Unions aren’t as popular as the polls would have you believe

This article was originally published on Fee.org. Charles Baird is a professor of economics emeritus at California State University at East Bay. He specializes in the law and economics of labor relations, a subject on which he has published several articles in refereed journals and numerous shorter pieces with FEE.

Charles W. Baird – September 4, 2017

On Wednesday, August 30th, Gallup issued a new poll on public attitudes toward labor unions. It reported that 61 percent of those polled “approve of labor unions.” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, cited the poll as cause for a “happy early Labor Day.” But Mr. Trumka actually has little to be happy about this Labor Day.

Don’t Be Misled by the Polls

Notwithstanding this apparent public “approval” of unions, only 10.7 percent of all American workers and only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers, are union members. Those are the numbers upon which Mr. Trumka’s dues-and-fees revenue depend. And there is little chance they will increase anytime soon.

The following chart shows that union membership rates have been falling steadily since 1983.

Gallup didn’t report union-approval rates every year until 2001, but the following chart shows the rates from 1985 through 2017 as reported in its new poll.

The high was in 2003 (65 percent), and the low was in 2009 (48 percent). It has been slowly increasing since. There is no correlation between union approval and union membership rates.

What Do These Numbers Mean?

So, what does the current 61 percent public approval number mean? Nothing at all.

The question Gallup asked was, “Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?” Public education has helped perpetuate the hoary myth that American unions were a positive force in building and maintaining a strong middle class. Considering this, I am not surprised most respondents would indicate approval of unions, not any particular unions, but the very idea of unions.

If Gallup were to ask me if I approve of unions I couldn’t answer with a simple yes or no. On grounds of freedom of association, I approve of unions which represent only their voluntary members in a context of voluntary bargaining. But I do not approve of unions empowered by the National Labor Relations Act to represent workers against their will.

If Gallup asked if their respondents approved or disapproved of unions having the power to represent workers against their will, I would be surprised if more than 10 percent would approve.

Mr. Trumka would not want Gallup to ask such a question. Nor would he like Gallup to ask the 89.7 percent of workers who are currently in union-free employment whether they would approve of switching to union-impaired employment. For those workers, it is clear that Labor Day is not Union Day.


One thought on “Unions aren’t as popular as the polls would have you believe

  1. The M Squad says:

    I retired at the age of 58, I worked through various unions my entire working life, with the exception of a couple of jobs after my release from servitude for mom and apple pie. My first union gig was as a musician, my dad was a union electrician on the rail road. I remember at a very young age my dad letting my walk the picket line with him, in a right to work state, Kansas. Unions aren’t perfect, but compare what was before Ronald Regan and what came after. There were in many states, closed shops. I had to jump through a few hoops to join the union, the 2nd one that I was affiliated with. There were more. Each one provided through the contracts, not some company pension or 401k plan that could be stolen or lost through our ordained market takers and manipulators, but an actual pension that works for me. They also provided health care and there was no co-pay. If there was someone who was a supposed authority figure who got out of line, who stood up for me along with myself? My union. From what I’ve seen of these gen X’ers, millenials, and the rest who have been boiled in the propaganda of the garbage that passes for what a workers rights are or should be, I wouldn’t be surprised at the brain washing that has been so successfully pounded on them that they wouldn’t want representation, they wouldn’t have any idea of what labor history is, they probably wouldn’t know what the labor department is, or that they by law in most states now, don’t have to pay dues, but the unions will still defend their rights. In my working life, I don’t remember in the state of Washington a law that said a worker had to have the union represent them, it was a choice. Ask a union plumber, a union iron worker, a union truck driver, or other union members, if they had to give up their union membership, would they do it? I’m sure they would all roll over and join Scott Walkers team. Right?

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