Labor Unions Lag in Power

This week, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., announced that he would not support the Employee Free Choice Act, calling it a "particularly bad time" to enact legislation that could result in job losses. The "card check" legislation is designed to make it easier for labor unions to organize workplaces by having workers sign cards rather than vote in secret ballot elections. The bill's supporters were counting on Specter's vote to avoid a Republican filibuster, and the bill's future is now uncertain.

Looking at the survey data, it's easy to see why organized labor seeks the legislation and why Democrats support it. Unions, while still popular, have lost ground in recent years in workplaces and in public opinion. Just 7.8% of private sector workers are union members today, down from 17% a quarter-century ago.

On Election Day last November, 11% of voters checked a box on the exit poll indicating they were union members, and they voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by 61% to 38%, making them one of the Democrats' strongest groups.

In Gallup questions from the late 1930s, large majorities of around 70% said they favored labor unions, but around 60% in other questions said they should be regulated by government. In a 1936 Roper survey for Fortune magazine, rough two-thirds said a minimum wage should be fixed and work hours limited by law. In another question, however, just 37% favored unionization of all or most wage earners.

Americans still have a generally positive view of unions, even though they say they don't trust them very much.

In its discussion of the results, Fortune's editors concluded, "Evidently the general public is of the opinion that the worker should be protected by law against exploitation, but that union organizing is either troublemaking or ineffectual or dishonest."

A question Gallup started asking more than 50 years ago reveals dramatic changes in public perceptions of organized labor's significance. In 1954, 46% said big labor represented "the greatest threat to the country in the future," followed by 16% each who responded big labor or big business.

Today, just 11% see big labor as the biggest threat to the country, while 31% give that response about big business and a whopping 53% about big government. In an August 2008 Gallup question, 22% expected unions to become stronger in the future and 41% weaker.

Americans still have a generally positive view of unions, even though they say they don't trust them very much. In Gallup's latest poll, a solid 59% (down from 72% in 1936) said they approved of unions, while 31% did not. Asked about confidence in organized labor, however, just 20% told Gallup they had a great deal of confidence. When Harris recently asked about groups that have too much power and influence in Washington, 85% said big companies did and 54% said labor unions did.

Two recent questions on card check show how wording affects responses. In Gallup's March question, 53% said they favored a law to make organizing easier, while 39% were opposed. Republicans and Democrats differed sharply, with 34% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats supporting the legislation.

Gallup also asked how closely people had been following the issue. Those who were following the progress of the legislation most closely were most opposed to it. A CBS News question that emphasized the elimination of the secret ballot found 38% in favor of "making it easier for people to form labor unions by allowing them publicly to sign a card, even if that might eliminate a secret ballot vote," while 45% were opposed.

Unions today join three other big and powerful institutions (government, business, media) about which the public has considerable skepticism. Americans' general sympathy for them today is tempered by concerns about the power and influence they wield.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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