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.
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.
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 union
So why have unions gotten so much weaker?
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.