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Labor's Popularity Struggles Amid Criticism of Public-Sector Unions

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With increasing attacks on public-sector unions, it's not surprising that labor has become unpopular in the court of public opinion. A new Gallup survey reveals that approval ratings for labor unions continues to struggle one year after their popularity reached a historic low.

The survey, released last Thursday, found that 52 percent of Americans have favorable views of unions, the second-lowest ever recorded since Gallup began documenting this trend 70 years ago. The ratings are a marginal increase from last year when public opinion dropped below majority levels for the first time to 48 percent, an all-time low. Even as union membership continues to decline, Gallup says Americans have also become weary about the labor movement's growing influence.

Despite the low ratings, the Gallup survey showed relatively better results than a similar survey released by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, which found that only 41 percent of Americans viewed unions favorably. But both surveys share the same trend: Positive public approval ratings have declined and disapproval has continued to rise.

The findings come as unions, especially in the public sector, are coming under fire for ostensibly straining state budgets with bloated wages and pensions. Gallup also adds that Americans may see organized labor as benefiting from President Barack Obama's favorable policies at a time when many workers are unemployed.

In a historical context, labor's popularity has a correlation between union density and approval ratings. In 1953, 75 percent of the public approved of labor unions, which was roughly the same time union membership reached its peak following World War II. When the economy was struggling in the late 1970s and 1980s, approval ratings dropped, Gallup said. Last year, the United Autoworkers were front and center during the auto bailouts and could also have factored into the negative public perception.

While the downturn may be one reason, media and pundits have also ramped up criticism towards public-sector unions. Critics have pointed to the higher salaries and pensions for public employees compared to those in the private sector as a source of exacerbating states' financial shortfalls. Over the last few months, a slew of editorials and articles have come out slamming unionized public employees for having higher wages than the private sector.

However, labor groups dispute this claim, and studies have actually shown that when all controls are held equal (education, age, work experience), government employees actually earn four percent less than private sector workers, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

A July report by the Economic Policy Institute also found the same results when examining public employees in New Jersey. The report said there was "no significant difference" between private- and public-sector employees, but added that some state and local workers earn less from lack of overtime. Since higher-educated, New Jersey public workers typically do not work beyond normal hours, local and state employees earn 5.88 percent less than their private sector counterparts.

Over the years, unions have seen their membership decline, and workplace strikes are not as frequent anymore. But the Gallup survey found that many respondents still have reservations about the future of labor. More than 40 percent of Americans say unions should have less influence.

What seems to be missing is an inclusive message that unions have been fighting to guarantee the rights of all workers, union or non-union, at a time when employers are implementing wage and benefit concessions across the country. But so far, the narrative has been that unions hamper business' growth with excessive wages and benefits in a difficult economy.

But labor has had a difficult time getting this message across. Instead, the perception exists that unions are insular and self-serving entities that are only helping out their own rank and file.

With 46 percent of Americans saying that their power will decline in the coming years, can unions steer themselves back into favor?

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times

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