Labor unions continue to enjoy broad support from the American public, with a poll released Thursday showing their highest favorability rating in 17 years.
The annual poll by Gallup, conducted between July 30 and Aug. 12 this year, showed that 65% of respondents approved of unions. That’s up a tick from 2019, when the approval rate was 64%, and consistent with an upward trend since the end of the financial crisis more than a decade ago.
Gallup’s data since 1936 shows that Americans tend to have a favorable view of unions during strong economies and a dim view of them during downturns, perhaps blaming organized labor on some level for high unemployment. Less than half of those polled approved of unions in 2009, following the financial crisis.
Yet this year’s poll was conducted in the midst of an economic crisis, with millions of people out of work due to the coronavirus. It’s possible Americans’ view toward unions will sour if joblessness remains high and the economy fails to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. But for now organized labor’s approval is at one of its highest levels since the late 1960s.
Gallup’s Megan Brenan wrote that the weak economy may not be hurting unions’ favorability so much because Americans have so much else to worry about: “The public is divided in its assessments of the biggest U.S. problem, with roughly one in five each citing the coronavirus, the economy, race relations and leadership.”
At the same time, many union members have been on the front lines of the pandemic in hospitals, grocery stores and meatpacking plants. Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the poll reflects the public’s understanding that union members do critical work. His union represents workers in sanitation, health care and child care, among other fields.
“People have respect for members of unions,” Saunders told HuffPost.
As usual, the approval rate was highest among Democrats, at 83%, compared to 45% among Republicans and 64% among independents.
Even so, the increasingly rosy view of unions has not done much to grow organized labor’s clout.
While unions have managed to increase membership in raw numbers in recent years, the share of workers in the U.S. who are represented by unions has been falling for decades, driven largely by drops in the private sector. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only around one in 10 workers belongs to a union now, down from one in five in 1983.
U.S. corporations have increased their resistance to unions in recent decades, ramping up campaigns aimed at scuttling organizing drives.
At the same time, Republican lawmakers in many states have chipped away at organized labor’s power, restricting collective bargaining rights and passing ”right to work” laws that tend to hurt union funding. More than half of states now have such laws on the books, even in traditional labor strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin.
Despite the falling membership rate, unions have been throwing their weight around considerably. Last year saw the largest number of strikes in a decade, with 25 work stoppages involving at least a thousand workers apiece. That included the 46,000 workers who shut down production at General Motors for six weeks.
The increase in strikes in 2019 was largely a function of growing teacher walkouts and a tight labor market that emboldened unions to make stronger demands. While the pandemic has put many workers on unemployment, it could also spur another round of strikes among teachers over school reopening plans this year.