WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sixty-two percent of Americans approve of labor unions today, which is consistent with the 61% who approved last year and up from 56% in 2016. Before 2017, public support for unions hadn’t exceeded 60% since 2003, when 65% approved.
The American public has long supported organized labor, starting with Gallup’s earliest measure, taken in 1936 at the dawn of the U.S. labor movement. In fact, support for unions was relatively high across the first three decades of measurement, averaging 68% from 1936 to 1967. During this period, approval never dropped below 61%, and twice — both times in the 1950s — it stretched to 75%.
Things changed in the 1970s when approval fell to 60%. Since then, the percentage of U.S. adults approving of labor unions has averaged 58%, dropping below a majority one time to 48%. That measure came in August 2009 during the recession, coinciding with congressional Democrats’ push for expanded union rights during President Barack Obama’s first year in office.
The long-term tapering of public support for unions bears little relation to the trajectory of union membership over the same period, described by one expert as an inverted U. Although official measures of union membership have changed, the available estimates indicate that the percentage of all employed adults belonging to unions rose sharply from about 9% in 1936 to roughly 27% in 1945. After peaking at 28% in 1954, it remained near 25% until 1972. It then dropped to about 20% in the mid- and late 1970s and then near 15% and lower in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Today, it is at roughly 11%.
Current support for unions is fairly high across U.S. society, with majorities of all major gender, age, education and geographic groups approving.
At the same time, approval varies sharply by political affiliation, with 80% of Democrats versus 45% of Republicans approving. The rate among independents falls squarely in between, at 62%.
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Although a majority of Americans approve of labor unions, fewer want unions’ influence to grow. About four in 10 (39%) would prefer to see unions have more influence than they have today; 26% want their influence to stay the same, and 29% would prefer that they have less influence.
Americans’ preference for union power is nearly identical to what Gallup found a year ago and represents greater support for strengthening unions than was the case for most of the previous decade.
Democrats have consistently expressed much more support than Republicans and independents for unions enjoying greater influence. However, the partisan gap varied during George W. Bush’s presidency, as the percentage of Democrats favoring more influence waxed and waned, while the percentage of Republicans stayed fairly flat.
Both parties’ support for unions having more power dropped sharply in 2009, the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, amid the last recession, but their support has recovered gradually as the economy has improved.
As suggested by the shifts in views about union strength at times of economic decline or improvement, a strong connection exists between Americans’ views about union strength and the economy. This is evident in the relationship between public attitudes about unions and the U.S. unemployment rate. The higher the unemployment rate, especially from 2009 to 2011, the higher the percentage of Americans who preferred to see unions have less influence. Conversely, as the unemployment rate fell after 2011, the percentage favoring less influence for unions also fell.
This relationship ties in with prior Gallup research showing that Americans generally believe unions hurt rather than help nonunionized workers in the U.S., even as they believe unions help union members. During the recession, Americans also tended to believe unions hurt rather than helped the economy.
Although more Americans want union influence to expand rather than shrink, a slight majority (51%) predict unions will weaken in the future. Fewer than one in five (19%) think labor unions will grow stronger, while 24% think their power will hold steady.
Americans’ outlook on union power has been fairly consistent over the past decade. Before that, from 1999 to 2002 and from 2008 to 2010, they were a bit more confident in unions’ futures, with 22% to 25% predicting they would grow stronger.
At 62%, U.S. public approval of labor unions remains consistent with the improved level seen a year ago, marking a significant increase since the recession and slightly beating the average 58% approval recorded over the last half-century.
With the economy doing well, 39% of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, also say they would like to see unions’ influence in the country increase. Still, with union membership on the low side, Americans believe they are more likely to see unions getting weaker rather than stronger.