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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
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
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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