New Orleans Gallup released a poll on the eve of Labor Day. There are so many polls out there these days, it’s easy to forget they still do this. The top line of their survey seemed like good news, 61% of those surveyed, and by extension, the American people, now say they “like” unions, the highest rating for labor organizations since 2003.
Gallup says that since the 1930s and the reforms of the Great Depression, unions have enjoyed high popularity.
Historically, unions have enjoyed strong support from the American public. In 1936, 72% of Americans approved of labor unions. Union approval peaked in the 1950s when it reached 75% in 1953 and 1957. Approval remained in the 60% range throughout the 2000s, right up to the election of Barack Obama as president. After plummeting in 2009, union approval remained lower than in its heyday but began climbing.
Of course there’s vast polarization in the support. 81% of Democrats are fans, while only 42% of the Republicans like them.
But, there’s a troubling head-scratcher in the equation.
Why would support fall with the election of Barack Obama, we might ask? We were in the throes of the Great Recession. Workers had been stuck with falling wages and fleeing job opportunities that provided living wages. Unemployment was soaring. Isn’t that the time that the call to unionize should have been the loudest, and the support the strongest?
Unions had vastly supported Obama. He had seemed to promise he might even lend a hand in achieving some labor law reforms that might help assist unions in organizing and thereby regaining lost members. He talked about raising the minimum wage. Wouldn’t that indicate that unions would be seen more favorably?
Not from what these numbers from Gallup seem to say. When politics and government in the time of Bush and now Trump, seem to be moving towards the rich and against workers, then people seem to want unions to be stronger to oppose these shifts and act as bulwarks against their excesses. When politics and government seem to be favoring workers, even just a little bit, then they worry that unions are becoming too powerful, ignoring that the membership figures have been falling faster than an avalanche.
These survey results seem to indicate that the American public likes unions, not necessarily as vibrant labor organizations for workers, but more as a kind of “checks and balances” for the public against the vicissitudes of the economy. Gallup also noted that 39% of those surveyed said that unions should have more influence, the highest number they have recorded in the 18 years of asking the question.
All of this seems little comfort. It seems that the weaker unions are becoming, the more people are prone to liking unions and missing their former strength that people wish they played in the economy. Worse unions seem in danger of joining a bad list. One that includes the fact that people want better drainage and storm protection, but they don’t want to pay for it. People want better public infrastructure, services, and schools, but they bridle at the cost. And, on and on.
In the same way it seems people want stronger unions, they just don’t necessarily want to join them.