Most Americans Approve of Labor Unions

by Lydia Saad

Say unions benefit the economy, union workers

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is making the case this Labor Day for a change of power in Congress and for expanding the labor movement. Sweeney heralds new census statistics that show real median earnings for working Americans falling in recent years at the same time that the U.S. economy, worker productivity, and corporate profits have grown. The challenging backdrop for Sweeney's campaign is that, according to Gallup's annual Work and Education survey, only 9% of Americans say they belong to a union. At the same time, most Americans approve of unions and applaud the job they do for their members.

Labor Day was first observed more than 100 years ago, and most states were quick to recognize it as an official holiday. That momentum is a distant memory today as only 13% of working Americans tell Gallup that they personally belong to a labor union, and just 17% of all Americans report living in a household in which at least one person belongs to a union. These figures are down sharply from reported figures from the mid-20th century, when more than 30% of U.S. workers belonged to a union. Even as recently as 1983, more than 20% were members.

Public reaction to labor unions is one of the longest running trends The Gallup Poll maintains. The question "Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?" was first asked in 1936, a year after Congress passed the Wagner Act establishing the right of most private-sector employees to join unions, to bargain collectively with their employers, and to strike. That first poll found 72% of Americans approving of unions and only 20% disapproving.

Broad support has been maintained ever since, although to varying degrees. Approval of unions was greatest in the 1950s (coincident with the peak of union membership in the United States), when the approval figure reached 75%. The low point was 55%, recorded in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, perceptions of labor unions are still positive but on the lower end of the range, with 59% approving and 29% disapproving.

There is some variation in public support for unions, particularly based on political orientation. Three in four Democrats (76%), but only 42% of Republicans, say they approve of labor unions. Consistent with geographic patterns in partisanship, approval is higher in the East (67%) and West (64%) than in the Midwest (57%) or South (52%). Lower-income Americans are more supportive than either middle- or upper-income Americans.

Most Consider Unions a Positive

Despite labor's small membership base today, most Americans not only approve of labor unions but also believe unions are generally helpful to workers who are union members, helpful to companies where workers are organized, and helpful to the economy. Only when it comes to the interests of non-unionized workers does a majority of Americans believe unions are harmful.

Seven in 10 Americans (71%) believe unions mostly help unionized workers, while 21% think they mostly hurt them. At least half of Americans also believe unions are mostly helpful to the companies where workers are unionized (50%) and to the U.S. economy in general (53%). However, only 33% of Americans believe unions mostly help workers who are not unionized; the majority (51%) say unions mostly hurt these workers. None of these attitudes has changed appreciably since first measured in 2001.

Naturally, adults living in union households are more positive than members of non-union households about the value of unions on all of these dimensions. Still, a solid majority of those in non-union households believe that unions are mostly beneficial to union workers.

Percentage Saying Unions Mostly Help

Union
Household

Non-Union
Household

Gap

%

%

Unionized companies

74

46

28 pts.

The U.S. economy

72

49

23 pts.

Union workers

91

68

23 pts.

Non-union workers

48

30

18 pts.

Who Belongs?

Approximately one in eight working adults in the United States (13%) belongs to a labor union, which translates into 9% of all Americans. Union membership skews heavily toward government-sector jobs, in large part because of teachers' unions.

Only 16% of all U.S. workers surveyed by Gallup are employed by the government at any level (federal, state, or local), compared with 39% of unionized workers.

Type of Employer Among All Workers vs. Among Union Members

All Workers

Union members

%

%

Private company or business

55

49

Nonprofit organization

9

5

Government

16

39

Self-employed

17

4

Other

2

1

No answer

1

2

100%

100%

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,007 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 7-10, 2006. 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.

12. Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?


Approve

Dis-
approve

No
opinion


Approve

Dis-
approve

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

%

2006 Aug 7-10

59

29

12

1965 May 13-18

71

19

11

2005 Aug 8-11

58

33

9

1963 Jan 11-16

68

22

10

2004 Aug 9-11

59

34

7

1962 Jun 28-Jul 3

64

24

11

2003 Aug 4-6

65

29

6

1961 Sep 21-26

69

20

11

2002 Aug 5-8

58

33

9

1961 May 4-9

63

23

14

2001 Aug 16-19

60

32

8

1961 Jan 12-17

70

18

12

1999 Aug 24-26

65

28

7

1959 Aug 20-25

73

14

12

1999 Mar 5-7

66

29

5

1959 Jan 7-12

68

19

13

1997 Aug 12-13

60

31

9

1958 Oct 15-20

64

21

15

1991 Jul 18-21

60

30

10

1957 Aug 29-Sep 4

65

18

17

1986 Jul 11-14

59

30

11

1957 Apr 6-11

74

17

9

1985 Apr 12-15

58

27

15

1957 Jan 17-22

75

14

11

1981 Aug 14-17

55

35

11

1953 Oct 9-14

75

18

7

1979 May 4-7

55

33

12

1948 Dec 10-15

64

21

15

1978 Jan 6-9

59

31

10

1947 Jul 4-9

64

25

11

1972 Dec 8-11

60

25

15

1941

61

30

9

1972 Mar 24-27

60

27

13

1936

72

20

8

1967 Sep 14-19

66

23

11

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

Yes

No

No opinion

%

%

%

2006 Aug 7-10

17

81

2

2005 Aug 8-11

19

81

*

2004 Aug 9-11

18

82

*

2003 Aug 4-6

18

82

*

2002 Aug 5-8

14

85

1

D18a. Are you a member of a labor union, or does some other member of your household belong to a labor union?

COMBINED RESPONSES (D18-D18a)


Respondent
in labor union

Other household
member
in labor union

Both in
labor union


Not a member
of labor union



No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2006 Aug 7-10

9

7

1

81

2

2005 Aug 8-11

10

8

1

81

*

2004 Aug 9-11

10

7

1

82

*

2003 Aug 4-6

9

8

1

82

*

2002 Aug 5-8

6

7

1

85

1

13. Overall, do you think labor unions mostly help or mostly hurt [RANDOM ORDER]?

Full Trends: Labor Union Help or Hurt?

A. Workers who are members of unions

Mostly help

Mostly hurt

No opinion

%

%

%

2006 Aug 7-10

71

21

8

2005 Aug 28-30

69

25

6

2003 Aug 4-6

76

20

4

2001 Aug 16-19

74

20

6

1999 Mar 5-7

72

24

4

B. The U.S. economy in general

Mostly help

Mostly hurt

No opinion

%

%

%

2006 Aug 7-10

53

36

11

2005 Aug 28-30

54

39

7

2003 Aug 4-6

54

38

8

2001 Aug 16-19

49

38

13

1999 Mar 5-7

55

37

8

1997 Aug 22-25 ^

48

45

7

^WORDING: The economy

C. Workers who are not members of unions

Mostly help

Mostly hurt

No opinion

%

%

%

2006 Aug 7-10

33

51

16

2005 Aug 28-30

38

52

10

2003 Aug 4-6

36

54

10

2001 Aug 16-19

36

50

14

1999 Mar 5-7

35

55

10

D. The companies where workers are unionized

Mostly help

Mostly hurt

No opinion

%

%

%

2006 Aug 7-10

50

39

11

2005 Aug 28-30

53

40

7

2003 Aug 4-6

58

35

7

2001 Aug 16-19

52

38

10

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