Unions are enjoying a popularity surge, with more than 61 percent of adults in the United States saying they now approve of organized labor — a five-point jump from last year, according to a new Gallup poll. That’s the highest approval rating since 2003, when 65 percent of respondents said the same, but it comes as union membership is falling.
About 14.6 million workers belonged to unions last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a 240,000-member drop from 2015.
Though union ranks are shrinking, acceptance among conservatives seems to be rising, per the Gallup survey, which polled 1,000 people nationwide between August 2 and 6.
Forty-two percent of Republicans said they approved of unions, a jump from 2011, when only 26 percent of Republicans showed support.
Among Democrats, 81 percent of Democrats approved of unions, compared to 78 percent in 2011. Support among Independents has also climbed, reaching 61 percent from 52 percent six years ago.
Joseph Slater, a law professor who follows labor issues at the University of Toledo College of Law, said one reason for the shift could be that more blue-collar workers have sided with the GOP since the 2016 campaign.
“Trump ran as an economic populist and he was not himself anti-union,” Slater said.
President Trump speaks often of boosting factory workers. He managed to flip counties across the Rust Belt — notably in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan — which felt disproportionate job loss as plants have shuttered, thanks to automation and foreign competition.
Trump also continues to slam NAFTA, a move that could have come out of the AFL-CIO’s playbook. (The union’s position is that NAFTA works only for people who are “already at the top” of the economic ladder.)
“More than anything, workers desperately want a voice — any voice,” said Michael LeRoy, a labor and law professor at the University of Illinois. “Donald Trump and labor unions seem like polar opposites, but working-class Republicans are overwhelmingly concerned about global trade that has hollowed out their jobs and community.”
Not that Trump hasn’t clashed with labor leaders. Recall his tweets about Indianapolis union president Chuck Jones last December (after Jones accused Trump of lying “his a-- off” about the Carrier deal):
Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2016
Labor groups, meanwhile, have remained highly visible, advocating for policy changes that show up in Democratic politicians’ platforms. Think the Fight for $15 campaign, launched by the Service Employees International Union and picked up by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016.
Young people displayed the most enthusiasm for unions in the Gallup survey. The poll found that 69 percent of respondents age 18 to 34 said they backed unions, while 57 percent of people older than 55 did, too.
“Caring about workers seems to be much more prevalent,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in the District.
But Trump’s attention on union workers alone probably hasn’t kicked up labor’s popularity, he said.
Back in 2008, when the auto industry took a tumble, unionized workers took a reputation hit from which they’ve seemingly just recovered. (Approval for unions dropped to an all-time low in 2009 at 48 percent, the Gallup data show.)
“People demonized unions, especially in the south, as though they were the Communist Party,” Mishel said. Unions, at the time, took blame for not being able to save jobs or demanding too much from employers.
Organized labor used to consistently garner pretty high support. Back in 1936, 72 percent of Americans approved of them. That share peaked in 1953 and 1957, reaching a 75 percent favorability rating. The latest Gallup poll suggests they’ve regained some of their footing after the turmoil of the economic crisis.