For years, the AFL-CIO has touted a 2006 survey in which almost 60 million unorganized workers said they would join a union if they could. These positive numbers were supported by other polls that showed that solid majorities of the U.S. population had a favorable view of labor unions and saw them as necessary to protecting workers on the job.
What a difference a couple of years and an economic crisis makes. On February 23, the Pew Research Center released survey results that should alarm anyone in and around the labor movement. According to Pew:
Favorable views of labor unions have plummeted since 2007, amid growing public skepticism about unions’ purpose and power. Currently, 41% say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions while about as many (42%) express an unfavorable opinion. In January 2007, a clear majority (58%) had a favorable view of unions while just 31% had an unfavorable impression.
Yikes. This sharp decline in favorability cuts across all gender, race/ethnicity, income, educational, and political groups. The only bright spot is that a majority (53%) of people under 30 continue to have a favorable view of unions, although that number is down from 66% in 2007. Markedly less people think that unions are necessary to protect workers, and 61% of people think that unions have too much power, even though labor has won almost nothing that it wanted from the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress and overall union density continues to plummet.
The survey does not offer any insight as to why such a sudden and dramatic shift in public attitudes towards unions has taken place, but I think that there are a few factors that are driving these horrible results:
1) The United Auto Workers took a beating in the media during the 2009 auto bailout, and were identified by many as the main culprit behind the decline of the American auto industry. Regardless of their sometimes questionable veracity, all of those stories about GM employees making $70 an hour and having gold-plated benefits did not do much to make the labor movement as a whole look very good in the eyes of millions who were watching their livelihoods go up in smoke. I think a lot of plain old envy at the relative security and prosperity that many union members enjoy drives this particular form of anti-union sentiment.
2) As states and cities around the country struggle with massive budget deficits, supposedly greedy public employees unions are seen by many as one of the main causes (and many times as the primary cause) of state and local fiscal crisis. This is not true, but as anyone who has ever lived probably knows, many people do not have a very high opinion of government employees, to put it mildly.
3) The labor movement has failed in its effort to win the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act or any kind of useful labor law reform, and has looked pretty ineffectual in the process.
4) The unions have not put forth any serious proposal for a jobs program and have not been effective advocates for real healthcare reform, the two domestic issues that people care about the most and could potentially be mobilized behind. They have done little or nothing to advocate for the interests of the working class as a whole during the crisis. The unions have fought hard against the administration’s proposed “Cadillac tax” on high-value health insurance plans, but this is only out of self-interest and does little to combat the perception that unions are a special interest that is only concerned with protecting the advantages enjoyed by already existing union members.
I’m sure that many aspects of the increasing anti-union mood have little or no basis in reality, and can’t necessarily be blamed on the unions themselves. But it’s not just a matter of labor not doing a good enough job in “getting its message across.” In all honesty, the labor movement has not done much to deserve the support of the vast majority of working people who remain unorganized. Unfortunately, labor’s inability to do so is likely inherent in the current configuration of the union movement, and drastic institutional reforms are probably necessary to rescue the labor movement from its increasingly bleak future. It’s incredibly hard to figure out how to change this sorry state of affairs, but longtime labor activists Bob Fitch and Sam Gindin seem to offer some good ideas on how we might get started.
Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter. He studied at Rutgers and Drexel University and currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn. This article was first published in The Activist on 24 February 2010 under a Creative Commons license.