Labor unions are designed to help workers negotiate with employers through collective action. Their favorability has recently been on the rise but their membership rates continue to decline. The seemingly contradictory trends can be explained in a number of ways from historical perceptions to laws that hinder union organizing.
“I think people like the perceptions and the history of unions more so than they want one,” Competitive Enterprise Institute scholar Trey Kovacs told InsideSources. “Young people, especially, want flexibility at the workplace. Well, a union is going to give you the exact opposite of that with a collective bargaining agreement.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported last month that the union membership rate declined to 10.7 percent. The union membership rate has been in steady decline over the past several decades. Regent University Prof. Bruce Cameron notes the two trends may indicate that many workers haven’t seen the downside of unions firsthand.
“This means few are experiencing the reality of being told that if they do not support the union and its ideology, they will be fired,” Cameron told InsideSources. “Few find their jobs slipping out from under them because their employer cannot compete with other employers who do not have to contend with choking union work rules.”
The Pew Research Center found union favorability has been on the rise and now sits at 60 percent. Union favorability was only at 48 percent back in March 2015. The low membership rates and rising favorability might indicate that laws could be preventing workers from seeking out union representation.
“It’s not surprising that people have a favorable opinion of unions,” Economic Policy Institute media relations director Dan Crawford told InsideSources. “Union membership isn’t declining because people don’t want to join unions—it’s declining because of conscious policy choices to cut into workers’ bargaining power.”
Crawford adds right-to-work laws have been a huge hindrance to workers trying to unionize. The policy outlaws mandatory union dues or fees as a condition of employment. He notes policymakers should instead help workers bargain collectively, and look for ways to update existing labor laws.
“So-called ‘right-to-work’ laws weaken the ability of unions to organize, and our labor laws have not kept up as the workforce changes shape,” Crawford said. “If policymakers care about helping working people, and reducing inequality, they should look for ways to help workers bargain collectively, especially since it’s clear that people support unions and collective bargaining.”
Crawford adds unions help to increase wages and improve working conditions. Carl Horowitz, an expert at the National Legal and Policy Center, counters that right-to-work laws merely give workers a choice. Those in states that have passed the law can still seek out union representation if they so choose.
“Even in right-to-work states, unions have a right to organize,” Horowitz told InsideSources. “They just don’t have a right to force non-joining workers at a represented site to pay partial dues, or agency fees as they’re called.”
The increased union favorability may also reflect general economic conditions. The economy has made major gains in the past couple of years after an incredibly slow recovery. People may be willing to look at unions in a more positive light now that things are generally getting better.
“They kind of go in line with other similar powerful institutions like the government, and business community, or other institutions that the public perceives as having some sort of great influence over economic policy,” Kovacs said. “When the economy improved, union approval also increased.”
President Donald Trump won the election with a platform built on economic populism. He promised to help the working class by bringing back manufacturing and other jobs that are traditionally seen as the backbone of America. Labor unions may also be benefiting from that nostalgia since they played such a huge role in those industries.
“I think people like the idea of those old jobs coming back,” National Center for Policy Analysis expert Pam Villarreal told InsideSources. “We have unions involved in that so maybe that’s not a bad thing. However, when you look at the individual state level, where people really get to know what unions do, the fact the when you’re in a union you’re forced to pay dues whether you like it or not, you see that there’s this other trend towards right-to-work laws.”
Union favorability may also hinge on how the question is worded, and how specific it is. A question asking someone if they like unions isn’t necessarily the same thing as asking if they want to join one. It’s also a very general question that may not reflect various nuances that could reveal how people actually view unions.
“When you ask more specific questions about unions, you see a more negative trend on how the public views them,” Kovacs said. “So I think when you get more in the weeds with specific questions, union favorability isn’t really as high as maybe just a general question.”
Kovacs adds that more specific questions about unions are likely to reveal more nuanced results. The Rasmussen Reports survey, for instance, found most people think union leaders are out of touch with their membership. It’s also important to understand that union approval is still fairly low compared to past public opinion.
“Perhaps more important, everyone makes better decisions when they have a clear view of history,” Cameron said. “While there may be a slight current uptick in the abstract view of labor unions, their overall approval rating is at historic lows.”
Gallup found that unions reached their highest approval rates around the 1950s. They have been in decline in the decades since except for a few random upticks. The decline in membership may also be explained by a changing workforce. Unions might just not be as needed as they once were, even if many people view them favorably.
“One reason is that unions have been steadily declining since 1955,” North Carolina State University Prof. Walter Wessels told InsideSources. “Many events that could explain this decline have come and gone. The most likely causes are those that have somewhat persisted over that period.”
Wessels points to industry shifts and federal labor protections as two persistent trends. Manufacturing and other traditionally union industries have been on the decline while new industries have grown. The government has also made unions less relevant by providing and mandating many of the benefits they used to fight for.
“Jobs that are associated with union membership–coal, steel, a lot of these blue-collar manufacturing–they’ve been declining,” Villarreal said. “I don’t see how there’s going to be growth in union membership in any other industry except for the ones that have traditionally been union.”
Fewer people are doing work in traditional ways as the economy and employment needs have radically changed. Many young workers and those in emerging industries are becoming more independent at work. Labor unions come from a time when that wasn’t the case and thus collective action made sense.
“Unions are always going to be around,” Horowitz said. “The mid-century was really the high point for unions. It was a product of its time, of mass employment, where people did similar jobs, there was no entrepreneurial innovation. The idea of unionizing Google or Facebook employees is almost unthinkable.”
Former President Barack Obama worked to reverse the trend when he was in office. He argued numerous times that unions are critical to protecting workers. His administration implemented regulations to help bolster the number of unionized workers, but the trend continued.
Some opposed to his workplace agenda have contested it helped unions at the expense of workers. President Donald Trump has not been as welcoming to labor unions despite building his platform around workers. His promises aim more at helping workers through overall economic expansion and protectionism.