the margin was 59 percent "favorable" to 36 percent "unfavorable."

Moreover, deeply held views of unions are more likely to be negative (17 percent say their view is "very unfavorable") than positive (11 percent say "very favorable). The opposite was the case as recently as 2007.

At the same time, the poll underscored views that don't tend toward either extreme.

Asked about "when you hear of a disagreement between state or local governments and unions that represent government workers," more Americans say their first reaction is to side with the union (44 percent) than with state or local governments (38 percent). And substantially more Americans see union contracts as ensuring that workers are "treated fairly" than as giving workers an "unfair advantage."

As to their role in the private sector, the view is also mixed. A majority says unions have a positive impact on work conditions and worker pay, although many Americans worry that unions make it harder for US companies to compete globally.

Not surprisingly, Democrats have a much more favorable view of unions than Republicans. Among those who call themselves political independents, 42 percent voiced a "favorable" of unions view this month, down from 54 percent when Pew asked the question in January 2007.

Against this backdrop, advocates for and against unions are seeking to sway voter opinions in budget-strapped states across the nation.

The latest states to grab the spotlight are Wisconsin and Ohio. In both places, public-employee unions are seeking to counter Republican efforts to strip or reduce collective-bargaining rights.

Wisconsin's capital city, Madison, became the venue for dueling rallies Saturday. Buses brought in tea party adherents to express support for proposed union pay cuts. Meanwhile the ranks of union supporters swelled in their own rally nearby.

It comes after days during which many Wisconsin schools closed because teachers went to join protests at the capitol building. On Saturday, according to Associated Press reports, supporters of Gov. Scott Walker (R) sported signs reading, "I was at work yesterday. Where were you?" and "Sorry, we're late Scott. We work for a living."

Midwestern states aren't the only ones facing difficult budget choices, involving everything from union compensation to education and other services.

As Wisconsin has become a prominent national news story this week, politicians on the national stage have also weighed in with their own efforts to sway public opinion.

"Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions," President Obama said. He said public employees like teachers and social workers shouldn't be blamed for budget problems.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said Obama was "colluding with special-interest allies across the country to demagogue reform-minded governors who are making the tough choices that the President is avoiding."

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