Naked Capitalism on Unions

Quelle Surprise! Crappy Labor Market Leads to Rise in Public Perception of Unions

In a new article at the Prospect, Harold Meyerson tells us that unions are getting higher marks than they did a few years ago:

Gallup and Pew concur: Just over one-half of Americans approve of labor unions.

In late June, the Pew Research Center released the results of its biennial poll on unions and corporations, and reported that 51 percent of Americans had a favorable view of unions—up from just 41 percent in 2011, the last time Pew popped the question. Pew’s new number is almost identical to Gallup’s, which found that 52 percent of Americans approved of unions when it last asked that question in August of 2012. Gallup polls on union approval every year and has reported a 52 percent approval rating each of the past three years. Before then, union approval had hit an all-time low for Gallup surveys, with just 48 percent in 2009.

It’s worth looking at the long term trend in the Gallup results:

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Even with the persistent long-term PR campaign against unions (it dates back to the early 1900s but intensified in the 1970s as business groups made a renewed, well-funded and successful effort to move the US to the right), their approval level held in the 60% range until the crisis produced a new salvo against public unions, which looked like an easy target when state and local governments were desperately looking for costs to cut and public employees could be made to look cushily paid (we won’t recover this ground; suffice it to say that there has been a lot of cherry picking and apples to stinky fruit comparisons in many of the attacks). Funny when someone actually makes a good career bet (public employees opted for what at the time were lesser paid but more secure jobs than private sector workers of comparable skills), they get demonized for it.

But the improvement of perception of unions reflects not just some waning of jealousy, but also among some a recognition of the fallen state of workers and the value of unions as a counterweight. Meyerson again:

Unions seeking warmer comfort in these numbers, however, can find some in Pew’s demographic breakdown of its latest poll. While 51 percent of all Americans have favorable views of unions, 61 percent of Americans under 30 hold that view. Indeed, respondents 29 or younger were the only age group in which unions had a higher favorability rating than “business corporations,” which had the approval rating of just 51 percent of the young. Union approval ratings grew weaker as respondents grew older—from 50 percent among Americans aged 30 to 49; to 49 percent among those 50 to 64; and to just 42 percent among Americans 65 or over.

The irony for unions —and in theory, the opportunity—is that the youngest Americans are the least unionized. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that labor force participants under 25 have a unionization rate of 4.2 percent, a figure that rises steadily—but not much—as the age cohorts grow older, topping out at 14.9 percent among workers aged 55 to 64.

So wherever young people got their disproportionately favorable impression of unions, it didn’t come from their personal exposure to them. Then again, young people in the early 1930s—a time when union membership collapsed, along with the economy in general—didn’t have much personal exposure to unions either, yet they became the most pro-union generation in American history. What both these generations have in common is a far greater skepticism about the economy in general and a much stronger belief that the economy is rigged to ordinary workers’ disadvantage. The Thirties generation demonstrated this by joining parties of the Left, voting for New Deal Democrats, and building a strong union movement. As to the current generation, there are no parties of the left to speak of, but a Pew Poll from late 2011 found that 49 percent of Americans under 30 had a positive view of socialism (against 43 percent negative), while just 46 percent had a positive view of capitalism (against 47 percent negative). Young people couldn’t find any New Deal Democrats to vote for, but they clearly favored Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections.

Meyerson tells us the unions have taken notice and are considering how to take ground. The AFL-CIO is considering allowing non-union-members to join and creating an “omnibus organization,” which could then push for living wages and other issues of concern to working people, such as education costs and student debt loads.

The problem of course that the unions have so long allowed themselves to be abused by the Democratic party that I’m skeptical that they are capable of redemption. But the poll results say that there’s plenty of room for a political force on the left if there were a way to organize it. And the idea that it has to be through a formal party structure is overdone. Unions were brought into the Democratic party not to give them a seat at the table but to domesticate them. But can the unions to divorce the Democrats and reinvent themselves? It’s a tall order, and I sense they’ve resigned themselves to their fallen state. But I’d be delighted to be proven wrong. 

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