February 17, 2011

Labor Unions Seen as Good for Workers, Not U.S. Competitiveness

Unions' Favorability Still Low, But Mirrors Business Rating

Overview

The favorability ratings for labor unions remain at nearly their lowest level in a quarter century with 45% expressing a positive view. Yet the public expresses similar opinions about business corporations – 47% have a favorable impression – and this rating is also near a historic low.

Americans express mixed views of the impact of labor unions on salaries and working conditions, international competitiveness, job availability and productivity. About half (53%) say unions have had a positive effect on the salaries and benefits of union workers, while just 17% say they have had a negative effect. Views are similar about the impact of unions on working conditions for all workers (51% positive, 17% negative).

But as many say unions have a negative effect as a positive effect on workplace productivity and on the availability of good jobs in America. And more say that unions have a negative (36%) than positive (24%) impact on the ability of U.S. companies to compete internationally.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 2-7 among 1,385 adults, finds virtually no differences in opinions about private and public sector unions.

About half (48%) say they have a favorable opinion of unions that represent workers at private companies, while 37% have an unfavorable view. The figures are nearly identical for unions that represent people who work for state or local governments – 48% have a favorable impression of these unions while 40% have an unfavorable opinion.

A previous Pew Research survey on proposals for balancing state budgets found more support for decreasing the pension plans of state government employees than for cutting programs or raising taxes. Even so, only about half (47%) favored decreasing government employee pensions to balance their state’s budget; an identical percentage said their state should not do this. (See “Fewer Want Spending to Grow, But Most Cuts Remain Unpopular,” Feb. 10, 2011.)

The new survey finds there has been little change since the mid-1990s in public support for labor unions in disputes with businesses. Currently, 43% say that when they hear of such a disagreement, their first reaction is to side with businesses; about the same number (40%) say their first reaction is to side with the unions. In 1995, the balance of opinion was about the same (36% side with unions, 43% side with businesses).

Opinions also are divided when people are asked for initial reaction to a disagreement between unions and state and local governments: 44% say that when they hear of such a dispute they side with unions, compared with 38% who say they side with governments.

In general, Americans do not believe that union agreements give union workers unfair advantages over other workers. Slightly more than half (55%) say that labor agreements ensure that union workers are treated fairly, while only about a third (34%) say the agreements give union workers unfair advantages.

Government data show that labor unions have become less of a factor in the overall U.S. economy in recent decades – most notably in the private sector. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 11.9% of wage and salary workers in the United States belonged to unions in 2010. That is down slightly from the 12.3% in 2009, but much lower than the 20.1% that belonged to unions in 1983, the first year when comparable data are available. BLS also reports that now more public sector workers belong to a union than do private sector workers.

Union Favorability Still Well Below 2007

Americans’ attitudes about labor unions changed only slightly over the past year, following a sharp downturn between early 2007 and early 2010. Currently, 45% say they have a favorable opinion about labor unions, while nearly as many (41%) say they have an unfavorable opinion.

In January 2007, 58% said they had a favorable opinion of unions; 31% had an unfavorable opinion.

Young people, Democrats and people who live in union households continue to hold the most favorable views of organized labor. About six-in-ten of those 18-29 (58%) say they have a favorable opinion of unions, compared with 37% of those 65 and older. In early 2007, a much larger percentage of older Americans (60%) had a favorable opinion of unions. The decline among younger people was modest (66% to 58%).

Six-in-ten Democrats (61%) say they have a favorable opinion, compared with 30% of Republicans and 42% of independents. In early 2007, 70% of Democrats, 47% of Republicans and 54% of independents said they had a favorable opinion of unions. There are similar partisan differences in opinions about private sector unions and public employee unions.

In the current survey, there is a little difference in opinions about labor unions based on education level or household income. Among many groups – but not all – opinions dropped between 2007 and 2010 and then made up some of that decline over the past year.

African Americans continue to offer more favorable opinions about labor unions than do whites. Currently, 62% of African Americans say they have a favorable view, compared with 43% of whites. Last year, the numbers were similar (37% for whites, 59% for blacks). Favorable opinions of labor unions among both whites and blacks were higher in 2007 (54% for whites, 75% for blacks).

Not surprisingly, members of union households also continue to see unions more favorably. About seven-in-ten in union households (69%) offer a favorable opinion, compared with 42% in non-union households. That gap was somewhat wider one year ago: 74% for union households, 36% for non-union). In early 2007, more than three- quarters (77%) of those in union households expressed a favorable opinion, compared with 54% of non-union households.

Business Favorability Also Lower

Currently, 47% say they have a favorable opinion of business corporations while 45% have an unfavorable opinion. These views are unchanged since April 2008, but are substantially less positive than in January 2007 (57% favorable, 30% unfavorable). Since early 2007, the favorability ratings for business corporations have fallen by 10 points while favorable ratings for unions have fallen by 13 points.

Over the past four years, opinions about business corporations have turned more negative among Republicans, Democrats and independents. Currently, 58% of Republicans have a favorable opinion of business while 36% have an unfavorable opinion. In January 2007, 70% of Republicans viewed corporations favorably and only 18% said they had an unfavorable opinion – half the percentage as in the current survey.

The balance of opinion among independents toward business corporations moved from positive to negative between 2007 and 2008 and has changed little since then. Democrats’ views of business corporations also turned more negative between 2007 and 2008 before recovering slightly in the current survey.

Democrats Most Likely to See Union Positives

Democrats are much more likely to offer favorable opinions of unions than either Republicans or independents. Democrats also are less likely to say that unions have a negative impact on the ability of American companies to compete in a global marketplace and the availability of good jobs in the United States.

On balance, Republicans, Democrats and independents say that labor unions have had a positive effect on union workers’ salaries and benefits, as well as working conditions for all Americans workers. However, Democrats view their impact as much more positive than either of the other groups. For example, 61% of Democrats said labor unions have had a positive effect on working conditions for all American workers; 49% of independents and 42% of Republicans agree.

Republicans, though, are much more negative than Democrats about unions’ impact on America’s ability to compete globally, workplace productivity and the availability of good jobs in the U.S. Independents tend to fall in between.

Nearly half of Republicans (47%) say unions hurt American companies’ global competitiveness, compared with 26% of Democrats. Nearly four-in-ten independents (38%) say this. About four-in-ten Democrats (39%) say unions don’t have much of an effect on this. Fewer than three-in-ten Republicans (28%) or independents (26%) agree.

Higher-Income Americans See More Negative Effects

People across income levels say that labor unions have had a positive effect on both union members’ salaries and benefits and working conditions for all American workers. People with higher family incomes, however, are more critical of unions’ impact on American competitiveness and workplace productivity.

More than half of those with annual family income of $75,000 or more (54%) say that unions hurt companies’ ability to compete in a global marketplace. About four-in-ten (38%) of those earning between $30,000 and $74,999 agree, as do 22% of those earning less than $30,000. About a third in each of the lower income groups says unions do not have much of an effect on this (35% for those with income of less than $30,000, 32% for those with income between $30,000 and $74,999). Just 22% of those earning at least $75,000 a year say this.

Higher wage earners also are more likely to see a negative impact on productivity. More than four-in-ten (44%) say unions have a negative effect on workplace productivity, compared with 33% of those earning between $30,000 and $74,999 and just 19% of those earning less than $30,000.

Union Membership and Perceptions of Labor’s Impact

Households with current union members offer much more positive views on the impact of unions than those made up of former union members or people who have never belonged to a union.

For example, about half of those who say they or their spouse (52%) is currently a member of a labor union say unions have had a positive effect on the availability of good jobs in the United States. That drops to 31% among former union members and 28% among those never in a union.

Current union households also are more likely to say that unions have a positive effect on workplace productivity. Nearly half (48%) say this, compared with 34% of those in former union households and 31% among those never in a union.

More Say Union Contracts Protect Than Give Unfair Edge

A majority of the public sees union agreements as ensuring fair treatment for union workers (55%), rather than giving union workers unfair advantages (34%).

Asked which statement comes closer to their views, two-thirds of Democrats (67%) say the agreements protect union workers, while 25% say they give union workers unfair advantages. Independents show a similar balance, though not as large a divide (55% to 34%). Among Republicans, 48% say the agreements give union workers unfair advantages while 42% say they ensure fair treatment.

More than six-in-ten (63%) of those earning less than $30,000 say the agreements ensure fair treatment for union workers. Nearly as many (56%) of those earning between $30,000 and $74,999 agree. Those earning at least $75,000 are more evenly divided: 47% say unions ensure fair treatment for union workers, while 45% say they give union workers unfair advantages.

Looking at union membership, 63% of those with household members ever in a union say union agreements ensure fair treatment for union workers. Half of those in households where neither spouse has ever belonged to a union agree.

Cite this publication: “Labor Unions Seen as Good for Workers, Not U.S. Competitiveness.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (February 17, 2011) http://www.people-press.org/2011/02/17/labor-unions-seen-as-good-for-workers-not-u-s-competitiveness/, accessed on July 23, 2014.