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Why labor unions are more popular than they’ve been in six decades

Today’s record-low unemployment makes workers more aware of the benefits unions offer

Buttons show support for a Starbucks union. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

Gallup polls have been surveying Americans’ attitudes toward labor unions for nearly 90 years. Last week, the most recent Gallup survey found that union support was higher than it has been since the mid-1960s. Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of respondents said they approved of labor unions.

In 1965, nearly 1 in 3 U.S. workers were union members. Past surveys found overwhelming approval for unions among union members, suggesting that the popularity of unions back then was boosted by their mass membership. But today, only 1 in 10 workers are union members. So why have unions become so popular, when they have so few members left?

Clearly, the popularity of U.S. labor unions must have increased dramatically among unorganized workers. There isn’t much research on what drives union approval. Still, the little that exists and polling evidence suggest that a few key factors are making unions more popular.

The economy is doing well

Nearly three decades ago, a pair of researchers used statistical techniques to analyze decades of union approval polling. They wanted to find out why union support changed over time. Like previous research, they discovered that the state of the economy mattered. Specifically, Americans soured on unions when there was high unemployment — and were more supportive of unions when labor markets were tight.

The survey evidence suggests that this may still be true. Gallup surveys show a dramatic dip in union support between 2009 and 2012 — the last sustained period of high unemployment in the United States. Indeed, in 2009 support for organized labor fell below 50 percent for the first and only time in the Gallup series.

Unions provide workers with greater job security and higher pay than they’d otherwise enjoy. Paradoxically, support for unions increases when unorganized workers feel economically secure — not when they would actually benefit most from joining a union.

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The explanation for the relationship is twofold: First, some scholarship suggests workers will blame a poor economy on union overreach. More fundamentally, economic insecurity, especially an erosion in one’s material circumstances, makes people begrudge those who they think are better off. Nonunion workers who face hard times may resent the benefits that their unionized peers have. This feeling was evident during the Great Recession debates about the federal government bailout of the domestic auto industry. Many autoworkers in the South — mostly unorganized — blamed the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the generous collective bargaining agreements enjoyed by UAW members for the industry’s woes.

Conversely, today’s record-low unemployment redirects workers’ attention from the benefits that go to union members alone to the general benefits unions provide for unionized and nonunionized workers alike.

Inequality is high

People are more likely to think unions are valuable when inequality seems high. Even in 2012, when overall support for organized labor was much lower than today, a strong majority agreed that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person,” according to a Pew poll. People see unions as a counterweight to corporate power, fighting on behalf of average workers. Recent scholarship suggests local context matters: Rising economic inequality in one’s Zip code corresponds with greater support for labor unions. As the percentage of wealthy residents in one neighborhood climbs, so too does support for strengthening unions.

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The labor movement has consistently highlighted runaway inequality and pressed against it. Unions provided financial and organizing muscle to the successful Fight for $15 movement, which raised the pay of millions of workers at the bottom of the economic ladder. A strong union presence in local labor markets leads to higher pay for both union and nonunion workers, as nonunion employers match union pay scales to appease their employees.

Unions also fight in the financial arena, focusing their efforts as prominent shareholders to rein in executive pay. And unions have always been a political force, lobbying for policies that redistribute economic gains from the haves to the have-nots.

This multifaceted effort to improve the economic outcomes of the working and middle classes appeals to those concerned about the power of big business. In general, we should expect union approval to be high when workers feel relatively secure themselves but worry the economy disproportionately benefits the privileged.

Unions are more popular — but they are still weak

Research on falling union memberships in the United States is extensive. We know that unionization hasn’t declined because there is less support for unions. Indeed, if the unionization rate matched the union approval rate, millions more U.S. workers would be union members today.

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Research points to the interrelated forces of automation, offshoring, and employer and political opposition as the key reasons the labor movement is weaker than it has been for a century. These underlying factors suggest rising popularity alone will not transform the fortunes of organized labor.

Still, the recent successes of organizing drives at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s and elsewhere suggest unions are capitalizing on worker support and finding ways to overcome the barriers that have diminished their ranks in recent decades. The rising popularity of unions will probably bolster these efforts. After all, labor organizing is impossible if there is no support for unions.

Jake Rosenfeld is a professor of sociology at Washington University-St. Louis, where he focuses on the political and economic determinants of inequality in advanced democracies. He is the author of “You’re Paid What You’re Worth — And Other Myths of the Modern Economy” (Harvard University Press, 2021) and “What Unions No Longer Do” (Harvard University Press, 2014).

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