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Worldwide Attitudes

Volume 1996-03-25
Date: 25 March 1996
 copyright M.D.R. Evans 1996

Public opinion on trade unions in Australia: continuity and change

M.D.R. Evans

Are trade unions the laudable architects of the "workingman's paradise" or economic dinosaurs impeding microeconomic reform and the emergence of an efficient economic system in Australia? Public opinion on this issue covers a wide spectrum. In 1990, Kelley, Bean, and Headey said: "Dyed-in-the-wool supporters are exceedingly rare, but views ranging from mild support to stout opposition are well represented." That summary still applies today, although there have been some changes over time.

The 1995 National Social Science Survey, conducted as a module of the 1995 ISSS included a set of questions on attitudes towards trade unions, some of which we also asked in previous years, reaching back into the early stages of economic reform.

Aspects of opinion on trades unions

Do people have mostly positive feelings, or mostly negative feelings about trade unions? We can find the answer using a "Michigan feeling thermometer" (ISR 1952), a widely used method of eliciting a summary response to organizations (e.g. trade unions) or social groups (e.g. the working class) or political leaders (e.g. John Howard or Kim Beazley). Respondents are shown a drawing of a thermometer which ranges from 0 (labeled "very cold or unfavourable") to 100 (labeled "very warm or favourable"), with many intermediate labels, and respondents are invited to assess a wide variety of social actors and ideas (Kelley, Bean, Evans and Zagorski, 1995: 8-9).

In 1995, Australians, on average, rated trade unions at 39. This is well below the neutral point of 50. But it is a small but statistically significant gain in popularity over the score of 36 which Australians accorded trade unions in 1987. Perhaps the most important shift is that fewer Australians give trade unions the lowest possible rating of 0: 20% gave that rating in 1987, but slightly fewer, 16%, rated trade unions at 0 in 1994, and just 11% gave ratings this extreme in 1995. Interestingly, this mellowing of intensely negative feelings towards trade unions seems to be just that: there is no substantial increase in very positive feelings towards trade unions. Fewer people detest them, but not many more have come to love them. In sum, extreme hostility to trade unions was fading through 1995, although whether this will continue in the face of the ACTU's more politically aggressive approach in 1996 remains to be seen.

We also asked "In general, how good a job would you say the trade unions are doing for the country as a whole?" Here again there are strong signs that trade unions have "come in from the cold", that they are seen as paying some attention to the national good as well as their sectional interests. In 1987, fully 21% said that trade unions were doing a "terrible" job for the country as a whole, but that answer was given by only 8% in 1995. "No good at all" was the answer given by 12% in 1987 and 10% in 1995. "Not very good" was chosen by 32% in 1987 and in 1995. "Fairly good" was chosen by 29% in 1987, and drew more respondents, 43% in 1995. "Very good" drew 5% in 1987, 6% in 1995. and just 1% said that trade unions do an "excellent job" for the country as a whole in both 1987 and 1995. In summary, Australians have not come to embrace trade unions as public spirited organizations (the top ratings remain equally rare) but many fewer anathematize them as doing a "terrible" job (down by 13%).

We also asked whether trade unions have too much power. Very few Australians see trade unions as having too little power. 1% in 1995 thought that trade unions had "far too little power" (1% in 1990), and another 5% thought "too little power" (2% in 1990). In 1995, 38% saw the power of trade- union power as being "about right", up 10% from the 28% who gave this rating in 1990. This was the most commonly chosen response category in 1995, but not in 1990. The perception that trade unions have "too much power" was 37% in 1995 (31% in 1990). Finally, 19% of Australians held that trade unions had "Far too much power" in 1995. This was substantially down from the 38% who held this view in 1990. In sum, it seems far to say that few Australians see the past decade of economic reform as having excessively curbed the power of trade unions (only a handful see unions as having too little power). Majority opinion (56%) suggests that some further diminution of union power is desirable, although a substantial minority (38%) think that we have come to the right balance, and it is noteworthy that the fraction seeing unions as "far too powerful" has declined substantially.

We also asked "When you hear of a strike, are your sympathies generally for or against the strikers?" The overwhelmingly majority felt neutral or slightly against the strikers, and this has changed little since 1987: in 1995, 3% feel their sympathies "always for" the strikers (3% in 1987), in 1995 15% are "usually for" the strikers (9% in 1987), so that about two Australians in ten are mostly sympathetic to strikers. In 1995, 49% said that they were "sometimes for, sometimes against" the strikers (51% in 1987). In 1994 26% felt "usually against" the strikers, and another 6% "always against" them (25% and 13% in 1987).

These answers are closely related, as shown by correlation coefficients ranging from .52 to .63 in 1995. And they all tap one underlying attitude, which we might call "pro-unionism"; factor analyzing these items reveals just one factor, or underlying dimension, and the factor loadings are strong, ranging between .7 and .8 (they have a minimum of zero and a maximum of 1). Accordingly, we make a scale of "pro-unionism" that combines the answers to these questions.

Who support unions and who opposes? (As shown by multiple regression analysis)

Not surprisingly, trade union members are much more supportive of trade unions. Being a trade union member makes one 10 points out of 100 more pro-union. This is one of the two largest effects in our model and is highly statistically significant.

Some aspects of social origins matter in ways closely similar to findings for 1994 (Evans 1995). If one's parents were supporters of the Coalition, one tends to be about 10 points less pro-union. This is the second very important effect in the model. Religion does not matter in 1995 although I found a small effect in 1994 -- probably one should doubt the effect, but keep an eye on it. Men are significantly less pro-union than women, although the difference is small, about 2 points out of 100.

Social class matters a bit, but not a great deal. The educated are a little more sympathetic, with someone who left school at year 10 being about 3 points less pro-union that a university graduate. And blue collar workers, all else equal, are 3 points more pro-union. People with high family incomes are a little less sympathetic to unions.

Does it matter to the vote? (Multiple regression analysis)

Attitudes towards trade unions have long been one of the "elephants" in Australian voting patterns. The most extensive analysis to date, by Jonathan Kelley, Clive Bean, and Bruce Headey in 1990 about voting intentions, concluded that attitudes towards trade unions were the single most important ideological force leading people to support Labor or the Coalition. In 1995, pro-unionism remains an extremely important political issue, with strongly pro-union people being virtually all committed to Labor and Strongly anti-union people to the coalition, as shown by the metric regression coefficient of 0.01. In terms of assessments of political leaders, note that attitudes towards trade unions strongly influenced opinions on the Labor leader, Mr. Keating, even aside from political party identification (metric regression coefficients of 0.45), and had a weaker influence on warmth towards the conservative leader, Mr. Howard, (metric regression coefficient of 0.28).

References


Bean, Clive S. 1988 "Politics and the Public." pp 45-57 in Australian Attitudes. edited by Jonathan Kelley and Clive S. Bean. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Bean, Clive S. 1991. "Comparison of National Social Science Survey Data with the 1986 Census." National Social Science Survey Report 2(6):12-19. [ISSN 1031-4067]

Bean, Clive S. & Jonathan Kelley. 1989. "Keating would Cost ALP Votes" National Social Science Survey Report 1(4):2-3. [ISSN 1031-4067]

Bean, Clive S. & Anthony Mughan. 1989. "Leadership Effects in Parliamentary Elections in Australia and Britain" American Political Science Review 83: 1166-1179.

Evans, MD.R. 1995. "Attitudes Towards Trade Unions." WwA 1995-03-27:1-8.

Grattan, Michelle 1993. "Immigration and the Australian Labor Party" Pp 127-143 in The Politics of Australian Immigration (James Jupp & Marie Kabala, eds.) Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Kelley, Jonathan. 1988 "Political Ideology in Australia." pp 58-80 in Australian Attitudes. edited by Jonathan Kelley and Clive S. Bean. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Kelley, Jonathan. 1995. "Public Images of Foreign and Domestic Political Leaders: Australian Evidence". International Social Science Journal 1995, No. 146 (forthcoming).

Kelley, Jonathan. 1996. "Attitudes Towards Political Leaders in Australia, 1995." WwA 1996-01-14:1-8.

Kelley, Jonathan. 1996. "Ethnic Sympathies and Politics in Australia." WwA 1996-01-15: 1-8.

Kelley, Jonathan & M.D.R. Evans. 1995. "Class and Class Conflict in Six Western Nations". American Sociological Review 60 (April):157-178.

Kelley, Jonathan., Clive S. Bean, and Bruce Headey. 1990. "The Big Issues in Australian Politics." National Social Science Survey Report 2(1):8-10

Kelley, Jonathan, Clive S. Bean, M.D.R. Evans & Krzysztof Zagorski. 1996. Australia, 1995: International Social Science Survey. Codebook and Machine Readable Data File (Preliminary). Canberra: International Social Science Survey, Institute of Advanced Studies, Australian National University.

Kelley, Jonathan, Clive S. Bean, M.D.R. Evans & Krzysztof Zagorski. 1995. Questionnaire: International Social Science Survey/ Australia 1995. Canberra: International Social Science Survey, Institute of Advanced Studies, Australian National University.

Marks, Gary N. 1993a. "Intra- and Extra-familial Political Socialization: The Australian Case and Changes over Time, 1967-1990. Electoral Studies 12: 128-157.

McAllister, Ian and Jonathan Kelley. 1983. "Changes in the Ethnic Vote in Australia, 1967-79". Politics: The Journal of the Australasian Political Studies Association. 18: 98-107.

Rubenstein, Colin. 1993. "Immigration and the Liberal Party of Australia" Pp 144-160 in The Politics of Australian Immigration (James Jupp and Marie Kabala, eds.) Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

 

Appendix: Results

  
a. Feeling thermometer: "Trade unions" 
-------------------------------------------- 
                       1987     1994    1995 
Value Label     Value    %        %       %  
-------------------------------------------- 
Very cold         0    19.7     16.2    11.2 
                1-9      .6      1.1     1.2 
              10-14     1.9      3.0     2.7 
Quite cold    15-19    10.3      8.5    11.4 
              20-24     1.8      2.3     2.4 
              25-29      .6       .6      .4 
Fairly cold   30-34    12.1     10.3    11.9 
              35-39      .3       .3      .3 
              40-44    12.6     11.7    14.0 
              45-49      .3      1.0      .5 
Indifferent   50-54    16.0     16.2    18.2 
              55-59      .5       .4      .3 
A bit warmer  60-64    10.2     13.6     12.3 
              65-69      .4       .2      .3 
Fairly warm   70-74     6.5      6.8     6.8 
              75-79      .3      1.1      .4 
              80-84      .8      1.3      .8 
Quite warm    85-89     2.5      3.3     2.9 
              90-94      .3       .2      .4 
              95-99      .1       .1       0 
Very warm     100       2.2      1.9     1.5 
                       -----    -----   ---- 
                        100%     100%   100% 
-------------------------------------------- 
Mean                     36       39      39 
Std dev                  26       26      24 
Valid cases            1449     1236    2296 
  
  
b."In general, how good a job would you say the 
trade unions are doing for the country as a 
whole?" Percent giving each answer 
------------------------------------------- 
                1987      1994     1995 
------------------------------------------- 
Excellent        1          1        1 
Very good        5          6        6 
Fairly good     29         40       43 
Not very good   32         31       32 
No good at all  12         11       10 
Terrible        21         10        8 
              -------    -----   ----- 
               100%       100%     100% 
-------------------------------------------- 
  
  
c. "When you hear of a strike, are your  
sympathies generally for or against the  
strikers?" Percent giving each answer 
----------------------------------------------- 
                   1987    1990    1994   1995 
----------------------------------------------- 
Always for them      3       2       4       3 
Usually for them     9       8      14      15 
Sometimes for them  51      58      44      49 
Usually against     25      22      28      26 
Always against      13      10      10       6 
                  -----    ----    ----    ---- 
                   100%    100%    100%    100% 
------------------------------------------------ 
  

"There should be stricter laws controlling 
the activities of trade unions." Percent giving 
each answer. 
----------------------------------------------- 
                         1987     1990 
------------------------------------------------ 
Definitely               48        44 
Probably                 31        31 
Neutral, mixed feelings              
Probably not             13        17 
Definitely not            6         8 
                       -----     ----- 
                        100%     100%  
----------------------------------------------- 
  
  
d. "Do trade unions have too much power?" 
Percent giving each answer 
---------------------------------------------- 
                       1990    1994    1995    
---------------------------------------------- 
Far too much power       38      24      19 
Too much power           31      34      37 
About right              28      37      38 
Too little power          2       4       5 
Far too little power      1       2       1 
                       -----   -----    ---- 
                        100%    100%    100% 
  


Means, Standard deviations, and correlations 
among scale items 1995. 
   Mean:   SD:          Correlations: 
                    a     b     c     d 
a  39.09  24.18    1.0  .629  .533  .529 
b  46.53  20.56        1.0    .560  .528 
c  45.51  21.79              1.0    .518 
d  32.99  22.00                    1.0 
  
          Mean StDev N    Label 
e PROUNION 41.03 18.23 2330 Pro-trade union (scale) 
f TUMemb     .23   .42 2338 Union member 
g FaTUMemb   .36   .48 2338 Father union member 
h Male       .49   .50 2256 Male (=1) 
i AGE      49.03 15.82 2259 Age (years) 
j UrbanNow 70.22 31.04 2199 Urban resident now 
k Educ     11.89  3.01 2338 Education (years) 
l BlueC      .28   .45 2017 Occ. now: Blue collar 
m Farm       .04   .20 2017 Occupation now: Farm 
n FamInc   47.86 42.19 2044 Family income ($A 000s) 
o CathKid    .27   .44 2322 Reared a Catholic 
p AthstKid   .06   .23 2322 Reared in "No religion" 
q lnChAtt    .79  1.81 2273 Church going: ln(#days) 
r tMedMig  59.57 19.23 2298Symp Migrants:Greek,Ital 
s tAsiaMig 47.14 21.34 2290 Symp Migrants: Asian 
t tBritMig 63.14 20.21 2302 Symp migrants: British 
u PntParty   .48   .40 2338 Parents pol. party  
                          (cons high, no miss) 
v PartyLab   .48   .49 2104 Political party  
                            (Labor high) 
w tKeating 40.33 31.39 2301 Therm: Paul Keating 
x tHoward  51.83 26.00 2304 Therm: John Howard 
  
Minimum Pairwise N of Cases =  1827 
  
Correlations: 
    a     b     c     d     e     f     g     h 
a 1.000  .629  .533  .529  .842  .212  .118 -.017 
b  .629 1.000  .560  .528  .827  .181  .115 -.072 
c  .533  .560 1.000  .518  .800  .186  .144 -.043 
d  .529  .528  .518 1.000  .789  .238  .145 -.006 
e  .842  .827  .800  .789 1.000  .245  .159 -.037 
f  .212  .181  .186  .238  .245 1.000  .090  .101 
g  .118  .115  .144  .145  .159  .090 1.000 -.001 
h -.017 -.072 -.043 -.006 -.037  .101 -.001 1.000 
i  .007 -.015 -.059 -.084 -.041 -.193 -.088  .063 
j  .033  .044  .017  .031  .033  .021  .049  .042 
k  .019  .013  .006  .055  .028  .187 -.014  .028 
l  .072  .047  .125  .043  .090 -.017  .079  .127 
m -.065 -.071 -.067 -.078 -.090 -.084 -.077 -.010 
n -.086 -.119 -.122 -.064 -.118  .115 -.037  .026 
o  .026  .031  .071  .028  .047  .057  .001 -.008 
p  .007  .028  .032  .039  .033  .016  .013  .040 
q -.052 -.025 -.054 -.063 -.054 -.053 -.052 -.081 
r  .161  .089  .060  .061  .120  .014 -.007 -.033 
s  .215  .155  .116  .123  .196  .060 -.024 -.043 
t  .103  .061  .024  .018  .063 -.036 -.009 -.029 
u -.198 -.168 -.207 -.176 -.226 -.050 -.401 -.016 
v  .458  .414  .420  .420  .521  .178  .227  .011 
w  .548  .411  .377  .400  .537  .102  .099  .056 
x -.317 -.335 -.374 -.340 -.408 -.149 -.181  .009 
  
    i     j     k     l     m     n     o     p 
a  .007  .033  .019  .072 -.065 -.086  .026  .007 
b -.015  .044  .013  .047 -.071 -.119  .031  .028 
c -.059  .017  .006  .125 -.067 -.122  .071  .032 
d -.084  .031  .055  .043 -.078 -.064  .028  .039 
e -.041  .033  .028  .090 -.090 -.118  .047  .033 
f -.193  .021  .187 -.017 -.084  .115  .057  .016 
g -.088  .049 -.014  .079 -.077 -.037  .001  .013 
h  .063  .042  .028  .127 -.010  .026 -.008  .040 
j -.043 1.000  .123 -.024 -.346  .097  .066  .031 
k -.369  .123 1.000 -.342 -.117  .307  .037  .057 
l  .011 -.024 -.342 1.000 -.132 -.238  .001  .031 
m  .100 -.346 -.117 -.132 1.000 -.057 -.030 -.031 
n -.167  .097  .307 -.238 -.057 1.000  .050  .009 
o -.132  .066  .037  .001 -.030  .050 1.000 -.149 
p -.155  .031  .057  .031 -.031  .009 -.149 1.000 
q  .126 -.043  .008 -.042  .065 -.043  .179 -.124 
r  .083  .117  .121 -.109 -.042  .040  .074 -.077 
s -.037  .072  .215 -.138 -.045  .051  .047 -.028 
t  .175  .086  .004 -.038 -.022 -.037 -.042 -.082 
u -.028 -.084  .142 -.134  .135  .100 -.060 -.055 
v -.101  .092 -.009  .131 -.157 -.076  .085  .036 
w -.036  .070  .012  .062 -.087 -.056  .104  .027 
x  .246 -.050 -.003 -.101  .099  .068 -.058 -.110 
  
    q     r     s     t     u     v     w     x 
a -.052  .161  .215  .103 -.198  .458  .548 -.317 
b -.025  .089  .155  .061 -.168  .414  .411 -.335 
c -.054  .060  .116  .024 -.207  .420  .377 -.374 
d -.063  .061  .123  .018 -.176  .420  .400 -.340 
e -.054  .120  .196  .063 -.226  .521  .537 -.408 
f -.053  .014  .060 -.036 -.050  .178  .102 -.149 
g -.052 -.007 -.024 -.009 -.401  .227  .099 -.181 
h -.081 -.033 -.043 -.029 -.016  .011  .056  .009 
i  .126  .083 -.037  .175 -.028 -.101 -.036  .246 
j -.043  .117  .072  .086 -.084  .092  .070 -.050 
k  .008  .121  .215  .004  .142 -.009  .012 -.003 
l -.042 -.109 -.138 -.038 -.134  .131  .062 -.101 
m  .065 -.042 -.045 -.022  .135 -.157 -.087  .099 
n -.043  .040  .051 -.037  .100 -.076 -.056  .068 
o  .179  .074  .047 -.042 -.060  .085  .104 -.058 
q     r     s     t     u     v     w     x 
p -.124 -.077 -.028 -.082 -.055  .036  .027 -.110 
q 1.000  .047  .067  .045  .081 -.125 -.048  .142 
r  .047 1.000  .687  .648  .012  .037  .141  .116 
s  .067  .687 1.000  .390  .050  .118  .222 -.008 
t  .045  .648  .390 1.000  .034 -.047 -.005  .195 
u  .081  .012  .050  .034 1.000 -.428 -.269  .250 
v -.125  .037  .118 -.047 -.428 1.000  .652 -.537 
w -.048  .141  .222 -.005 -.269  .652 1.000 -.347 
x  .142  .116 -.008  .195  .250 -.537 -.347 1.000 
  
  
  
  

Ols Regressions predicting pro-union attitudes 
  
         Pro-Union   PartyLaB   tKeating   tHoward  
        Metric Std  Metr. Std Metr. Std  Metr. Std 
ProUnion --  ----    .01  .42   .45 .26   -.28-.20   
Male   -1.81 -.05    ns   ns   4.17 .07    ns  ns    
AGE      ns   ns     .00 -.06   ns  ns     .30 .18   
UrbanNow ns   ns     ns   ns    ns  ns     ns  ns    
Educ     .65  .11    ns   ns    ns  ns     .49 .06   
BlueC   2.83  .07    .05  .05   ns  ns     ns  ns    
Farm     ns   ns    -.12 -.05   ns  ns     ns  ns    
FamInc  -.05 -.12    ns   ns    ns  ns     ns  ns    
CathKid  ns   ns     .04  .04  2.75 .04    ns  ns    
AthstKid ns   ns     ns   ns    ns  ns   -4.91-.04   
lnChatt ---- ----   -.02 -.07   ns  ns     .69 .05   
tMedMig ---- ----    ns   ns    .14 .08    .10 .07   
tAsiaMig---- ----    .00  .10   .14 .09    ns  ns    
tBritMig---- ----   -.00 -.07  -.14-.09    .15 .12   
PntPty -9.76 -.21   -.38 -.31   ns  ns     ns  ns    
PtyLab  ---- ----   ---- ---  32.55 .51 -20.66-.39   
(Const)40.99         .32      -3.63      38.07        
                                                           
Mult. R   .28         .63                  .62        
R Square  .08         .40                  .39        
Adj R**2  .07         .40                  .38        
St Err  17.53         .38                20.48        
F =     16.19       81.45                70.86             
Sig F  =  .00         .00                  .00        
  
  


    
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