Most voters believe labor unions have the strongest influence on the state’s elected officials, a new Hawaii Poll shows, although Democrats are less likely to have that opinion than Republicans and independents.
Nearly half of voters interviewed — 48 percent — believe labor unions have a very strong influence, and 35 percent think they have a somewhat strong influence.
Just 25 percent believe business interests have a very strong influence, but nearly half — 47 percent — think business interests have a somewhat strong interest.
Voters gave lower marks for the influence of environmental groups and social-service advocates.
The Hawaii Poll was taken by telephone among 614 registered voters statewide from May 4 to 10. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.
The poll shows that labor’s political power is viewed differently by Democrats than by Republicans and independents.
Just 38 percent of Democrats said labor unions had a very strong influence, while 64 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of independents did. Forty-five percent of union households believe labor has a very strong influence.
Labor has been traditionally aligned politically with the Democratic Party and often provides the grass-roots activism that helps Democratic candidates get elected. But many Democrats believe that Republicans and other critics exaggerate labor’s influence on their party.
"A lot of Democrats, actually, are closer to the action at the Legislature, where we see labor coming in and negotiating for certain things, and we see how often they fail to win the things that they’re asking for," said Bart Dame, an activist who serves on the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s state central committee.
"We even see Democratic elected officials taking often anti-labor positions. So people who are outside of the legislative process, and perhaps those who are much more unsympathetic to labor, are more likely to see if labor wins anything that reflects excessive labor influence.
"Those of us who are more labor-friendly are more likely to observe where labor loses," Dame said.
Dylan Nonaka, executive director of the state Republican Party, said labor fared better than other interest groups this session, citing the temporary suspension of general excise tax exemptions on several business activities, the defeat of environmental legislation and cuts to social service programs.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie and most units of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest public-sector union, agreed to a new two-year contract with 5 percent pay cuts and an equal split on worker health care premiums.
State senators had wanted labor savings closer to the 8 percent to 10 percent range of the existing contract.
"Labor didn’t get off scot-free, but they got off pretty easy compared to the rest of the groups," Nonaka said.
He said labor’s strength is in politics. "If you look at those interest groups, labor is the most effective at bringing in campaign donations and bodies to your campaign, which are the two most important resources," he said.
The poll also found that the image of public-sector labor unions has suffered, likely due to the debates over the state’s budget deficit and the furloughs and layoffs of state workers. Labor costs account for about 70 percent of the state budget.
Just 8 percent of voters — and 13 percent of union households — had a very high opinion of public-sector unions. Thirty-two percent had a somewhat high opinion, 35 percent had a somewhat low opinion and 20 percent had a very low opinion.