Over at the New York Times‘ Economix blog, Steven Greenhouse, the Times‘ labour correspondent, notes a recent Gallup poll asking Americans for their opinion of labour unions. The results of the poll show that 52% of Americans approve of unions, while 42% disapprove.
Gallup has been polling Americans on this question since 1936, the year after the Wagner Act was passed, at regular intervals, and the historical results show public approval for unions remained high (near or above 60%) throughout the twentieth century and right up until 2009, when approval suddenly dropped eleven points to a record low of 48%. Disapproval reached an all-time high that year of 45%. In 2010, approval for unions rebounded slightly to 52%, with disapproval at 41%, so this year’s results suggest some flattening out of public opinion, and perhaps the beginning of a new era in how Americans understand and relate to organised labour.
Back in 2009, when Gallup’s poll recorded the nadir of public approval for labour unions, Nate Silver pointed out that public support for organised labour was closely related to the unemployment rate. Silver used Gallup’s polling on this question going back to 1948 to conclude that “for every point’s worth of increase in the unemployment rate, approval of labor unions goes down by 2.6 points.” Silver didn’t speculate as to why the two factors seemed to be related, but it doesn’t really need pointing out that when Gallup asked this question in August 2009, the U.S. was in the midst of the harshest period of the Great Recession, with unemployment above 9% and rising. Now, unemployment in 2011 is still up around 9%, whereas public opionion of labour unions has risen by 4 points since 2009, so Silver’s trend line can’t fully explain the phenomenon. Nevertheless, there’s a substantial link between the American public’s concerns over unemployment and the state of the economy as a whole, and their view of labour unions. It might be fair to say that more Americans sympathise with the belief that unions hinder the American economy and prevent employers from creating jobs in a tough climate when economic growth is stagnant. That’s not to say that this is true of unions, but it is a major image problem the labour movement faces in convincing the public of its relevancy in the twenty first century.
Steven Greenhouse notes the explanations both Labour movement officials and business leaders give for this year’s polling results, suggesting the former blame the recent decline in union approval on conservative groups’ messaging of union responsibility for such issues as the bankruptcy of General Motors, while business groups claim that workers “no longer see a need for unions.” Clearly many Americans do still see a need for unions, and the discrepancy between the 52% who approve of labour unions and the 11% of American workers who belong to a union suggests that there’s something other than workers’ hostility to organised labour preventing unions from reaching much of the workforce. The gap between Americans who approve of unions and those who disapprove is undeniably shrinking, though, and as both Greenhouse and Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones point out, that might have a lot to do with the increasingly partisan debate over the role of labour unions in American society. The recent skirmishes in Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican Governors led conservative state legislatures in attacking public sector unions, have intensified a much longer trend of Republican antagonism toward the labour movement.
If you look at Gallup’s polling data, the first time public support for unions dipped below 60% was in January 1978, right in the middle of the long, bitter coal miners’ strike that had huge effects on energy markets in the eastern U.S. Often, the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike is referred to as the key moment in changing the attitudes of both the Federal government and the general public toward labour unions in the U.S., but I’d say that the 1977-78 coal strike was arguably more important in setting that change in motion. It’s not the beginning of the story by any means, you could go back to several Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s forcing significant changes that would affect that relationship, or as far back as the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and the subsequent failure of several Democratic-controlled Congress’ to repeal that law. But the 1978 coal strike was perhaps the beginning of the public belief that unions were overly pampered and too willing to hold the rest of the economy to ransom for the sake of their high wages and great benefits, an attitude which has now been transferred onto public sector unions in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey. I’d suggest that both Greenhouse and Gallup are right in arguing that the politicisation of labour issues is key in shaping this tightening of public opinion on unions. For all intents and purposes, to many of the respondents to Gallup’s 2011 poll, labour unions have been definitively tied to electoral politics as an arm of the Democratic Party. As a result, I would expect that public approval of unions will remain as polarised as public support for each of the main political parties for the forseeable future, even if unemployment drops and the U.S. emerges from the current recession.
The full historical results of Gallup’s polling on labour unions can be found here (pdf).