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Americans' Mixed Feelings on Unions


Labor unions in the United States are both more and less popular than people tend to believe. Confusing? It sure is.

I spend a lot of time thinking about labor in the United States, and around the world. What will the future look like? Will there be more worker organization, or less? And how do Americans feel about unions, anyway?

I wanted to see what data existed, and sure enough, Gallup has some long-term polling on American attitudes toward labor unions. Click through for the numbers. I’ll discuss the points that are of particular interest to me.

First of all, unions are more popular than one might assume. Given how consistently unions are lambasted by right-wing pundits and politicians, it would be easy to think that unions are widely hated in the US, but this is not the case. As of 2015, fully 58% of Americans approve of labor unions, with only 36% disapproving. The all-time high for this series (going back to 1936) was 75% approval, achieved 1954 (and held steady for a few years). Since then, it’s bounced up and down, hanging somewhere around 60% from 1972 onward. The latest major dip was in the aftermath of the global financial crisis–approval went to 48% and disapproval climbed up to 45%. It has since recovered.

It was honestly a surprise to me that the concept of labor unions in the United States has enjoyed such popularity. At no point in polls going back 80 years are unions more unpopular than popular.

But Americans’ feelings about unions don’t end there. Once you dig into details, some nuances emerge. For one thing, how much of the population are we talking about? Gallup asked whether respondents or any members of their household were part of a union. It turns out about 80% of the respondents aren’t in unions, and this has held pretty steady since 2002. Regarding the power of unions, the numbers have fluctuated but show a pretty clear divide: about half of respondents think unions will become stronger or stay about the same, while the other half think unions will weaken. As for how people think union power should change, it tends to split three ways between unions having more power, less power, or the same amount. As of August 2015, the “more power” and “less power” responses are evenly split, with somewhat fewer people thinking union power should remain the same. It’s hard to say whether this indicates a trend toward polarization over the future of unions, but only time will tell.

It’s also asked how much confidence people have in organized labor. This data is available going back to 1973. Back then, 30% of respondents had a lot of confidence (“quite a lot” or “a great deal”) while 60% had less or no confidence (“some”, “very little”, or “none”). That confidence has decreased noticeably over the past 40-plus years: today, only 24% have a lot of confidence, with 73% reporting “some”, “very little”, or “none”. Organized labor, as a concept, has taken a beating.

Questions about specific legal concepts have been asked, too. One thing that’s evident is that workers today are less aware of labor issues: fewer people today know what “right-to-work” and “open shop” laws are about compared with 60 years ago. The responses also indicate that workers are less interested in joining unions now than in the past–perhaps because they are seen as ineffective, even untrustworthy. This is honestly a baffling trend given the extent to which employers and corporations have engaged in both small- and large-scale fraud, mismanagement, and wage theft. Based on the survey responses, it also appears that much of the resistance to union membership is down to the concept of paying dues: workers evidently don’t see enough value in belonging to a union to actually pay for it.

The other responses are a bit less revelatory: workers in unionized companies tend to think that, overall, unions are beneficial; non-union workers tend to believe that unions do more harm than good. Respondents are split on whether companies and government services which are unionized are overall a good or bad thing.

People surveyed were also asked whether they think particular kinds of groups and organizations have too much or too little power. The ranking, going from “too much” to “too little”, breaks down about like so:

  1. Lobbyists
  2. Major corporations
  3. Banks and financial institutions
  4. The federal government in Washington
  5. Labor unions
  6. The government in your state
  7. The courts, legal system and judges
  8. Organized religion and churches
  9. The municipal or local government where you live
  10. The military

The placement of the first three seems about right, but the rest is quite bizarre. Labor unions are seen as having too much power compared to organized religion and the military, when the latter two certainly set policy and affect people’s lives substantially more than unions do. It seems many Americans have a poor sense of what directly impacts their lives, perhaps projecting their dark fantasy versions of unions onto the real ones. Certainly, I have been more hassled and inconvenienced by state and local governments, as well as the legal system, than I ever have by unions (and this would include transportation strikes in my area). I would be curious to know what power unions have exercised that people tend to feel so threatened by.

Questions about making reductions in government spending reveal some interesting preferences, too. Reducing or eliminating certain state programs is an overwhelmingly popular suggestion–almost 23 of respondents think it’s a good way to balance budgets. Of course, cutting vague, nameless programs is always popular, until it comes time to name specific ones. Paradoxically, people support reducing the state workforce much more than they want to see state workers’ pay and benefits cut. Raising taxes and borrowing money are incredibly unpopular, which is certainly no surprise.

It’s worth noting that only 11.3% of American workers are currently unionized, with public sector union membership being about three times the rate of the private sector. Overall union membership was 20.1% in 1983, which is nearly twice the rate of today. It’s curious that unions are simultaneously popular and viewed as having too much power at the same time their power is diminishing and public opinion is very mixed on how much good unions accomplish. At the root of all this may well be the destruction of the working class left as a political force, given that leftism, to the extent it still exists in the US, has transitioned to focus on professionals in STEM fields (who are largely resistant to unions) and academia (where worker organization remains popular). A post for another time, perhaps. For now, it’s safe to say Americans aren’t quite sure how we feel about unions. We kind of like them, and we kind of don’t. Sometimes we want them, but most of the time we’re just scared of them, like some unseen force coming to take our jobs away. This view doesn’t seem to have much to do with the reality of the situation, either, but what can you do?

Photo by o0karen0o