"Two thirds of the people in Wisconsin strongly disagree with this idea of permanently taking away people’s rights to collective bargaining."
Peter Barca on Tuesday, June 14th, 2011 in a television interview
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca says two-thirds of Wisconsinites strongly opposed Governor Scott Walker's limits on collective bargaining
On the night the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the sharp limits on public-sector collective bargaining, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) denounced the move.
Barca told a national cable TV audience on June 14, 2011 that the plan advocated by Gov. Scott Walker and passed by his Republican colleagues in the Legislature was wildly unpopular in Wisconsin.
"Two thirds of the people in Wisconsin strongly disagree with this idea of permanently taking away people’s rights to collective bargaining," Barca told Ed Schultz, the liberal host of MSNBC’s "The Ed Show."
Like others, Barca is closely watching public reaction to the GOP move -- particularly now that nine recall elections spurred by the legislative battle could tip control of the Senate from the Republicans to Democrats.
Back in February and March, during the heat of the battle, Walker was coming out on the short end in many surveys released iby independent and politically connected groups.
But a two-thirds majority against the GOP plan?
And not just opposed, but strongly opposed, which is a narrower category used by pollsters?
When we asked Barca to back up his two-thirds claim, he pointed to polls by USA Today/Gallup and Bloomberg National, as well as surveys conducted for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative Wisconsin think tank, and for the AFL-CIO and a liberal group, Building a Stronger Wisconsin.
Some reach two-thirds opposition, and others get there if you add in the margin of error, said Melanie Conklin, Barca’s spokesperson.
First, a note of caution.
There are great variations in the way questions on polls are worded and the group that is measured (all adults, likely voters, etc.) and the scope of the poll (state, national). Results can be influenced timing, and some are done by groups with a stake in the fight.
Thus, for Barca to be on the money, he has to be accurately describing what the polls asked as well as the numerical results.
We’ll look at the polls Barca cited, as well as others made public at the time. We’ll start with polls that were unaffiliated with the players in the controversy.
USA Today/Gallup: The USA Today/Gallup poll released Feb. 22, 2011 asked adults across the country if they favored Wisconsin-style bargaining limits in their state. A total of 61 percent opposed such limits, 33 percent favored them. But that number was not Wisconsin specific.
Bloomberg: The Bloomberg National Poll released March 9, 2011 found that 64 percent of Americans think public employee unions should have the right to collectively bargain for wages. This poll also was national in scope.
Another issue: That poll frames the question around support for collective bargaining for wages. The Wisconsin plan limits how much wages can increase, but does not eliminate bargaining on wages. So, it’s not clear how that poll question backs Barca’s claim.
Now let’s take a look at the surveys by organizations either working for one of the players, or often tagged as having partisan or ideological leanings.
Barca cited two questions on the poll from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative group. That poll, conducted in late February and early March, focused on Wisconsin adults.
In one question, 65 percent of respondents thought Walker should compromise and negotiate with Democrats and labor rather than stand strong, the poll found. In the other, 60 percent opposed a specific compromise.
But neither of those is directly on point to Barca’s statement.
We found a question that was closer: It found 51 percent opposed to Walker’s plan, which the poll described as reducing employee benefits, limiting bargaining rights and changing rules to make unions do more work to remain certified and collect dues. Another 46 percent favored the governor’s ideas.
Another poll cited by Barca, conducted for the state AFL-CIO found that among Wisconsin likely voters, 67 percent agreed with position taken by public employees in the dispute.
That’s the two-thirds mark – but it doesn’t mean that only one-third agreed with Walker.
Respondents in the poll were not asked to choose one side or the other; rather they were asked to rate whether they agreed with the position of each of several individuals or groups. Walker’s position won 43 percent approval, and Republicans in the Legislature, 48 percent.
We found a larger poll for the labor organization asked a detailed question that focused directly on Walker’s plan. The response: 52 percent were opposed (Of that, 41 percent were strongly opposed).
The final poll cited by Barca was one done for the liberal group Building a Stronger Wisconsin. That statewide poll of likely voters was conducted by The Shop Consulting Inc., a Madison-based firm that polls for liberal and Democratic clients.
It found 65 percent of state voters opposed stripping employees of most of their collective bargaining rights. Based on our review, that was the high water mark for the pro-union side.
We also found two Wisconsin polls of likely voters, conducted by Rasmussen Reports, an electronic media company.
One poll found 52 percent opposed weakening collective bargaining rights of state employees. A second poll, also in March, found 57 percent against weakening those rights. Rasmussen has been criticized by Democrats as a GOP-leaning firm, but it describes itself as independent and does not do commissioned polling for partisan groups.
University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin, a nationally recognized polling expert, said the lack of recent polls and relative dearth of state-specific polls made hard-and-fast conclusions difficult.
But he said the consistency of the various polls -- he has compiled a list -- is pretty good evidence that the ceiling for opposition is in the upper 50 percent range to 60 percent.
He called a two-thirds claim of opposition a stretch and Barca’s claim that two-thirds "strongly" disapprove an even bigger one.
Franklin expressed mixed feelings about The Shop Consulting Poll that found 65 percent opposition. It has to be taken into account, he said, but is an outlier in its finding.
Franklin noted it was not an independent poll, though he did credit the group for releasing the survey questions. But he argued that the setup question tilted anti-Walker by starting off, "Rather than negotiate with public employees..." Lance Walter, co-founder of Shop Consulting, defended the fairness of the polland noted the lead-in was factual.
It’s crucial to note that Barca set the bar even higher than general opposition of two-thirds.
He said two-thirds "strongly" oppose the change.
The WPRI poll had 42 percent "strongly" opposed to Walker’s plan and 9 percent "somewhat" opposed. And the poll for the AFL-CIO measured the "strongly opposed" group at 41 percent. The poll for Building a Stronger Wisconsin did not break out a category for strongly opposed.
So, let’s return to the claim at hand.
Barca said "two thirds of the people in Wisconsin strongly disagree with this idea of permanently taking away people’s rights to collective bargaining." To be sure, the polls showed general opposition.
But Barca has scant evidence of a two-thirds majority (some of the polls he cites are national ones), and no leg to stand on in claiming two thirds of Wisconsinites "strongly disagreed." That’s a specific measure pollsters use. In polling, a few percentage points either way can be highly significant. Here, Barca missed the bull's-eye by more than that.
We find his statement False.