Quelle Surprise! Crappy Labor Market Leads to Rise in Public Perception of Unions

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In a new article at the Prospect, Harold Meyerson tells us that unions are getting higher marks than they did a few years ago:

Gallup and Pew concur: Just over one-half of Americans approve of labor unions.

In late June, the Pew Research Center released the results of its biennial poll on unions and corporations, and reported that 51 percent of Americans had a favorable view of unions—up from just 41 percent in 2011, the last time Pew popped the question. Pew’s new number is almost identical to Gallup’s, which found that 52 percent of Americans approved of unions when it last asked that question in August of 2012. Gallup polls on union approval every year and has reported a 52 percent approval rating each of the past three years. Before then, union approval had hit an all-time low for Gallup surveys, with just 48 percent in 2009.

It’s worth looking at the long term trend in the Gallup results:


Even with the persistent long-term PR campaign against unions (it dates back to the early 1900s but intensified in the 1970s as business groups made a renewed, well-funded and successful effort to move the US to the right), their approval level held in the 60% range until the crisis produced a new salvo against public unions, which looked like an easy target when state and local governments were desperately looking for costs to cut and public employees could be made to look cushily paid (we won’t recover this ground; suffice it to say that there has been a lot of cherry picking and apples to stinky fruit comparisons in many of the attacks). Funny when someone actually makes a good career bet (public employees opted for what at the time were lesser paid but more secure jobs than private sector workers of comparable skills), they get demonized for it.

But the improvement of perception of unions reflects not just some waning of jealousy, but also among some a recognition of the fallen state of workers and the value of unions as a counterweight. Meyerson again:

Unions seeking warmer comfort in these numbers, however, can find some in Pew’s demographic breakdown of its latest poll. While 51 percent of all Americans have favorable views of unions, 61 percent of Americans under 30 hold that view. Indeed, respondents 29 or younger were the only age group in which unions had a higher favorability rating than “business corporations,” which had the approval rating of just 51 percent of the young. Union approval ratings grew weaker as respondents grew older—from 50 percent among Americans aged 30 to 49; to 49 percent among those 50 to 64; and to just 42 percent among Americans 65 or over.

The irony for unions —and in theory, the opportunity—is that the youngest Americans are the least unionized. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that labor force participants under 25 have a unionization rate of 4.2 percent, a figure that rises steadily—but not much—as the age cohorts grow older, topping out at 14.9 percent among workers aged 55 to 64.

So wherever young people got their disproportionately favorable impression of unions, it didn’t come from their personal exposure to them. Then again, young people in the early 1930s—a time when union membership collapsed, along with the economy in general—didn’t have much personal exposure to unions either, yet they became the most pro-union generation in American history. What both these generations have in common is a far greater skepticism about the economy in general and a much stronger belief that the economy is rigged to ordinary workers’ disadvantage. The Thirties generation demonstrated this by joining parties of the Left, voting for New Deal Democrats, and building a strong union movement. As to the current generation, there are no parties of the left to speak of, but a Pew Poll from late 2011 found that 49 percent of Americans under 30 had a positive view of socialism (against 43 percent negative), while just 46 percent had a positive view of capitalism (against 47 percent negative). Young people couldn’t find any New Deal Democrats to vote for, but they clearly favored Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections.

Meyerson tells us the unions have taken notice and are considering how to take ground. The AFL-CIO is considering allowing non-union-members to join and creating an “omnibus organization,” which could then push for living wages and other issues of concern to working people, such as education costs and student debt loads.

The problem of course that the unions have so long allowed themselves to be abused by the Democratic party that I’m skeptical that they are capable of redemption. But the poll results say that there’s plenty of room for a political force on the left if there were a way to organize it. And the idea that it has to be through a formal party structure is overdone. Unions were brought into the Democratic party not to give them a seat at the table but to domesticate them. But can the unions to divorce the Democrats and reinvent themselves? It’s a tall order, and I sense they’ve resigned themselves to their fallen state. But I’d be delighted to be proven wrong.

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  1. MikeNY

    I agree on the problem (the disparity of wealth, the rise of corporatocracy), but I suspect the solution needs to be diffrent this time. The large fall in the pct. of the workforce in manufacturing, the rise of globalization, and the mutual back-scratching of municipal unions and their paymaster politicians make me think history can’t rhyme exactly this time around.

    I’m don’t know what the solution is. Occupy seems to have sunk into the sand. I do think we need some kind of original movement. The economic an social backrops are quite different from the 1930s.

    My morning musings.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Occupy was more drowned than “sank”. Remember it was the object of a 17 city coordinated paramilitary crackdown. It’s gone local and in a lot of places is doing good work that is often under the radar. But yes, that isn’t the same as being a political force.

      1. vlade

        I still think there’s value in Occupy transmogrifying into a party, not just a movement (movement tends to have few large goals, but unless they are very well defined, it’s hard to even judge a success… Parties tend to be better at slow slog). It’s hard, but no-one said this would be easy.

        Local->state->Fed is the way, but it will still take some time (and more time = more chances for Dems subverting it).

    2. Me

      The real world is about power relations. Capitalists can form what amounts to unions, they can combine their resources and fight for common interests. How in the world can workers possibly fight for their interets unless they band together to fight for THEIR collective interests? It isn’t as if a worker is just going against one capitalist for a job, he is going against a group of capitalists and he is fighting within an inequitable economic and political system. There isn’t another institution in society, other than unions, that fights for the interests of working people. Not one. To say we live in a different world is obvious, although saying this world cannot be fundamentally changed is in itself ahistoric. “Globalization” is reversable, I would argue on many levels it isn’t sustainable. I personally think the answer is HOW unions operate in this economy. They have to be more international in scope. Not just as far as organizing with unions and workers in other countries but also in regards to the issues they focus on. The TPP, for example, is not a local issue, it isn’t even a national issue. Unions have to provide critiques and alternatives to horrible policies like the TPP and be the front lines of that fight.

      1. Banger

        Great comment. However the problem unions ran into are two-fold: 1) they allowed themselves to. Get folded into the Democratic Party which has steadily undermined unions since the late seventies; and 2) union officials and rank and file bought into the materialism is better than solidarity meme which caused all kinds of problems particularly in bonding together.

  2. F. Beard

    IF we’re going to continue with a government-backed counterfeiting cartel, the banks, then government backing for labor unions and EVERYONE else is required by justice, no?

    Or we can quit imagining that private money creation, contrary to everything else in the truly private sector, REQUIRES government privileges.

  3. Cameron Hoppe

    As far as I can tell, in capitalist societies political power tends to become concentrated between financial elites and industrial labor. Financial elites tend to be more easily organized because there’s fewer of them and they’re more demographically homogeneous. But that just means they organize first, not that they must always have the political upper hand.

    Individuals really need to decide with whom their own interests most closely coincide–maybe it’s with financial capital and maybe it’s with labor. Maybe it’s with neither one. But the division of political power seems to be baked-in to capitalist democracy.

    I will also say this–labor unions made a huge mistake when they forgot their common cause with the poor, the un- and underemployed, the disabled, and the homeless. They lost ground throughout the eighties, but it wasn’t until they abandoned the Democrats on Healthcare for All in the early nineties that they became impotent in Washington. After the unions left the Clintons to twist on that issue the Clintons, and all Washington Democrats, quit listening to unions and went full-press into the waiting arms of Wall Street. Look at the results.

    1. F. Beard

      There’d really be no need for competing power blocks IF our society was fundamentally just but it isn’t. Instead, government-enabled theft is countered lamely with government social programs as if the victims were at fault!

        1. JTFaraday

          Some slip of the tongue!



          Or Checka?

          “Cheka (ЧК – чрезвыча́йная коми́ссия chrezvychaynaya komissiya, Emergency Commission, Russian pronunciation: [tɕɪˈka]) was the first of a succession of Soviet state security organizations. It was created on December 20, 1917, after a decree issued by Vladimir Lenin, and was subsequently led by aristocrat-turned-communist Felix Dzerzhinsky.”


      1. vlade

        The only “fundamentally just” society can be one that is literally living on the endge of survival, and thus someone not pushing for survival of the group is immediately done for.

        The naiveity of “we can have fundamentally just society where everyone loves everyone else” is a) ignoring the human history b) usually leads to the worst of dictatorships.

        We can overcome human vices – but only by recognizing that they exists, and even more importantly that they exists in potentia in every one of us (and that often it’s more of a matter of (bad) luck that they get or don’t get developed than conscious choice).

        “There but for the grace of God go I” should be something we should say much more often.

        Incidentally, that means accepting that power like union can (and will) be used or abused. And, that most likely, it will be cyclical – it will be used (for good) when unions struggle, it will be abused when unions are powerful and comfortable (a good example of that is one Bob Crow in London).

        So, unions’ profile rising now is a good thing, but don’t expect paradise.

        1. F. Beard

          The naiveity of “we can have fundamentally just society where everyone loves everyone else” vlade

          Love isn’t necessary for justice; justice is.

    2. DolleyMadison

      But that is the problem – “the division of political power” is no more – the Dems have joined the R’s in forming a capitalist facist state. There is no check on the excesses of each party by the other. The only division is Us vs. Them…and we are LOSING.

    3. casino implosion

      …labor unions made a huge mistake when they forgot their common cause with the poor, the un- and underemployed, the disabled, and the homeless….”

      That split is nothing recent. It’s as old as the labor movement itself.

      1. bluntobj

        You can also add “the young” to that list. Senority, while a strength of a labor union for members, is the hardest barrier to entry to overcome for a young person.

    4. Me

      The Democrats started to move to the right before the 90’s. Carter began the move towards financial deregulation. He removed the caps on interest rates. Then came the DLC, which pre-dated Clinton coming into power. When the American economy began to offshore production and to move towards finance, which again pre-dated Clinton, unions lost a lot of their power. Clinton was fully on board with NAFTA as well before he even came into office. That is as anti-union and anti-worker as you can get.

      I agree with you that unions have tended to not focus on the poor enough, really at all. I would actually add that they have often worked with the US government to undermine progressive governments elsewhere, especially in Latin America. They also threw out the radicals within the unions and turned towards business unionism. They gave up offering economic alternatives, especially those that were even a little radical.

      The unions problem, well one of them, is that they are basically just a part of the Democratic Party now and that party isn’t even slightly progressive on economic issues or issues that impact working people. They have bought into the lesser of two evils argument and they demand nothing really of that pathetic party. The unions didn’t do that when they were growing and a force. The Democrats were one vehicle amongst many they used towards change. Now, it is the only vehicle they use.

      No economic alternative, no radicals challenging dominant ideas or policies, little connection to poor communities, and part of a party that openly mocks them. A lot of their problems are self inflicted.

  4. rob

    What labor force is going to unionize?
    Except for gov’t/municipal workforces, who is left to unionize?
    There are no more industries left in the US.Just isolated manufacturing enterprises,and other relatively isolated actors.
    With the right wing/koch funded/assault on collective bargaining rights,in respect to state gov’t.The will for people to unionize there has to be pretty low.The train wreck that has been engineered, effectively knee-caps people’s ability to try and hold out for better wages/conditions.They have to be happy to have a job at all.And if they aren’t there are plenty of unemployed people who do.

    I wonder that when the other hammers start to fall;say when the TPP and euro-american trade pact effects become more obvious,if there won’t be room for more collective production capacity to start up.
    There was that movie”the take”,about collectivization in argentina after the economic collapse there in the 90’s.
    Americans, may stop listening to the pundits who tell them to take the back seat, and all the multi-national corporations who claim their work can’t be done here profitably,though they expect to bring those products back here to sell.
    The american market is big enough to support an american workforce.That simple fact then has to be dovetailed into ridding the beast of the parasites that are killing it, to say, the financial crowd, who makes way too much money for doing nothing.

    There is a lack of quality products in this country.There is a lot of cheap crap,designed to look good that is either poorly fitted to its use,immediately, or falls apart way too fast.In an everday, these are the things we use kind of way, there are lots of opportunities for new manufacturing.These things aren’t being sold at low prices, they just have low quality.

    1. F. Beard

      Why need it be only a labor union?

      The entire US population (except for a few), debtors and non-debtors alike, has been victimized by the banking cartel. So why shouldn’t they organize and demand a universal bailout with new fiat?

    2. Me

      Here in Chicago unions are working to organize the fast food industry and to fight for living wages. I realize it is an uphill battle but those jobs won’t be offshored. IF any industry is to come back it would have to be in something that is sustainable and with room to grow. Green industries, infrastructure, etc. Lots of those jobs already are unionized or can be.

  5. JEHR

    Who is left to unionize? Well, start with Wall-Mart, Costco, Target, all restaurants, all janitors, all workers in hotels and motels, Dollar stores, etc. There are lots of jobs that should be better paid when you consider the profits made by the owners. Every job should give the individual worker a living wage (and that is NOT at today’s minimum wage). Why shouldn’t every human being be able to live a decent life with one job rather than being forced to have more than one?

    The problem is that when, for example, Wal-Mart workers try to organize, the company can fire them or shut the store down (as was done in Quebec). The unions need political support and legislation that supports workers rights including a living wage. Those rights are being eroded or are already gone.

  6. JerryDenim

    “…respondents 29 or younger were the only age group in which unions had a higher favorability rating than “business corporations,” which had the approval rating of just 51 percent of the young. Union approval ratings grew weaker as respondents grew older…”

    First off, let me say that I am a proud Union member and I do support unions and collective bargaining, but they are a bit of a mixed bag. The ones that are old and established seem to be microcosms of the political dysfunction we see in Washington. Lots of corruption, lack of transparency, hungry for (member dues) money and power, etc. The reasons the under 29 set are more strongly in favor of unions is they haven’t had the chance to belong to one yet and watch their Union reps jump in bed with management while flipping the middle finger back at the workers they are supposed to be representing. Not only do unsavory episodes like that act to achieve granular management objectives but it also achieves the much broader objective of permanently souring a lot of the workers and discrediting unions altogether. It’s hard to stomach some of the scandals and personalities in my Union but I am always reminding my anti-union peers how great it is having a contract that protects you from unreasonable and capricious company demands and how much better our benefits and insurance package is than the horrid benefits offered to our peer group at our non-unionized sibling company.

    Its nice to know that labor unions may be winning some PR points with the younger generation but I still hear a lot of extremely low-paid, in-debt young people who ARE in a union, and who depend on a union for their paycheck spouting off a lot of cockamamie bolier-plate, right-wing anti-union bullshit. “Free-market” “Flat Tax” “Ron Paul” “we-are-over-regulated” “people-on-welfare-are-to-blame-for-everything” “the-DEFICIT(!!!)-is-our-most-terribly-pressing-serious-problem” You know the worldview. Sigh…

    Thanks for the silver lining glimmer of hope.

    1. allcoppedout

      You might be living up the road from me here in the UK Jerry. What seems impossible to get over is that we sold ourselves down the river in allowing financialisation. I expect a crash in that (money making money via Ponzi and fraud) might sharpen us up. I worked in shipyards and see today that big Chinese yards are in mega-debt and subsidised to the gills. The geography has changed but not the problem. I wonder if we need a new ‘poverty and progress’ on how technology and organisation have made work so much easier and the people who did it worse off.

  7. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

    Why is this such a surprise? The Randian world of possessive individualism portrayed by the MSM is not as pervasive amongst the population as it would like us to believe. Younger workers, even those with degrees, have found it tough sledding in the new knowledge-based economy. The race to the bottom is the one they’re running.

    Likewise, we have to revamp our conceptualization of the working class which has undergone a transformation over the course of the past 40 years. No longer is it blue-collar, predominantly white, male factory workers in manufacturing. The latter was the working class of our parents and grandparents. Their LEVERAGE came from their collective ability to shutdown/disrupt production and their ability to influence local politics, if not dominate it. This is where Marx got it wrong – at least in the short term. We have to get beyond this antiquated notion of “working class” as a static unchanging entity. It has morphed into something different. Atomized and lacking focus, it gropes for direction and voice much like its predecessors did.

    This new working class is younger, multicultural, no longer male-dominated, largely white-collar or polo shirted working in “services” without any collective bargaining rights or leverage. Of course, treated like shit they have no loyalty to their employer. It’s just a job… serialized employment. That in itself is a sea change from their parents and grandparents where lifetime employment was a given up until recently. Unionization is much more difficult in such a setting. But this 47% knows it’s getting screwed. Even Mitt Romney admitted as much to his well-heeled audience, failing to point out that the very “success” of neoliberalism created the conditions which gave rise to this new working class. Creative destruction indeed! So their political voice/clout [leverage] may prove more important than their economic clout – ability to stop production – over time. Hence the concerted efforts to restrict voting rights and eliminate this threat at the ballot box before it attains critical mass.

    Dare I say, if there ever was a chance for the AFL-CIO to dump the Democrats once and for all this is it. Organizing on the basis of location – where one works – is likely to be a dead end and extremely difficult going forward. The concentration and centralization of production into large industrial units is no longer the dominant pattern. But organizing on the basis of common, shared interests – a more inclusive social movement – is likely to bear more fruit, especially in the age of the Internet. This transformation from a labor movement into a social movement has yet to occur but there are some signs – Working America – that the AFL-CIO has begun to realize that organizing beyond the workplace is also beyond the reach of one’s employer. It’s much safer, more effective, and broader in scope and appeal. Nor is it subject to control by the Democratic Party, but rather more amorphous and open-ended. Labor-backed candidates need not be Democratic-backed candidates.

    Admittedly, this may be seen as groping for straws and wishful thinking. But this working-class old timer sees it as a positive development and will do what he can to see that it bears fruit. Hopefully some of you will do the same.

    1. allcoppedout

      I qualify as working-class old timer and union man. We have heard the term ‘crisis in capitalism’ too often to take it seriously, though I suspect this is it. I hope you are right Micky, but suspect there is no going back. The nature of work has changed too much, as has our ability to sabotage to air our grievances.

    2. casino implosion

      It’s good to see that the labor movement still has enough life left to try new things, but I don’t have a lot of hope for that particular angle. The key of union solidarity is shared hardship and humiliation in a workplace or at least a shared trade or occupation. What differentiates that working america program from any other “progressive” political initiative?

      1. Lambert Strether

        Maybe the whole of society is a single humiliating workplace. After all, in a service economy, “emotional labor” plays a huge role, and the power relations in that labor are pretty much the same no matter the service performed.

        1. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

          As a drinking pal put it: “The whole world is one big shit sandwich. Every day is just another bite.”

          This shared, collective experience is what we build on…

      2. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio


        Please understand that union solidarity is both a positive and negative force. Positive in that it forges the collective strength and unity of shared experience to resist oppression in the workplace. Negative if and when it becomes exclusive to its membership to the detriment of society. Labor has been portrayed as a little more than a special interest abetted by a well orchestrated campaign from corporate America and it academic sycophants in want of tenure.

        All I’m saying is that to get out of this special interest ghetto organized labor has to broaden its appeal to the public. Affordable health care, access to a decent education, better wages and benefits, etc., are issues that affect ALL workers, unionized or not. Otherwise, organized labor has no future, especially in this antiunion environment.

        For example, if workers at WALMART had the courage to go on strike for union recognition and the public refused to cross their picket lines understanding what was at stake, would WALMART employees’ chances of winning the strike increase or decrease?

        A labor movement confined to the workplace is not likely to succeed. But a labor movement transformed into a broad social movement with public support has a much better chance. Organizing must continue in the workplace where possible, but it must also take place on a societal level, appealing to issues that affect ALL Workers.

        Hell, I don’t know where this is going or of it’s going anywhere. But I do know that the working class of my father and grandfathers is long gone. The new working class that has followed in its wake must acquire the leverage they once had by becoming a social movement for change we can believe in… Whether allied with the Democratic Party or not matters little to me. One big union of ALL workers…

        WE SHALL BE ALL!

    3. LifelongLib

      Orwell thought there should be one big union for everyone who has to be afraid of being fired (“fears the sack”).

      1. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio


        I think the Industrial Workers of the World [IWW] preceded Orwell. One big union…

        May I recommend “We Shall Be All” by David Dubofsky – history of the IWW.

  8. allcoppedout

    Unions have been subject to much derision in the press. The manner of this and its reception make me wish I wasn’t human – it all seems like snide gossip. Union leaders have more or less been washed out of our public life in the UK. The Labour Party is again distancing itself, even though we ended-up with Ed Millibore instead of brother David because of the union block vote.

    I hope for a new movement in politics and it could come from the unions, especially as we have PR in European elections. Scottish independence will turn England and Wales into permanent Tory ground on current habits. In the 50s, Scotland had a Tory majority. Now a Scottish Tory MP is a rare bird indeed. So there is hope we can change.

    I’m fast reaching the conclusion that voting is evil, the problem rather than solution. That the ‘list’ from which we can choose is very limited can be seen here: http://www.smith-institute.org.uk/file/Who-Governs-Britain.pdf – there is no real representation and it is hard to spot an MP not a dud. Most of what we get is male, legal, bank and other business-professional-political. Scientists are as rare as rocking horse breath.

    What I don’t see is discussion of forms of representation that are more individual-based and international – a bit surprising when one thinks of our new technology connections. I favour Jared Diamond’s ‘world as polder’. I don’t feel at odds with ‘foreigners’ I meet, but always with the politics that give us Taliban, Gitmo and hideous treatment of our disabled,unemployed and a vote worth as much as one in Egypt. Unions could form on the polder principle, rather than ‘trades’.

  9. Hugh

    Unionism to be strong and honest needs to be tied into a larger social movement and vision. What we saw in the 20th century was first the divorce of unionism from what were demonized as radical and Red social movements in the early 1900s. This was followed by the growth of large professional (and easily corrupted) unions from the 1930s to the 1960s. This was followed in turn by anti-unionism, anti-worker/wage suppression Fed policies, and deregulation which began under Carter and accelerated under Reagan and subsequent Presidents of both parties. Private sector unionism has been decimated. And now the unionized public sector, the last bastion of the professional union movement, is under sustained attack.

  10. ChrisPacific

    …but a Pew Poll from late 2011 found that 49 percent of Americans under 30 had a positive view of socialism (against 43 percent negative), while just 46 percent had a positive view of capitalism (against 47 percent negative).

    This is an astonishing result, given the respective press that the two systems get in the US (socialism is presented as being a breath away from communism).

    I wonder if right-wing pundits have unintentionally contributed to this by overly broad use of ‘socialism’ as a slur. If ‘socialism’ means that maybe we should consider not doing exactly what banks want all the time, or that the richest country in the world might possibly be able to afford basic necessities like healthcare and pensions for its citizens, then it’s not surprising that it might start to seem more attractive.

  11. Conscience of a Conservative

    Unions can be a very positive force, especially when they fight for work place safety, and function much like a guild and help train their workers(improve their skills). Unfortunately it doesn’t always end there, and the downside is unions can make the work place less productive by making the work force rules inflexible. However in the private sector there is an argument to be made that unions level the playing field between labor and management(unlike in the public sector where the opposite side of the bargaining table are politicians who trade gimmes for votes at the expense of the majority of the constituents).

    Unions can be a positive force but unions need to be very conscious of over-reaching, and being even partially responsible for failed enterprises. In the public sector the model is broken and our growing pension crisis is testament to that very fact.

  12. mario panziero

    Anti-union rethoric usually points out that unions were at times run by mobsters, that union leaders are corrupt etc. Consider the following: finance is now almost entirely, if not entirely and systematically dedicated to rent extraction at the expense of labor and capital, as demonstrated by the fact both mass investors (savers) and labourers got shafted by the financial crysis. Most professional politicians are either looking for a revolving door or will be offered some. If apparently there is no hope, then why should one not support a more sympathetic, altough possibly corrupt union leader? There’s nothing to lose anymore, so one should at least try strikes and unionization.

  13. anonymous

    “but they clearly favored Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections.”

    -We’re doomed!

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