Labor Unions and Public Opinion

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June 16 2012 1:45 PM

Labor Unions and Public Opinion

In the wake of the failed recall of Scott Walker, Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer wrote a stirring from-the-left critique of American labor unions (more or less along the lines of Bob Fitch) that's prompted a number of interesting responses, relatively few of which grapple with what I think is Henwood's strongest point:

And as much as it hurts to admit this, labor unions just aren’t very popular. In Gallup’s annual poll on confidence in institutions, unions score close to the bottom of the list, barely above big business and HMOs but behind banks. More Americans—42%—would like to see unions have less influence, and just 25% would like to see them have more. Despite a massive financial crisis and a dismal job market, approval of unions is close to an all-time low in the 75 years Gallup has been asking the question. A major reason for this is that twice as many people (68%) think that unions help mostly their members as think they help the broader population (34%). Amazingly, in Wisconsin, while only about 30% of union members voted for Walker, nearly half of those living in union households but not themselves union members voted for him (Union voters ≠ union households). In other words, apparently union members aren’t even able to convince their spouses that the things are worth all that much.
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Gordon Laffer's response to this in the Nation is typical of what I've read over email from a lot of folks in the Laborverse—unions can't be unpopular because many non-union workers say they'd like to be in one:

Polls show that 40 million non-union American workers wish they had a union in their workplace. This is unsurprising—all other things being equal, workers with a union make 15 percent more and have a 20-25 percent better chance of getting healthcare or pensions than similar workers who have no union. The top reason that more Americans aren’t union members is not because they’re alienated; it’s because the anti-union industry is so aggressive (almost 20,000 Americans a year are economically punished for supporting unions in their workplace), and the law is so toothless that workers correctly fear for their jobs if they try to organize.

This misses the force point of Henwood's point. I wish billionaires had less influence over American politics. The fact that I would, personally, like to be a billionaire does not contradict that point. On the contrary, the untoward level of political influence enjoyed by billionaires is one of the main things that's appealing about my hypothetical billionaire lifestyle. If someone is inclined to view labor unions as primarily dedicated to advancing the interests of a privileged (remember that wage premium) minority of American workers, that's in no way inconsistent with a large share of the non-unionized minority wishing that they enjoyed those privileges.

If the upshot of those mixed feelings was a rapid rise in the rate of union membership, the contradiction would work itself out quickly. But since Taft-Hartley that hasn't been the case and the union share of the private sector's been steadily declining. For decades now union leaders have placed a lot of emphasis on labor reform as the way of turning this around. But for obvious reasons most business interests are extremely hostile to that idea. Under those circumstances, for the unions to prevail their cause would have to be overwhelmingly popular. But they're not popular. As Henwood reminds us public confidence in labor unions is low and support for greater union influence in American life is anemic.

That's a fairly profound problem.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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