Why Is the Public Suddenly Down on Unions?

By David Madland, Karla Walter, Center for American Progress Action Fund

Americans have expressed generally positive attitudes toward unions for as long as pollsters have been asking, and for decades public approval of labor unions has hovered around 60 percent. But starting in 2009 public opinion toward labor unions dropped precipitously. Why?

Last summer less than half of Americans said they approved of labor unions. This is the first time this happened in the over 70 years the Gallup survey research group has asked. Just one year earlier nearly 60 percent of respondents approved of labor unions. Similarly, a 2010 Pew Center for the People and the Press survey found union favorability was at just 41 percent, while in 2007—the last time they asked the question—favorability was 58 percent. The Pew survey also found that the decline in support was widespread, falling for virtually every demographic and political group.

What happened? And what does this mean for the U.S. labor movement’s future given that membership is already at 30-year lows?

The answer is largely that the public is angry about the weak economy and is blaming major economic institutions such as business, government, and organized labor. As a result, support for unions should improve when the economy gets back on track. Moreover, despite the drop in overall approval the public continues to value many of the functions unions perform—such as helping workers.

Still, labor unions may have suffered a more lasting blow. It’s hard to know the longer-term effect of the government’s bailout of GM and Chrysler, but the bailout was deeply unpopular and may have sullied unions’ reputations. Likewise, the conservative campaign to criticize unionized public sector workers’ compensation and work ethic—although very unlikely a major source of the decline—may have some effect on the public’s opinion of unions in the future, though data limitations make it hard to know this for certain.

In short, public support for labor unions should recover when the economy improves. But unions may need to take some different actions and work on their public image to bring their approval ratings back up to pre-recession levels.

This brief will examine these issues in more detail by surveying opinion polls on unions taken over the last several decades.