Unions in the Age of Enron

by Ben Klima and Chris McComb

The Enron scandal is generating a national dialogue about business ethics. As advocates of rank-and-file employees, labor unions stand to benefit from the remarkable example of management hubris that Enron has provided. Overall, unions have been declining in influence over the past 20 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 14% of wage and salary workers were union members in 2000 (13.5%). Union membership decreased slightly between 1999 and 2000, and has decreased 20.1% since 1983, the first year that data were available.

How do Americans feel about the role of unions in business today? An August 2001 Gallup poll* found that about three-quarters of the public (74%) believed unions mostly help, rather than hurt workers who are members. A majority of Americans have been supportive of labor unions at all times over the past four decades (approval has remained between 55% and 71% since 1963).

However, when it comes to the impact of labor unions on the economy as a whole, there is much less consensus among Americans. About one half (49%) said last August that unions help the economy, while 38% say unions hurt the economy. And when asked to think generally of labor disputes over the last two or three years, the public is similarly divided. The largest proportion -- 45% -- said their sympathies lie with the unions, while 37% sided with the companies.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,013 national adults, aged 18 and over, conducted Aug. 16-19, 2001. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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