Majority of Americans say the long-term decline in share of workers represented by unions is bad for the U.S.

At a time when the labor movement in the United States has been facing formidable challenges, majorities of Americans see the long-term decline in the share of workers represented by unions as a bad thing for both the country and working people in the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted April 5-11.

In the survey, 56% say the large reduction over the past several decades in the percentage of workers who are represented by unions has been “somewhat” or “very” bad for the country, while 60% say this has been bad for working people. The survey was largely fielded before the vote by workers in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama against forming a union was tabulated and reported.

The share of U.S. workers who belong to a union has fallen since 1983, when 20% of American workers were union members, though it did rise slightly between 2019 and 2020, according to a separate Center analysis. In 2020, 10.8% of U.S. workers were in a union.

This post sought to measure Americans’ views on the overall decline in union membership over the years. To do so, 5,109 U.S. adults were surveyed April 5-11, 2021.

Everyone who took part is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

See the Center’s income tiers appendix for more information about how these are created. Here are the questions used for the report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Views of the impact of the decline in union membership on the country have changed very little since 2019 (the question about working people was not asked in 2019).

While there are modest demographic differences in these attitudes, the partisan differences are much more pronounced.

Roughly three-quarters of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the decline in the percentage of workers represented by unions in recent decades has been very or somewhat bad for the country (72%) and for working people (76%). Among Republicans and GOP leaners, however, 40% say the decline of organized labor membership has been bad for the country and 42% say it has been bad for working people.

Among Republicans, there are sizable age, educational and income divides in views about the impact of the decline of union membership. The differences among Democrats are more modest.

Age, education, income divides in GOP in views of impact of decline in union membership on working people

Older Republicans are more likely to view the decline in union membership as good for working people than are younger Republicans. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans ages 65 and older (65%) say that the decline of unions has been either very good or somewhat good for working people. Roughly half of Republicans under age 40 (47%) say the same.

While two-thirds of Republicans with a college degree (66%) say the decline of organized labor membership has been at least somewhat good for working people, 51% without a college degree say the same. In addition, upper-income Republicans are more likely than those in the middle- and lower-income tiers to view the decline in union membership positively.

Among Democrats, those without a college degree are 10 percentage points more likely than those with a college degree to say that these changes have been at least somewhat good for working people. There are only modest differences among Democrats by age and income.

A majority of White Republicans (57%) say that the decline of union membership has been at least somewhat good for working people. White Democrats (16%) are slightly less likely to say this than Black or Hispanic Democrats (27% each). The sample size for Black and Hispanic Republicans is too small to analyze.

While Republicans and Democrats overall differ greatly on whether these shifts have been good for working people, ideological divides are evident within both parties.

A majority of conservative Republicans (64%) say the decline in organized labor membership has been good for working people, including 28% who say this has been very good. In contrast, 43% of moderate and liberal Republicans say this has been at least somewhat good for working people.

Conservative Republicans far more likely than GOP moderates and liberals to view decline of union membership as good for working people

While large majorities of all Democrats say the decline in the percentage of workers represented by unions has been bad for working people, liberal Democrats (82%) are more likely to say this than conservative and moderate Democrats (72%).

Liberal Democrats are also much more likely to say the decline in organized labor membership has been very bad for working people: 44% say this, compared with 24% of conservative and moderate Democrats.

Note: Here are the questions used for the report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Ted Van Green  is a research analyst focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.