With tens of thousands of public sector workers jamming the halls of the Wisconsin statehouse – and similar labor battles brewing in Ohio and Michigan – Republican governors and Americans around the country are contemplating the state of the unions.
The fracas in Madison has emphasized the divide between those who view unions favorably and those who don’t – a gulf that has also deepened as union membership has declined.
Per a new survey from the Pew Center for People and the Press, Americans’ positive perceptions of unions are languishing at the lowest levels in the last quarter century. Just 45 percent express positive views about labor unions, and only a quarter say that they help American companies to compete globally.
Another poll conducted by the Clarus Research Group found even deeper opposition to the unionization of government employees specifically, with 64 percent of registered voters saying that government workers should not be able to join unions that bargain for higher pay and benefits.
Both surveys found sharp differences along party lines, with Republicans much more likely to have an unfavorable view of unions than Democrats.
But, Pew notes, the public's opinion of labor organizations is similar to its wariness of big business. Public approval of corporations has plummeted even more sharply than that of unions in the past decade. According to the poll, 47 percent of Americans say they view corporations positively, down from about 70 percent in the late 1990s.
And, despite the data showing lower national esteem overall for unions, Americans still say that they’re generally inclined to side with labor groups in disputes with state or local governments.
Asked whose side they would generally favor in a conflict between unions and state or local governments, 44 percent of respondents told Pew that they would support the labor group while 38 percent picked the government.
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, union membership has declined from 20 percent of all wage and salary workers in 1983 – the first year that the bureau collected comparable statistics – to just under 12 percent today.
Public sector workers are much more likely to belong to a union than those who work in private industry. Over 42 percent of local government employees – many of them teachers, firefighters, and police officers – say they are members of a union, while under seven percent of private sector workers are members of a labor organization.
Union membership is highest among African Americans and workers 55-64 years old. Less than 5 percent of workers under 24 are members of a union.