Labor unions are much in the news again. The focus of the moment is on public labor unions. The highest visibility focal point is Wisconsin, where the governor has made proposals to change the basic nature of the relationship between public unions and the state government -- part of his effort to reduce Wisconsin's large state’s deficit. Sensing that this type of change would dramatically alter the way public unions function -- particularly if carried over to other states -- union members, union leaders, and union sympathizers have poured into the Badger state, demonstrations have ensued, state legislators have fled the state to avoid a vote on the governor’s proposals, and, in general, the stakes in the battle have been raised all around.
It’s not just Wisconsin. Other state governors are contemplating the same type of actions. Politico reports on a Matt Bai profile of rising-star Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, forthcoming in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, in which Bail notes that public unions have become one of Christie's signature issues: “....Chris Christie has his sprawling and powerful public-sector unions -- teachers, cops, and firefighters who Christie says are driving up local taxes beyond what the citizenry can afford, while also demanding the kind of lifetime security that most private-sector workers have already lost.”
We can provide some context from a public opinion perspective. Keep in mind first that only a small minority of Americans are members of labor unions -- about 12% to 13% based on Gallup estimates, with a slightly higher percentage if those with a union family member are included. But our interviewing has shown that about 35% of all government employees across the country are members of unions, including about 37% of all state government employees.
Looked at differently, we can estimate that about 48% of labor union members work for the government at the federal, state, or local level. In other words, the American union situation has evolved to the point where about half of all union members work government employees.
Our recent polling showed an even split when Americans are asked if they think public unions mostly helped or mostly hurt their states.
More generally, Gallup has been tracking attitudes about “labor unions” (no specification of private or public) since the Depression years. (Interestingly, this is one of Gallup’s longest-running trend questions.) A review of this trend, plus much more about American attitudes towards unions can be found here.
As of our last update in August, Americans said they were more likely to approve than disapprove of labor unions, but not by much. There has been a decided decrease in approval of labor unions in recent years. As recently as the 1990s, two-thirds of Americans approved of unions. Now, that approval figure is 52%. Last year’s 48% was the all-time low for this labor union approval measure.
The union fight in Wisconsin is very partisan. Governor Walker is a Republican. President Obama and other Democratic leaders have come out in opposition to the governor's plans to alter the way public unions operate in his state. Republicans have rallied in support of the governor’s proposals. All of this is not surprising. Attitudes toward unions are very partisan in nature. Democrats are most likely to approve, Republicans are most likely to disapprove. These differences are large. Last year, 71% of Democrats nationally approved of labor unions, compared to 49% of independents, and just 34% of Republicans.
Gallup tracking data also show that the partisan composition of the union member population skews considerably more Democratic than non-union members or than the population in general.
Americans perceive that labor unions will become weaker in the years ahead. Also, given three choices about the influence of labor unions in the United States today, 40% say that unions should have less influence, 29% more influence, and 27% about the same amount of influence they have today. The “less influence” percentage is near an all-time high level. Again, this is highly related to partisanship.
In 2009, the last time we asked the question, a slight majority of 51% of Americans said that labor unions mostly hurt rather than help the U.S. economy.
Since union members are a clear minority of the voting population, their appeal to public opinion lies in activating a broad sympathy for what they do, rather than specific personal benefits to the average citizen. Americans in general appear to be relatively divided regarding unions -- more so now than they have been previously in Gallup’s polling history when the public was more positive. Supporters of unions are and will continue to make the case that unions benefit society by benefiting workers. Opponents of unions will continue to make the case that unions have a negative impact on society, business and local and state governments. The increasing emphasis on public unions in budget-strapped states appears to be a catalyst for a renewed focus on the impact of unions in the U.S. This means the potential a change in public opinion about unions is most likely greater now than it has been in recent years.