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Republicans Negative, Democrats Positive in Describing Unions

Republicans Negative, Democrats Positive in Describing Unions

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are slightly more likely to say something negative rather than positive when asked what word or phrase comes to mind when they think of "labor unions." By about a 3-to-1 ratio, Republicans have negative rather than positive things to say about labor unions. By better than 2 to 1, Democrats' impressions of unions are more positive than negative.

What Word or Phrase Comes to Mind When You Think of Labor Unions? March 2011 Results, by Positive, Negative, or Neutral Responses, Among National Adults and by Party ID

Americans' responses to the question reveal a less positive picture of labor unions' image than Gallup found last summer on the standard labor union approval question asked since the 1930s. In August 2010, 52% of Americans said they approved of unions, while 41% said they disapproved. Although more positive than negative, this was the second-lowest union approval rating in Gallup's history, behind only the 48% in 2009.

Unions have been in the news in recent weeks, mostly as a result of the controversial efforts by the governors of Wisconsin and other states to close state budget deficits by severely limiting collective bargaining for state employee unions as well as reducing union members' pay and benefits.

These battles over state employee unions have been highly partisan, with Republican governors typically pitted against Democratic legislators. In Wisconsin, Democratic state senators went so far as to leave the state in an effort to prevent a vote on a proposed law limiting state union bargaining power.

This same type of partisan rift in views of unions is evident in average Americans' word associations. A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) use a word or phrase that Gallup coders classified as negative when they think of labor unions, while 18% said something positive. On the other hand, 49% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have positive reactions when they think of labor unions; 19% have negative ones.

Word Cloud Reveals Terms Americans Use Most to Describe Unions

The specific words and phrases respondents use when asked about labor unions are detailed in the accompanying word cloud, which arrays verbatim responses based on their frequency of occurrence, and are outlined by category in the accompanying table. Although negative comments outnumber positive ones, overall, the words "good" and "necessary" make up a relatively high percentage of the positive responses, while negative responses are more varied.

Word Cloud: Labor Unions

Americans' associations of words or phrases with labor unions are understandably diverse. No single image comes to the minds of more than 10% of Americans. The most frequently used category of phrases is "good/great," followed in order by "unnecessary/no longer needed," "for them/approve/in favor," "necessary/needed," and "dislike."

What Word or Phrase Comes to Mind When You Think of Labor Unions? (Open-Ended)

For Democrats, the top 10 responses to "labor union" are mostly positive (such as "good" and "needed") or neutrally descriptive (such as "collective bargaining" and "strikes"):

  1. Good/Great
  2. Necessary/Needed
  3. For them/Approve
  4. Workers' rights
  5. Unnecessary/No longer needed
  6. Protection
  7. Against/Oppose/Not for
  8. Collective bargaining
  9. Powerful
  10. (tie) Strikes
    (tie) Dislike

Republicans' top 10 thoughts about unions are mostly negative, although the second-most-common response is "good" or "great:

  1. Unnecessary/No longer needed
  2. Good/Great
  3. Dislike
  4. Bad/Unfair
  5. Against/Oppose
  6. Powerful
  7. Corrupt
  8. Crooks/Thieves
  9. Greed
  10. Necessary/Needed


More than anything else, this word association procedure highlights the fundamentally partisan difference in views of labor unions in America today. Unions have generally supported Democratic candidates in elections and have been viewed as a major ally of the Democratic Party in general. These data confirm that rank-and-file Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents share a generally positive view of unions, with less than 20% having a negative image of them. Republicans across the country, however, are much more negative; more than half associate a negative word or phrase with labor unions.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted March 3-6, 2011, with a random sample of 1,021 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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