Support for labor unions at historic low

Posted on September 10, 2009



Over this past Labor Day weekend, a couple of national polls indicated a decreasing level of support for labor unions among the American people. Gallup released their poll on September 3, showing a 48% approval of labor unions, which is a historic low since Gallup began charting in 1937. No surprise that Republican support is at 29%, but it is worth noting that support among independents has dropped 19 points from a year ago, to a 44% approval rate. Even among Democrats, labor unions lost 6 points.

Even more troubling for the labor unions is Gallup’s find that Americans are evenly split on whether unions help or hurt unionized companies – 46% say they hurt, 45% say they help, where in all previous polls the mood was decidedly positive. And 51% say labor unions hurt the nation’s economy, compared to 39% that say they help. This is almost a complete reversal from 3 years ago, where 53% said they helped and 36% said they hurt. This leads to 42% of Americans who say that unions should have less influence.

Just a few days later, Rasmussen released a poll showing support levels that corroborate Gallup – 48%. In addition, only 13% of people saw Labor Day as the nation’s most important holiday, while most simply saw it as the end of summer and not as a celebration of labor.

Why the precipitous decline? For my money, there are a couple of factors. The first is a straying from the original purpose of the labor unions. When they first formed, factory workers truly worked in sweatshop conditions for measly wages, and labor unions helped to ensure fair business practices and safe working conditions, giving us the weekend and the 40-hour work week.

In the intervening decades, however, labor unions have slowly but surely drifted away from being the protector of the worker’s basic rights to a sort of sports agent whose goal is to get the best deal possible for their client. It doesn’t help that union membership has been on the decline for a long time, due in some instances to the fact that non-union workers in the same industries have it as good if not better than their union counterparts, which makes union membership less attractive and less necessary.

The second factor, which is more important, is the overt politicization of labor unions to become direct representatives of the left wing of the Democratic Party. When labor unions keep as their primary goal the interests of their workers, they will be viewed more favorably. But when they in essence become organizing forces for one political party against another, they will be viewed as partisan instruments, especially when they urge their members to join political fights not especially related to the interests of the workforce. The larger unions – UAW, SEIU, AFL-CIO –  are the most egregious partisan players, but it seems that most do it to one extent or another.

Does that mean that all union workers are foaming-at-the-mouth partisans? No – the majority of them are hard workers just wanting to provide for their families, who at the same time take their union leadership seriously and follow their lead on political matters. The trouble resides in union leadership, who have made calculated political decisions that may have endeared them to one particular party but have harmed their image in the eyes of larger America.

This is one reason that card check is dead for the moment. The mood of the public could not be more hostile to the abolishment of the secret ballot in unionization elections, which is why if it is ever indeed tried it will have to be shoehorned in an unrelated bill under a shroud of silence. Labor unions can make a comeback if they make a better case for their practices and if they become more politically neutral. Alas, I don’t foresee that ever happening in the near future. Labor unions have foolishly tied their future to one political party, and as a result have sacrificed the goodwill of the American people.

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Posted in: Politics