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Shifts In Public Approval of Labor Unions in the United States, 1936-1999

by Daniel B. Cornfield
Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University

The Gallup Poll recently asked Dr. Daniel Cornfield to review the large body of questions dealing with labor in the Gallup Poll archive and discuss their meaning in the context of the history of the U.S. labor movement. Dr. Cornfield is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Vanderbilt University. He is also editor of Work and Occupations, the leading sociological quarterly for work, employment, and labor issues.

The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the writer and not The Gallup Poll or The Gallup Organization. However, you may send any comments about this article to the "Contact Us" section of this web site.

Overview: Despite the rise and decline of the U.S. labor movement, the public has consistently approved of labor unions during the twentieth century in the United States. In one of its longest-running opinion series, the Gallup Poll shows enduring majority approval of labor unions since the mid-1930s. This implies that the legitimacy of organized labor in the public eye has withstood many changes in the strength of labor unions. A rise in approval in 1999 suggests the beginnings of a revival may be underway. (Daniel B. Cornfield)

The Labor Movement: Its Rise, Decline, and Revival?
The path of organized labor's strength over the twentieth century takes the shape of an inverted "U." The percentage of the national labor force that belongs to unions -- or, union density -- is the standard statistical indicator of labor's strength. Union density, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), rose from about 10% in the 1920s to its all-time high of 35% during the late 1940s. It plateaued at this level through the 1950s and, beginning in the early 1960s, declined steadily to 14% today.

The rise of organized labor is attributable to fundamental changes in the economy, labor force, and political conditions. During the early decades of this century, economic production came to be dominated by large-corporate mass production manufacturers whose proliferating "new," non-skilled factory workforces were increasingly composed of a diverse group of immigrant and native, male and female, and ethnically and racially mixed workers. With the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the accompanying litany of social problems that resulted from the unprecedented high level of mass unemployment, the largely non-union, economically imperiled, new factory workforce began to unionize. Organized labor, whose membership had largely consisted of native, skilled manual tradesmen in tightly organized craft unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), began to incorporate the new factory workforce into inclusive, factory-wide industrial labor unions. Great labor leaders, such as John L. Lewis of the mineworkers, Sidney Hillman of the clothing workers, and Walter Reuther of the automobile workers, arose to champion the new industrial unionism during the 1930s and 1940s. So fractious was the conflict between skilled and non-skilled workers, and between craft unionism and industrial unionism, that the industrial unionists formed an alternative labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), during the late 1930s that rivaled the AFL in union organizing drives. As the two federations competed with one another, unionization spread throughout the factory workforces of heavy industry.

Unionization also was encouraged during the New Deal with the enactment of the Wagner Act of 1935. Upheld as constitutional in 1937, the Act establishes the contemporary system of unionization in which the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) supervises closed-ballot, union-representation elections held at the workplace for workers to decide whether or not to unionize. By the late 1940s, the AFL and CIO were, according to the NLRB, winning some three-fourths of the union-representation elections held in the U.S.

The rate of unionization decelerated during the 1950s. Much of heavy industry on the east and west coasts and Great Lakes region had become saturated with unionization and business groups arose in opposition to unions. Overriding President Truman's veto, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which was spearheaded by business groups. This Act enabled states to pass right-to-work laws that prohibited union security contractual agreements, hindering unionization efforts especially in the newly industrializing southern, Great Plains, and mountain regions of the U.S. Its growth rate arrested, the labor movement united in 1955 with the establishment of the AFL-CIO through the merger of the two rival labor federations. Organized labor had entered into its so-called Golden Era of collective bargaining, making substantial gains in wages and employer-provided fringe benefit packages that the non-union, large corporate sector began to mimic in order to dissuade their workers from unionizing.

The decline of organized labor since the early 1960s has resulted from several factors. Union membership losses among blue-collar workers have accompanied increased automation and technological displacement of workers, the exodus of manufacturing jobs from the unionized Rustbelt to the Sunbelt and overseas, and the shift from a blue-collar, goods-producing economy to one dominated by white-collar and front-line occupations in service industries. What is more, union membership recruitment efforts have often been stymied by the disinclination of white-collar and front-line workers to unionize and by non-union employers who, often mimicking union-scale working conditions, have developed aggressive and sophisticated strategies and tactics for dissuading workers from unionizing.

Are we now witnessing a renascence of organized labor? Although union density continues to decline, labor unions have become more successful in union organizing drives. The NLRB reports that the percentage of union-representation elections won by unions declined from 77 % in 1940 to 44% in 1982, but increased to approximately 50% by 1988, hovering at that level through the 1990s. Unions have been especially successful in recruiting new members from such service industries as government and health care, where unions have been winning almost two-thirds of union-representation elections. If there are signs of a labor revival, they may be partly attributable to the increasing vigor and sensitivity with which organized labor targets socioeconomically disadvantaged workers, including low-wage, ethnic-racial minority and women workers in the service sector, in its organizing drives and political and legislative lobbying efforts. Public opinion trends shed light on the question of labor's legitimacy in the public eye.

Labor's Legitimacy: Trends in Public Approval of Labor Unions
It was during the mid-1930s -- during the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the dramatic birth of industrial unionism -- when the Gallup Poll began to query the public about its approval or disapproval of labor unions. The Gallup Poll suggests that the public has continuously afforded labor unions substantial legitimacy: at least 55% of the public has approved of labor unions every year since 1936.

The public has, however, modified its level of approval of labor unions. The level of public approval of labor unions has fallen slightly with the rise and decline of U.S. union density. Between 1936 and 1965, the period of union-density growth and stabilization, the percentage of the public who approved of labor unions fluctuated between 61% and 75%. After 1965, with the decline in union density, the percentage approving of labor unions ranged between 55% and 66%.

The modest decline in public approval of labor unions after 1965 cannot be easily attributed to any economic disruptions associated with strikes. According to the BLS, the number of large strikes (involving 1,000 or more workers) has declined during the post-World War II era. The annual number of large strikes fluctuated between 181 and 470 in the 1947-1974 period, and then declined with little annual fluctuation to 29 by 1997. Moreover, the Gallup Poll shows tremendous public sympathy for the strikers in two recent "major" strikes in the service sector -- the 1989 Eastern Airlines strike and the 1997 UPS strike -- that would have inconvenienced many by-standing consumers. In fact, the level of public sympathy for these strikers exceeded that for the strikers in all of the previous Gallup Polls of public sympathy for strikers versus employers in major strikes since 1937. The public, however, has not necessarily become increasingly pro-striker in major strikes. The level of public antipathy for the striking air traffic controllers in 1981 is comparable to the level of public sympathy for the Eastern Airlines and UPS strikers. In short, there appears to be no linear trend -- upward or downward -- in the level of public sympathy for strikers or employers that is associated with the decline in strike frequency and in the modest drop in public approval of labor unions.

Unfortunately, other relevant data series for deciphering the drop in public approval of labor unions are only available for the post-1965 period. Therefore, it is difficult to discern the impact of other public-opinion trends on any long-term shifts in the level of public approval of labor unions. Data for the post-1965 period, however, suggest that the level of public approval of labor unions may have recently increased, if only among some segments of the public.

Revival or Random Blip?
Recent Trends in Public Approval of Labor Unions
It is premature to pronounce the revival of organized labor in the public eye. The percentage of the public that approves of labor unions, according to the Gallup Poll, increased from 55% in 1981 to 66% in 1999 (see "table 1" below). A substantial increment, most of this 11-point jump, however, is the 6-point increase that occurred between the 1997 and 1999 polls. Nonetheless, the jump in approval does coincide with the post-1982 increase in the union victory rate in NLRB union-representation elections discussed earlier. Although we must accumulate more hindsight in order to firmly assess the linearity of this opinion trend, extant data allow us to speculate why this trend might signify labor's revival, or constitute a random blip on our screen.

Some Gallup Poll opinion series suggest that the recent increase in public approval of labor union is only a random blip. Randomness is implied by the stability of labor's position in the reputational hierarchy of societal institutions and occupations. The level of public confidence in organized labor compared to that afforded other societal institutions has remained stable since 1973. The percentage of the public indicating that they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in organized labor has fluctuated along an even keel from 22% to 39% between 1973 and 1998. The trend in the level of public confidence in big business is substantially the same as that for organized labor. What is more, the levels of public confidence in organized labor and big business are consistently and substantially lower than those of the military, church and religion, the Supreme Court, and public schools, slightly lower or comparable to that of newspapers, and similar to that of Congress (confidence-level opinion data for several other societal institutions are only available for shorter time periods). Turning to labor leaders' occupational reputation, the Gallup Poll shows that the percentage of the public that rates the "honesty and ethical standards" of labor union leaders as "high" or "very high" ranged from 12% to 16%, moving neither upward nor downward between 1977 and 1998. Little change has occurred in labor leaders' relatively low ranking compared to the other twenty-seven occupations for which Gallup Poll opinion data are available. For example, the pattern of the public's ethical evaluation of labor leaders is much the same as that for Congressmen, state office holders, real estate agents, and insurance salesmen. Labor union leaders are consistently and substantially evaluated lower than pharmacists, clergy and medical doctors, and somewhat higher than advertising practitioners and car salesmen. In short, the stability of labor's position in the reputational hierarchy of societal institutions and occupations implies that the recent increase in the level of public approval of labor unions is a random blip.

Several other data series, in contrast, imply that we may be witnessing a revival of organized labor. Government wage and income data suggest that the demand for unionization among non-union workers may increase with sharpening income inequality in the U.S. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the Gini coefficient -- a leading statistical indicator of the degree of income inequality -- increased by 15% between 1967 and 1997, indicating a growing gulf between the "haves" and "have-nots." For roughly the same period, unions have delivered superior wages to their members. BLS data compiled by the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (BNA) indicate that the mean hourly wage of unionized workers has exceeded that of non-union workers by 22% to 32% between 1973 and 1998. In light of this "union wage advantage," non-union workers may increasingly perceive a benefit to unionizing, driving up the demand for and "approval of" labor unions.

Furthermore, the Gallup Poll shows that, if the public is not more approving of labor unions, it is decreasingly threatened by them. Since 1965 the Gallup Poll has asked the public which of "big business, big labor, or big government" is the "biggest threat to the country in the future." In every year, big government was selected by the largest percentage of respondents as constituting the biggest threat and, since 1983 a growing majority has selected big government as the most threatening of the three institutions. Between 1981 and 1995 the percentage selecting big labor as the most threatening declined from 22% to 9%, suggesting that the public is decreasingly threatened by a weakening movement whose membership comprises a shrinking fraction of the labor force.

Gallup Poll opinion data suggest that -- a random blip or not -- growing public approval of labor unions is non-randomly concentrated among the most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups of workers. According to recent scholarly statistical analyses of cross-sections of the U.S. labor force, the demand for unionization among non-union workers is greatest among low-wage, women and ethnic-racial minority workers. The high demand for unionization among these groups is attributable to their inferior employment conditions, the aggressive targeting of these groups by unions and the AFL-CIO in organizing drives, and the championing of their legislative and political interests by the labor movement in its political lobbying and participation in electoral campaigns that partly derive from labor's long-term informal alliance with the Democratic party. What is more, women and Black workers stand to gain the most by unionizing. According to the BNA's compilation of BLS data, the union wage advantage ranged from 29% to 45% for Black women, 22% to 51% for Black men, 15% to 37% for white women, but only from 8% to 19% for white men between 1973 and 1998.

Patterns of Gallup Poll data on public approval of labor unions are consistent with the patterns of the demand for unionization. Whatever forces drove the 11-point increase in public approval of labor unions between 1981 and 1999, the response to these forces was greatest among women, respondents in the historically non-union, low-wage south and the deindustrializing, Rustbelt Midwest, self-proclaimed adherents to the Democratic party, and non-whites. Between 1981 and 1999, the percentage approving of labor unions increased by 19 points among women -- from 59% to 71%, but remained stable at 58% to 61% for men. Regionally, public approval of labor unions increased by 16 points in the south -- from 49% to 65%--and by 18 points in the Midwest, from 54% to 72%; in the west, approval of labor unions increased by 10 points from 54% to 64%; and, labor union approval changed little in the east, ranging from 60% to 62%. Politically, approval of labor unions increased by 24 points among Democrats -- from 59% to 83%, but remained stable at 47% to 50% for Republicans; among independents, approval increased by 9 points from 55% to 64%. Finally, among non-whites, the percentage approving of labor unions increased by 15 points from 63% to 78%, but, for whites, by 11 points from 53% to 64%.

In conclusion, labor unions have experienced a substantial increase in public approval by the most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups whom the labor movement has targeted politically and in its organizing drives. These groups are women, southerners and Midwesterners, Democrats, and non-whites. These groups may have the greatest need to unionize and identify the most with the economic and political goals and achievements of the labor movement. Organized labor may be experiencing a partial revival: with the sharpening of income inequality in the U.S., it is a wide range of "have-nots" who have most increased their level of approval of labor unions in recent years.

Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?

  Approve Disapprove No opinion
1999 Aug 24-26 65% 28% 7%
1999 Mar 5-7 66 29 5
1997 Aug 12-13 60 31 9
1991 Jul 18-21 60 30 10
1986 Jul 11-14 59 30 11
1985 Apr 12-15 58 27 15
1981 Aug 14-17 55 35 10
1979 May 4-7 55 33 12
1978 Jan 6-9 59 31 10
1972 Dec 8-11 60 25 15
1972 Mar 24-27 60 27 13
1967 Sep 14-19 66 23 11
1965 May 13-18 71 19 10
1963 Jan 11-16 68 22 10
1962 Jun 28-Jul 3 64 24 12
1961 Sep 21-26 69 20 11
1961 May 4-9 63 23 14
1961 Jan 12-17 70 18 12
1959 Aug 20-25 73 14 13
1959 Jan 7-12 68 19 13
1958 Oct 15-20 64 21 15
1957 Aug 29-Sep 4 65 18 17
1957 Apr 6-11 74 17 9
1957 Jan 17-22 75 14 11
1953 Oct 9-14 75 18 7
1948 Dec 10-15 64 21 15
1947 Jul 4-9 64 25 11
1941 61 30 9
1936 72 20 8

In your opinion which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future -- big business, big labor, or big government?

  Big business Big labor Big government No opinion
1999 Aug 24-26 24% 8% 65% 3%
1998 Dec 4-6 24 7 64 5
1995 Aug 11-14 24 9 64 3
1985 Jun 7-10 22 19 50 9
1983 May 13-16 19 18 51 12
1981 Sep 18-21 22 22 46 10
1979 May 4-7 28 17 43 12
1978 Sep 15-18 19 19 47 15
1977 Jan 7-10 23 26 38 13
1969 Nov 12-17 19 28 33 20
1968 Jul 18-23 12 26 46 16
1966 Dec 8-13 14 21 48 17
1965 Feb 17 29 35 19

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