Week of 12/13: Workers’ rights and protections

Josh Berezin, Lead Strategist

Summary: Support for increased workers’ rights is high, but much lower when pitted against concerns about inflation. Two messages show promise at increasing support for new workers’ rights and protections.

This research was conducted in partnership with Strategic Victory Fund.

Background

This week, we chose to tackle, for the third time, a topic related to the economy — working conditions and workers’ rights. 

This topic strikes us as both urgent and current, considering the pro-worker provisions in the not-yet-passed Build Back Better bill, and the fact that better protections for workers might have saved lives when tornadoes struck several states last week.

Public polling tends to show high support for policies that benefit workers, including minimum wage increases, paid family leave, and protection from corporate abuses. Nevertheless, many of our legislative bodies have failed to pursue or failed to pass these kinds of policies. 

Top Findings

Two messages from this week’s research appear promising for increasing support for improving conditions for workers. “Trust,” a message that reflected distrust for corporations and some skepticism about government, moved lower-income respondents by 11 percentage points. “Full time,” which uses the value of Merit and focuses on hard work in its appeal for a minimum wage increase, moved support up among 35-54-year-old respondents by 16 points. 

Audience Understanding Survey

Audience Understanding Surveys are easiest to interpret when responses are relatively evenly distributed across the response options. Workers’ rights are generally very popular, so we wrote a survey question designed to create some space for people to register their opposition. 

We launched our Audience Understanding Survey on December 13th, asking 786 people the following question:

Lawmakers are considering whether US workers should have more rights, such as a higher minimum wage, predictable scheduling, or paid parental leave. 

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement? 

Workers’ rights in the US should be increased, even if it makes it harder for businesses to produce the goods and services we need.

To be clear, we think workers’ rights versus production and efficiency is a false choice, but we had hoped this construction would collect skeptics of increased workers’ rights and give them a place to land.

With 65% agreeing with the statement versus just 12% disagreeing, support for workers’ rights appeared to be too durable to be dramatically impacted by the language of this question. 

People who disagreed with the statement were likely to be high in the value of Merit, based on Grow Progress’s models of values and personality raits. This means their conception of fairness is rooted in hard work and achievement rather than equality. 

Though plenty of workers’ rights supporters were religious and focused on In-group Care, opponents were more likely to be each of those. 

Some opponents mentioned the cost to consumers, while one who was skeptical of parental leave pointed out that “people had children and worked for many years without parental leave.” 

We used findings from the values analysis and the responses to the open-ended questions in message development, discussed below.

Rapid Message Test

Informed by the Audience Understanding Survey, we wrote five messages, each of which took a different approach to making the case for expanding workers’ rights and improving working conditions. 

“Front line workers” centers workers for whom many people have sympathy. “Trust” is from the perspective of someone who lacks trust for both big corporations and government. “Family” tells a story of a worker focused on providing for their family. “Full time” uses the value of merit to make the case for increasing the minimum wage. And “Backwards” lays out facts and supports them through the values of merit, nostalgia, and patriotism. Full messages can be found in the appendix.

Because workers’ rights proposals are popular, we were concerned we might face ceiling effects in this research — where support for an issue is high enough that there’s not really room to grow. So we constructed a survey question that took advantage of current concerns about inflation and the media environment around the issue. The “forced choice” question we used asked respondents to choose between the government focusing solely on inflation or improving conditions for workers as soon as possible:

Which of the following statements is closest to your view, even if neither is exactly right?

While inflation is at a record high, the government needs to focus entirely on bringing down costs for consumers. Mandating wage increases or new benefits for workers will make inflation even worse, and shouldn’t be a priority right now.

Improving conditions for workers is an urgent priority. The federal government should raise the minimum wage, mandate parental leave, and expand protections against abusive employers as soon as possible.

As in the Audience Understanding Survey, we believe this is a false choice — wage increases or improvements to benefits don’t necessarily drive inflation — but this argument against workers’ rights is being used today in the real world. The goal here was to offer responses that reflect current rhetoric and debate on the issue. 

We recruited 1,201 respondents and randomly assigned each to one of our five messages, or a placebo, after which they were asked the outcome question.

Results

The question was effective at avoiding the ceiling effect we were concerned about. In the placebo group that saw none of the messages, 42% said improving conditions for workers is an urgent priority, and 58% said the government needs to focus on bringing down costs for consumers. 

Though we had room to expand support for workers’ rights given this question design, none of the messages caused statistically significant opinion change, across the population surveyed. People who were assigned to see “Trust” or “Full time” were five percentage points more supportive of workers’ rights than those who saw the placebo message, but this difference wasn’t large enough to be significant in this test. 

None of the messages increased support for workers’ rights by a statistically significant margin among the general population

Among people who reported that their household income was below $50,000 per year, “Trust” increased support for workers’ rights by a statistically significant 11 points.

Among people who are 35 to 54 years old, “Full time” increased support for workers’ rights by 16 percentage points. 

Based on their not-quite-significant topline results and the sharp movement they caused with some subgroups, we’d be interested in further iteration and testing of messages based on “Trust” and “Full time.” 

Appendix

Messages

Front line workers

The front line workers who kept Americans safe, fed, and protected during the worst months of the pandemic are struggling right now. They worked long and hard to look out for the needs of their neighbors, and yet they continue to be underserved and exploited. Their hard work is what kept this country afloat during one of its darkest chapters. It’s time their rights and protections were prioritized over profits and supply chains. They’ve earned it.

Trust

It’s sad, but I’ve learned you can’t trust big corporations to do the right thing. Not on their own. They’ll hold back pay raises, they’ll skip safety trainings. They won’t even give workers bathroom breaks unless they’re forced to.

I don’t want to rely on the government, but at this point I think we need them to pass a whole new set of rules for workers. We need pay raises, reasonable vacation time, and safe working conditions, and we need them right now.

Family

I’m grateful to have work, but, you know, I have people to take care of. There’s nothing more important than taking care of my family. There’s a lot of folks here like me, working but not really providing.

Maybe I could go find another job, but I’m not sure it’ll be better somewhere else.

I know there’s no guarantees in life, but it would sure be nice if I earned enough working full time to raise my family right.

Full time

I thought when I started my new job I’d finally feel secure because it’s full time. But because I make minimum wage, it still isn’t enough. People say if we raise wages, prices might go up and no one wants that. I get that, but the thing is, people like me can’t even afford prices as they are now. I’m living paycheck to paycheck despite working hard. I don’t want much, just to feel safe. Right now, I’m one bad day away from not being able to make rent. The minimum wage has to be a living wage.

Backwards

It’s been over a decade since the last minimum wage increase. Record numbers of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. These are the people that are hurt most by inflation. Meanwhile, the stock market is doing great. Shareholders are seeing their assets grow faster than ever.

Somehow, America has gone backwards. Rather than expanding the ability for people to work their way up in society, we’ve made it easier for those at the top to accumulate more and more, while the rest struggle to stay afloat. To begin restoring the American Dream, improving workers’ rights is an urgent priority.

Key experiment details
  • Audience: All adults, balanced on age, race, and gender
  • Geography: the United States
  • Sample size (raw / weighted): 1,201 / 1,197
  • Date in field: Wednesday, December 15, 2021
  • Weighting factors: age, race, gender, education, and party