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Union support on the rise, Gallup finds

August 19th, 2015  |  Pamela Wolf

Despite a labor landscape that increasingly includes efforts to blunt the power of unions, particularly those operating in the public sector, support of unions among the American public is on the rise, largely restored to what it was six years ago. Americans’ approval of labor unions has risen five percentage points to 58 percent over the past year alone and now registers at its highest point since 2008, when the approval rate was 59 percent, according to a Gallup poll. During the interim years, organized labor’s image took a beating, sinking to an all-time low of 48 percent in 2009.

Given the increased union support, it’s not surprising that the percentage of Americans who say they would like unions to have more influence in the country has also been rising—now at 37 percent, up from 25 percent in 2009, according to the 2015 installment of Gallup’s annual Work and Education survey. The poll also showed that the percentage of Americans who want unions to wield less influence has declined from 42 percent to 35 percent, although it remains higher than it was from 1999 through 2008. Fewer Americans today say they want the level of union influence to stay the same.

Demographic differences. The survey revealed some notable demographic differences. For example, as to both the approval of unions and preferred change in influence of unions, union support was higher among women than it was among men. The poll found that 63 percent of women approved of unions, compared with 52 percent of men. Forty-one percent of women wanted unions to have more influence, compared to 33 percent of men.

Survey data showed that favorable views of unions were significantly higher in the East, Midwest, and West than in the South. In a finding not very surprising to labor landscape observers, the South was the only region where the poll found that less than half of residents approved of unions.

As to political affiliation, the survey probably confirmed what many labor observers already believed. Democrats were the most supportive of unions, with 79 percent approving of unions and 55 percent wanting unions to wield more influence. Although nearly half of Republicans approved of unions, only 18 percent wanted them to have more influence, and 53 percent wanted them to have less. According to the poll, the views of independents fell a bit closer to those of Republicans than Democrats as to both union support and union influence.

Results along the age demographic may be the most encouraging for unions. The survey found that young adults—those aged 18 to 34—are the most supportive of unions among all age groups.

Future of union power. Many have questioned the viability and effectiveness of unions in an environment of decreasing or flat union membership, not to mention the growing number of state efforts to impose so-called “right-to-work” laws that do away with employee obligations to pay union fees despite union representation. At least partly in response to this environment, unions have increasingly thrown their support behind, and in some cases helped form, alternative labor groups to achieve better wages and improvements in other terms and conditions for workers who are not unionized.

The results of the Gallup poll seem to confirm the perception that union power is on the wane. While Americans have become more pro-union, their perceptions of the outlook for union power haven’t changed in the past few years, the survey found. Fifty-three percent of those polled believed that unions will be weaker in the future, similar to survey results for each year since 2011. In most years before that, between 41 percent and 48 percent thought union power would dwindle, while a higher percentage than today thought it would stay the same.

Union member profile. Who are the workers who belong to unions? Gallop found that about one in eight working adults in the United States (12 percent) belong to a labor union—equivalent to 8 percent of all Americans. Looking at the bigger picture, the survey found that 17 percent of Americans lived in a household where at least one person was a union member. However, the data varied markedly by region, with just 6 percent of adults in the South living in a union household, versus 18 percent in the West and about a quarter in the East (24 percent) and Midwest (23 percent). The survey also found that union membership was higher among nonwhites (24 percent) than whites (13 percent), and among Democrats (24 percent) than Republicans and independents (13 percent each). Gallup said that there were smaller differences by gender, and almost none by age.

Takeaway. Gallup offered a “bottom line” from the survey results. “With the economy continuing to do better than it did during the recession and the 2008 government bailout of two of the Big Three American auto companies—for which unions’ image may have suffered—fading further into history, Americans’ views of unions are largely restored to what they were six years ago,” wrote Gallup editor Lydia Saad. “The solid majority approve of unions, and most would like to see unions’ power strengthened, or at least maintained.”

Historical perspective. Gallup noted that it first asked Americans about organized labor in 1936. At that time—a year after Congress legalized private-sector unions and collective bargaining—72 percent of Americans approved of unions. Union support remained high into the 1960s but then dipped through the 1970s until it reached 55 percent in 1979, Gallup said. Since then, union support has varied, reaching as high as 66 percent in 1999 and as low as 48 percent in 2009.

About the survey. The results for the Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted August 5-9, 2015, with a random sample of 1,011 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.