“I think a lot of the general public doesn’t realize that firefighters, teachers, police officers, who provide services, clean drinking water — that they’re union members,” she said. “We have to do a better job educating people about what we do every day, that we’re your brothers, sisters and cousins.
Bobbie Speer, a driver and book stocker for the Des Moines school district’s main warehouse, said thousands of government workers there have taken a three-year pay freeze.

Ms. Speer said she earns $30,000 after 11 years on the job, adding, “A lot of us are struggling just as bad as people in the private sector.”

But even when unions agree to sizable concessions, the public often views them as only reluctantly sharing in the pain.