What is public opinion on organized labor?

BY:Anita Waters| January 2, 2020
What is public opinion on organized labor?


Is organized labor viewed more favorably or less favorably than it used to be?

This question of how organized labor is viewed by the general public was raised for me in a recent conversation I had with a “leftist” acquaintance. He expressed very negative ideas about trade unions. He cited the ever-declining proportion of workers who were covered by unions. He disparaged the large union to which he himself had belonged for many years, arguing that union officials didn’t care about the rank and file and misspent funds from members’ dues. His attitude reflects other conversations I have had with people who do not perceive that they benefit from union membership. When reminded that in every paycheck they see a union payback in the form of higher wages and better benefits, some grudgingly have to agree. But the concrete economic advantages that union membership creates seem to be unknown by many people.

While there have no doubt been real incidents of union mismanagement, the benefits that accrue to workers and their communities from union membership are well documented and consistent. Household union membership means a 15–20% wage premium over that of non-union households. Strong unions in a community are associated with lower rates of poverty, lower salaries for top corporate management, and more robust policies of wealth distribution. Union members are more likely to vote, to protest, and to belong to political organizations. So why do we find such strong negativity among some workers?

The most important source of anti-union public opinion is the deliberate disinformation campaign of large corporations. New employees at retail giants are subjected to anti-union indoctrination and are forced to espouse such views publicly. Huge amounts of resources are invested in litigation against unions, and the highest-paid consultants are hired to formulate anti-union ideologies and strategies of disinformation. It’s no accident that public opinion is critical of organized labor.

For questions about trends in public opinion, a great resource is the General Social Survey (GSS). It’s a professionally designed and executed interview survey that has taken place almost every year since 1972. The GSS is based on interviews of a representative sample of adults in the United States and uses state-of-the-art methods of obtaining valid and reliable data about people’s opinions. GSS results are used in thousands of academic studies. Many of the questions that it asks are the same from year to year, which lets us see trends over time.

The GSS asks some factual questions as well as public opinion questions. Over the years, the decline in union membership, well documented by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other agencies, is also reflected. The interviewers ask each respondent if the respondent and/or the respondent’s spouse is a union member. In 1988, 18.5% of interviewees responded that they and/or their spouse belong to a union. In 1998, this had dropped to 16.7%. In 2008, it was 14.7% and in 2018, only 12.2%. (Note: these are comparable to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ figures, which speaks well of the validity of the GSS.)

The GSS has consistently asked two questions that indicate how the public is feeling about organized labor. The first asks about the public’s confidence in organized labor. The interviewer says, “I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?” One of the institutions is “organized labor.” I compared the data for 1988, 1998, 2008, and 2018, which is the most recent year for which data are available. Listed in Table 1 are the proportions of all those who expressed an opinion.

Table 1: Percentages of respondents who have a great deal, only some, or hardly any confidence in organized labor. The N represents the total expressing an opinion.

1988 1998 2008 2018
A great deal 10.5 12.0 12.6 14.0
Only some 52.9 56.3 60.0 65.0
Hardly any 36.6 31.7 27.4 21.0
Total (N) 100 (941) 100 (1752) 100 (1304) 100 (1488)

Note:  GSS Variable: conlabor

The trend here seems very clear. More people have a great deal of confidence in organized labor, and the proportion of people with very little confidence has moved from nearly one in three in 1988 to only one in five in 2018. Nearly 80% of respondents have at least some confidence in labor in 2018.

The second GSS question that allows comparisons over time asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement “Workers need strong trade unions to protect their interests.” This question arguably speaks directly to the idea that workers’ organizations are promoting independent political organization of the working class as a whole. The question was asked only twice, in 1989 and in 2016. In Table 2 are the proportions of all those expressing an opinion.

Table 2: Percentages of respondents who agree or disagree with the statement “Workers need strong trade unions to protect their interests.” The N represents the total expressing an opinion.

1989 2016
Strongly agree 11.7 20.0
Agree 26.5 28.9
Neither 24.9 28.0
Disagree 24.9 16.5
Strongly disagree 12.0 6.6
N 1371 1422

Note: Variable: strngun

The proportion of people who strongly disagree with the need for strong trade unions has nearly halved between 1989 and 2016, and a much higher proportion of people agree that strong trade unions are needed to protect workers’ interests.

Despite the indisputable decline in formal union membership, and despite the massive efforts to discredit organized labor, people are increasingly recognizing the value that unions bring to workers’ lives. These data show that the corporate anti-union campaigns aren’t succeeding. We can fight back against so-called right-to-work campaigns, anti-worker National Labor Relations Board rulings, and worker indoctrination by working for labor rights legislation (like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act) and supporting candidates for elected office who defend the fundamental rights of workers to unite and bargain collectively with their employers.

Image: Al Neal, People’s World


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