Pew Research Center has just released its annual survey on public opinion and unions in the United States. As in the last few years, the general public views the decline of organized labor negatively. 51 percent of respondents agreed the “reduction in union representation over the past 20 years has been mostly bad for working people” while just 35 percent said it was “mostly good.” As one might expect, the poll found African-Americans and low-income people are more likely to sympathize with the plight of organized labor.
But a couple things stuck out to me, in particular.
Pew also asks respondents to share their views of unions and of “business corporations.” Opinions are just about even. Fifty-five percent said they have favorable opinions of the former; 53 percent said they do of the latter. On the other hand, the union favorability margin increases among both young people and low-income people: Sixty-eight percent of people aged 18-29 said they have positive views of unions, while just 46 percent of young people said the same of corporations. By the same token, 59 percent of those earning less than $30,000 in family income have positive views of unions, while just 47 percent of that same category feels similarly about business corporations.
For the burgeoning American Left, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, these data points can only be heartwarming. Especially since class conflit—not to mention, class itself—is discouraged by the nation’s intellectual and media establishment as a worthwhile means of analyzing politics. The poll is a reminder these forces exist in spite of the way most Americans talk about political life. At the same time, though, it’s important to note the figures don’t dramatically differ from last year’s Pew study. In fact, union favorability actually declined by a few percentage points, across the board. So too, though, did positive views of corporations, dropping below 50 percent for both young people and low-income people.
I can’t resist the urge to compare with France. Unions here have also lost a huge chunk of membership over the last few decades—density has declined from about a quarter of the workforce in 1976 to less than 10 percent today—but unlike in the U.S., they retain substantial institutional power. French unions negotiate industry-wide employment agreements, benefit from mandatory representation, and sit on critical government commissions. Their image is also much more negative than in the United States. In a May 2016 BVA poll, just 35 percent of respondents said they had a “good opinion” of labor unions. That was four percentage points higher than the main employers’ association, France’s rough equivalent to the Chamber of Commerce.
For what it’s worth, in the U.K., where labor unions have also suffered from full frontal American-style attacks on their rights, favorability tends to be higher. In a 2017 IPSOS poll, 77 percent of respondents said unions are “essential to protecting workers’ interests”. Meanwhile, just 36 percent said unions had “too much power.”