January 30, 2017

Most Americans see labor unions, corporations favorably

With President Donald Trump’s labor secretary nominee set to appear before the Senate next week, the public has broadly positive views of both labor unions and business corporations.

About six-in-ten adults today have a favorable view of labor unions (60%) and business corporations (56%), according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Views of both have grown more positive since March 2015, when roughly half of adults (48%) expressed a favorable view of each.

The public’s opinions of corporations and unions were largely positive throughout the early 2000s, but turned more negative during the Great Recession. Today, favorable opinions of each are at their highest levels in nearly a decade.

Republicans and Democrats have long been divided in their views of labor and business, and that remains the case today: Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are much more favorable toward labor unions than business corporations, while the inverse is true for Republicans and Republican leaners. 

Currently, 76% of Democrats hold a favorable view of unions, while only two-in-ten express an unfavorable one. Among Republicans, fewer than half (44%) say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions.

On the other hand, seven-in-ten Republicans express a positive opinion of business corporations. Democrats are divided: Roughly equal shares say they have a favorable view of business (46%) and an unfavorable one (47%).

Young people are far more likely than older adults to view labor unions favorably. Three-quarters of those ages 18 to 29 say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions, while only about half of those 50 and older (53%) have a positive opinion of unions.

Adults younger than 30 are also much more likely to have a favorable view of unions than of corporations (75% vs. 55%). Those in older age groups have similar opinions of unions and corporations.

Among income groups, higher-income households are more likely than lower-income households to express a favorable opinion toward business corporations.

Roughly two-thirds (65%) of those with family incomes of $75,000 or more a year have a positive view of corporations, while smaller shares of those with incomes of $30,000-$74,999 (54%) and less than $30,000 (51%) say the same. Households earning less than $30,000 a year also are more favorable toward labor unions than business corporations – the only income group for which this is the case.

There are no significant demographic differences among Democrats in views of labor unions, but Republicans are divided along age, educational and ideological lines.

By a two-to-one margin, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents ages 50 and older have an unfavorable view of labor unions (64% unfavorable, 32% favorable). By contrast, a majority of younger Republicans (55%) express a favorable opinion toward unions; 43% view them unfavorably.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents with a college degree say they have a negative view of labor unions, while only 28% are favorable toward labor. Non-college-educated Republicans hold mixed views of unions: Roughly equal shares say they view labor favorably (49%) and unfavorably (47%).

And while a majority of moderate and liberal Republicans (55%) say they have a positive view of unions, only about four-in-ten conservative Republicans (38%) say the same.

These views of labor unions come amid an ongoing decline in union membership nationwide, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2016, a record low 10.7% of workers were union members, down from 20.1% in 1983, the earliest year for which comparable statistics are available.

Note: Survey question topline is available here (PDF), and methodology can be found here.

Topics: Business and Labor, Political Attitudes and Values, Political Polarization, U.S. Political Parties, Work and Employment

  1. Photo of Shiva Maniam

    is a research assistant focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.