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Americans Backed UPS Workers In Strike


PRINCETON, NJ -- The outcome of the recently settled strike at United Parcel Service, and Americans' reaction to that strike, have left many observers wondering what effect this conflict will have on business and labor relations over the next few years. The answer may partially depend on whether public support for the UPS workers rather than management represents a national trend in favor of labor unions or a specific reaction to this strike.

A Gallup survey taken a week before the UPS settlement was announced found that Americans heavily favored the striking UPS workers over the UPS company, by a 55% to 27% margin. This could be taken as encouraging news for the labor movement, particularly given the perceived blow labor took in 1981 when Ronald Reagan waged an aggressive and publicly popular show-down with Patco, the air-traffic controllers union. In that strike, 52% of Americans sided with the government and only 29% with the workers -- a near reversal of the current UPS figures.

But the UPS strike is not the first time since Patco that the public has sided with a striking union over management. In 1989 when Eastern Airlines union workers walked off the job, 57% of Americans sided with the workers compared to just 23% who sided with the company.

No Clear Trends in Public Support of Strikes
While the last two strikes measured by Gallup found the public on labor's side, Gallup polls going back sixty years suggest that public opinion about strikes, historically, has not followed consistent patterns. Rather, the public's reaction appears more related to the specific workers and industries involved in each dispute. There are too few examples to provide a clear historical picture, but it is evident that if public support in most of the strikes measured by Gallup were to be used as an indicator of where public sympathies would lie in the next major strike, the prediction would generally have been wrong.

In the late 1940s, for example, when workers in several major industries went on strike, public sympathies differed sharply from one strike to the next in just a three-year span. In 1946 Americans moderately favored workers over management in strikes involving the electrical, steel, and meat packing industries, by 14-15 percentage point margins. In 1947, Americans favored the telephone workers over management in their strike by an even larger margin (24 points). Just two years later, however, Americans solidly favored management over the workers in the coal miners strike led by the prominent labor union leader, John L. Lewis.

Since then, public sympathies have alternated between workers and management in several major strikes. In 1955 Americans sided with Ford Motors workers over management by a 24 point margin. In another Ford strike in 1967, the public switched sympathies, siding with management over workers by a 14 point margin. More recently, in 1981, Americans favored the government over air traffic controllers by a 23 point margin. Just a few years later, in 1989, Americans favored striking Eastern Airlines union workers over their management by a 34 point margin.

Basic Indicators are Stable
Apart from public reactions to specific strikes, Gallup's long-term measures on labor suggest that basic attitudes have been quite stable over the last ten to fifteen years. Approximately six in ten Americans tended to approve of labor unions, while just three in ten have disapproved. At the same time, Gallup surveys have consistently found low levels of confidence in organized labor as an institution, and in labor union leaders' honesty and ethical standards.

The good news for organized labor is that corporate America fares no better in the image department. Today, the percentage of Americans who have high confidence in labor unions and big business is only 23% and 28%, respectively. Similarly, according to a Gallup survey taken late last year, the percentages who think union leaders and business executives have high honesty and ethical standards are only 16% and 17%, respectively. These ratings put both groups near the bottom of the lists of institutions and professions tested by Gallup.

The bad news for organized labor is that their confidence ratings over the last decade (at 23% today) represent a moderate decline in public perceptions since the mid 1980s, when the figure was closer to 30%. Ratings for organized labor were even higher in the 1970s when up to 39% of Americans expressed high levels of confidence.

One reason for the long-term drop in public confidence in labor union leaders could be the decline in labor union membership among American workers. In the current survey 17% of respondents indicate that they or someone in their household belong to a labor union. That represents a 5-point decline since the early 1980s when Gallup found 23% of households included a union member.

UPS Strike Sparks Public Interest
Although it wasn't in the news for long, Americans said they paid relatively close attention to the news about the UPS strike. In fact, more Americans said they followed the UPS strike than than said they followed any other news story measured by Gallup this year, including the Paula Jones suit against President Clinton (closely followed by 59%), the adultery case of Air Force Lieutenant Kelly Flinn (followed by 55%), and the budget negotiations between Clinton and Congress in May (followed by only 49%).

Americans high interest in the UPS news story, however, is not strongly related to the impact the strike had on them, personally. The Gallup Poll found that only 28% of Americans felt they were negatively affected by the interruption in parcel services caused by the walkout at UPS. The rest said they were not affected.

The results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 819 adults, 18 years and older, conducted August 12-13, 1997. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be plus or minus 4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

From what you've heard or read, whose side do you favor in the UPS strike -- the UPS company, or, the union workers who are on strike?(ROTATED)

The UPS company 27%
The union workers 55%
Both sides equally (vol.) 4%
Neither (vol.) 6%
No opinion 8%

As you may know, union workers for UPS -- the United Parcel Service that delivers packages throughout the United States -- are currently on strike. How closely have you followed the news about this strike -- very closely, somewhat closely, not too closely, or not at all?

  Very closely 30%
  Somewhat closely 47%
  Not too closely 19%
  Not at all 5%
  No opinion *
* Less than 0.5%
Gallup Poll Historical Trends
    Side Favored in Strike
    Management/employer Striking workers
1997 UPS 27% 55
1989 Eastern Airlines 23% 57
1981 Air Traffic controllers 52% 29
1967 Ford Motor Company 40% 26
1959 Steel industry 32% 28
1955 Ford Motor Company 23% 47
1949 Coal miners 44% 27
1947 Telephone workers 24% 48
1946 Electrical industry 15% 29
1946 Steel industry 20% 34
1946 Meat packers 16% 31
1946 General Motors 24% 33
1945 General Motors 40% 37
1937 Ford Motor Company 66% 34
1937 Steel industry 41% 35
1937 General Motors 37% 34

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