Article

Why Is the Public Suddenly Down on Unions?

Karla Walter and David Madland explain why public support for unions has recently dropped and why it should go back up once the economy recovers.

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.

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Authors

David Madland

Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project

Karla Walter

Senior Director, Employment Policy

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