Shift in Public Perceptions About Union Strength, Influence

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Majority of Americans continue to approve of labor unions

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- A recent Gallup poll shows Americans are apparently aware of the difficulties labor unions in the United States are facing. Conducted shortly after several large unions left the AFL-CIO over disagreements about the organization's strategy, the poll finds a majority of Americans predicting that labor unions will be weaker in the future. And in a shift from previous years, a plurality of Americans now say they would like to see unions have more influence in the United States than they have today. Basic support for unions has always been fairly high -- with at least a majority approving of unions -- and this year's results show little change from the recent past.

The Aug. 8-11 poll, conducted after the AFL-CIO split but before the recent Northwest Airlines mechanics' strike, shows a majority of Americans, 53%, now expect that unions in this country will become weaker in the future. That represents a 12-point increase in the percentage predicting a weakening of union power from last year, and it is the first time a majority has held this view. Nineteen percent of Americans currently believe unions will be stronger in the future and 25% believe there will be no change.

The current increase in expectations of weaker union power is broadly based, with most subgroups showing an increase compared with last year.

Perhaps as a result of the recognition of the new challenges facing organized labor, there has been a change in the public's expressed preference about union influence. Now, a plurality of 38% say they would like to see unions have more influence than they have today, while 30% say less influence, and 29% say the same amount. Prior to this year, the plurality response had always been the "same amount" of influence.

Democrats have typically expressed a desire for greater union influence, and the prevalence of Democrats holding that view has increased substantially this year, from 46% to 60%. The percentage of independents saying unions should have more influence this year has also increased since last year, but there has been little change among Republicans.

Preference for Union Influence in the United States

Democrats

Independents

Republicans

2004

2005

2004

2005

2004

2005

%

%

%

%

%

%

More influence

46

60

30

38

14

17

Same

37

26

36

35

33

26

Less influence

15

12

30

22

50

53

Basic Support for Labor Unions

Despite the changes in perceptions about union influence, Americans' basic attitudes about unions are stable. Fifty-eight percent of Americans approve of labor unions, while 33% disapprove. A year ago, 59% approved, and approval has ranged in a fairly narrow band from 58% to 66% since 1967.

Union approval was generally higher prior to the 1970s, according to historical Gallup Polls. Save for a few exceptions, from 1936 to 1967 roughly two-thirds or more of Americans said they approved of labor unions. The height of support was 75%, reached in 1953 and 1957, while the low points were readings of 55% in 1979 and 1981.

Support for unions today is strongly related to one's political leaning -- Democrats (77%) are twice as likely as Republicans (38%) to approve. Sixty percent of independents approve.

The poll finds 19% of U.S. households claiming union membership. Eleven percent of Americans overall say they are personally members of unions.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,001 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 8-11, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

18. Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?

Approve

Disapprove

No opinion

%

%

%

2005 Aug 8-11

58

33

9

2004 Aug 9-11

59

34

7

2003 Aug 4-6

65

29

6

2002 Aug 5-8

58

33

9

2001 Aug 16-19

60

32

8

1999 Aug 24-26

65

28

7

1999 Mar 5-7

66

29

5

1997 Aug 12-13

60

31

9

1991 Jul 18-21

60

30

10

1986 Jul 11-14

59

30

11

1985 Apr 12-15

58

27

15

1981 Aug 14-17

55

35

11

1979 May 4-7

55

33

12

1978 Jan 6-9

59

31

10

1972 Dec 8-11

60

25

15

1972 Mar 24-27

60

27

13

1967 Sep 14-19

66

23

11

1965 May 13-18

71

19

11

1963 Jan 11-16

68

22

10

1962 Jun 28-Jul 3

64

24

11

1961 Sep 21-26

69

20

11

1961 May 4-9

63

23

14

1961 Jan 12-17

70

18

12

1959 Aug 20-25

73

14

12

1959 Jan 7-12

68

19

13

1958 Oct 15-20

64

21

15

1957 Aug 29-Sep 4

65

18

17

1957 Apr 6-11

74

17

9

1957 Jan 17-22

75

14

11

1953 Oct 9-14

75

18

7

1948 Dec 10-15

64

21

15

1947 Jul 4-9

64

25

11

1941

61

30

9

1936

72

20

8

D18. Is anyone living in your household a member of a labor union?

Yes

No

No opinion

2005 Aug 8-11

19%

81

*

* = Less than 0.5%

19. Thinking about the future, do you think labor unions in this country will become -- [ROTATED: stronger than they are today, the same as today, (or) weaker than they are today]?

Stronger

Same

Weaker

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2005 Aug 8-11

19

25

53

3

2004 Aug 9-11

21

34

41

4

2002 Aug 5-8

23

35

36

6

2001 Aug 16-19

24

30

40

6

1999 Aug 24-26

25

28

44

3

20. Would you, personally, like to see labor unions in the United States have -- [ROTATED: more influence than they have today, the same amount as today, (or) less influence than they have today]?

More
influence

Same
amount

Less
influence

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2005 Aug 8-11

38

29

30

3

2004 Aug 9-11

29

36

32

3

2002 Aug 5-8

27

36

31

6

2001 Aug 16-19

30

35

31

4

1999 Aug 24-26

30

36

32

2

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