September 2, 2013

Opinion of unions is up, membership down


About half of Americans have a favorable view of labor unions, up 10 percentage points since 2011.

As the nation celebrates Labor Day, there is good news and bad news for unions.

In August 2011, a time when there were fears of a new economic downturn and widespread dissatisfaction with national conditions, favorable ratings for labor unions among the public hit an all-time low of 41%.

FT_Labor_UnionsA more recent Pew Research Center survey, conducted in June, found a turnaround in those numbers, with 51% of the public having a favorable opinion of unions.

Democrats had the most positive opinion of unions in this year’s survey: 80% of liberals and 70% of moderate-to-conservative Democrats had favorable views, with both groups registering double-digit increases since 2011.

Republicans’ opinions of unions are much more negative. In the most recent poll, just 23% of conservative Republicans had a favorable view, a number almost the same as it had been two years earlier. Among liberal-to-moderate Republicans, a smaller segment of the party, 44% viewed unions favorably, a 10-point increase since 2011.

FT_13.08.30_unionsWhile public opinion about labor unions may have improved, the news about membership has not. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year that overall union membership in 2012 declined to 11.3% of the workforce, from 11.8% in 2011 to 11.3%. The falloff in union membership has been continuous since 1983, the first year for which the BLS says there is comparable data. In that year, the union share of wage and salary workers was 20.1%.

The number of union workers is bolstered by membership of public-sector workers. Their membership rate was 35.9%, five times higher than the share of workers in the private sector (6.6%). But public sector unions are facing their own challenges, ranging from widespread layoffs by state and local governments due to austerity measures forced upon them by the economy, to measures passed in some states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, cutting back the power of unions representing state workers.

Category: Daily Number

Topics: Business and Labor

  1. Photo of Bruce Drake

    is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. Christopher Twist4 years ago

    For unions to be effective they have to ensure the competitiveness of the businesses they work for. In an ironic twist on the old adage “Pay me now or pay me later” is it possible that unions have traditionally failed to grasp this and, as a consequence, their jobs have been shifted elsewhere? I think so. Ultimately, the businesses that employ unions have to prosper and, as evidenced by how many industries have atrophied in the US, they have not. While certainly some blame falls on the shoulders of management, in business, survival depends on being able to sell something as low or lower than the next guy and for many American businesses the only way to achieve this is to shift “union” jobs oversees. I imagine the reason American grocery chains have been so negatively impacted by Walmart, a non-union shop, is because so many union card holders shop there…because like consumers everywhere, they can “buy low”. American State and Federal governments can only support unions to the point that those governments are able to remain solvent. Unfortunately, to get a view of what the “union” of unchecked unionism and politics delivers, look no farther than Detroit or Illinois, both polities in or hovering near bankruptcy, in no small measure the consequence of selling votes to unions. In many instances the unions “…have met the enemy and the enemy is them”.

    1. Least4 years ago

      So true. Woe to taxpayers who will have to support the pensions of employees of local governments. May vote with their feet.