News reports have focused the nation's attention on labor unions in recent months. Workers have voted in favor of unionizing at a number of Starbucks stores across the country, workers voted to form a union at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island and are now voting in other locations, workers at an Apple Store in Atlanta have filed a petition to hold a union election, and tech workers at the vaunted New York Times recently voted to unionize. There also appears to have been an increased level of labor actions in companies and organizations that are already unionized.
The fact that labor organizing efforts have occurred at iconic, extremely well-known companies such as Starbucks and Amazon helps explain why they are getting so much attention. But more broadly, the unionizing efforts give rise to questions about the future of unions in this country. As one pro-union writer said about the Starbucks union effort, "It's a spark of optimism in a union movement that has been in decline for decades."
That last phrase is important. All indicators show the general trend in union membership has been down in recent decades. Is it possible that unions could be on the cusp of a renaissance?
Gallup data confirm the small size of the footprint of union membership in today's workforce. As of last summer, just seven percent of adults in the U.S. said they personally were members of a union (another 8% reported that someone else in the household was a member). This number hasn't changed substantially since Gallup began asking the question yearly back in 2001. The government's Bureau of Labor Statistics reports its measure of union membership on a base of employed persons, and their data show that 11% of workers today are members, a drop from about 20% in 1983. Older data show that the unionized percentage of all workers was near the 30% range in the 1940s and 1950s.
However one does the calculations, the trend in union membership is down, not up, even as we see some signs of increasing union activity. We don't know if or when this interest in unions will increase the number of unionized employees significantly. We do know that it will take more than the formation of unions at Amazon, Starbucks and Apple workplaces to affect the national numbers. Given the 258 million adults in the country, it would take an increase of about three million unionized workers to move Gallup's national estimate of union membership by one percentage point.
The Environment in Which Unions Operate Today
There are several reasons one can advance to explain the relative lack of unionization in the American workforce today. Many workers in the U.S. simply don't have the option or opportunity to be union members. Some are in management, and some are in places where there are no unions and no pro-union activism. There is also the impact of the federal and state labor laws and sustained efforts by companies themselves to forestall their workers wanting to unionize. (Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is quoted as saying, "We can't ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted, in many ways, by the threat of unionization.")
At the same time, workers today demonstrably have more opportunities to switch and change jobs than in the past, which provides a more propitious environment in which to seek better pay, benefits and working conditions. Unemployment is at 3.6%, and government data show that over 11 million jobs are unfilled. A recent Gallup study entitled "The 'Great Resignation' Is Really the 'Great Discontent'" noted that "48% of America's working population is actively job-searching or watching for opportunities."
A second factor that could affect the future of unions is the quite positive public opinion environment in which workers seek to operate. Dr. George Gallup began asking Americans if they approved or disapproved of labor unions back in 1936, making this one of the oldest trend questions in Gallup history (or the history of any polling organization). In 1936, 72% of Americans said they approved. Today, as summarized by my colleague Megan Brenan last September, 68% approve, not much different from that first reading more than 80 years ago. Approval of unions has waxed and waned over the years, but the current two-thirds approval is just a few points lower than the all-time high of 75% recorded in 1953 and 1957.
Underscoring these attitudes, Pew Research recently found that the majority of Americans believe the decline in the share of workers represented by unions has been bad, rather than good, for the country.
Gallup also tracks Americans' preference for the future influence of labor unions. In 2018, the last time this question was asked, 39% of Americans wanted unions to have more influence, 26% the same influence and 29% less influence. One way of looking at these results is to say that 65% of Americans (quite similar to the percentage approving of labor unions) want unions to have the same or more influence than they do today.
We find a somewhat different result when Americans are asked about "organized labor." Just 28% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in organized labor, 12th on a list of 17 societal institutions tested last year. Another 46% have "some" confidence in organized labor. Thus, while the total (great deal + quite a lot + some) is similar to the overall approval rating for labor unions, the relatively small percentage who have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence implies that views of unions are not intensely positive.
Gallup data show that only 14% of full-time workers and 10% of part-time workers who approve of labor unions are actually themselves members of unions. Obviously, there is a huge upside potential for unionization; a survey conducted by MIT professors in 2017 asked nonunion workers, "If an election were held today to decide whether employees like you should be represented by a union, would you vote for the union or against the union?" and found that 48% said yes. (I'm not aware of any more recent studies that have asked this question).
Views of Unions Are Highly Partisan
Attitudes toward unions are highly partisan, not surprising given that so many attitudes today in the U.S. are correlated, often powerfully so, with underlying partisanship. As Megan Brenan noted in her analysis last September, 90% of Democrats approve of unions, compared with 66% of independents and 47% of Republicans. The trend line on partisan approval of unions has changed over the years, but the basic gap has been there going back to Gallup surveys in the 1950s. This reflects the historical fact that unions have long been a core part of the Democratic political base. President Joe Biden, for example, said last September, "I intend to be the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history." More recently, Biden expressed support for Amazon workers attempting to unionize.
Union members themselves skew Democratic. Gallup data on the characteristics of union members show the same type of partisan gaps as seen in the general population's attitudes toward unions. The three-year aggregate of data from 2019 to 2021 shows that 56% of union members identified as Democrats or were independents who leaned Democratic, compared with 39% who identified as Republican or leaned Republican. Very similar to the recent data on the political orientation of union members, exit polls show that union households voted by a 17-percentage-point margin for Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
The Biden administration is pushing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) act, which would expand "various labor protections related to employees' rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace." It passed the House last year but is stalled in the Senate. Being stalled in the Senate is not surprising to political observers, given the data on the high level of political polarization when it comes to unions. Unless Democrats move to significant majority control in the Senate, the PRO act is not likely to become law.
Traditional Demographic Variables Less Related to Union Attitudes
Interestingly, the impact of party identification on Americans' views of unions is so strong that it essentially overwhelms more traditional demographic variables. In other words, there is a great deal of difference in perceptions of unions by underlying political orientation, but relatively little based on education, income, gender, age or race.
Young people are modestly more sympathetic than those older, although young people are very unlikely to be members of labor unions. Americans with incomes in the $20,000 to $50,000 range are slightly more likely to approve than those with lower or higher incomes. Black Americans are more positive than other racial and ethnic groups. Women are slightly more positive than men. Most of these relationships are consistent with the underlying political orientation since young people, Black Americans and women are more likely to identify as Democrats than their counterparts. None of these demographic gaps are as large as the size of the political gaps.
In short, views of unions do not significantly divide the rich versus the poor, the highly educated versus the less well educated or women versus men. Views of unions are largely a factor of the individual's underlying political and ideological orientation.
The future of unions in this country remains to be determined. While a large majority of Americans approve of the idea of labor unions in general, relatively few workers are union members. Strong opposition to unions among Republicans may help forestall changes in labor laws that would facilitate union organizing efforts, despite the intentions of pro-union President Biden. The impact of the currently positive economy (72% of Americans say that now is a good time to find a quality job) could, in theory, cut both ways. Workers may feel freer to risk their jobs in search of better working environments, pay and benefits when they know they are operating in a robust job market. But companies also recognize that they must do more to attract and retain workers, which could lead to actions that might mitigate workers' interest in seeking the benefits promised by union membership.