America’s Unions Are More Popular Than You Think

Despite labor’s recent defeat at Amazon in Alabama, the current moment holds out cautious hope for the movement — not least because of a solid majority in favor of trade unionism in American public opinion.

Longshore workers briefly walked off the job on in solidarity with the Teamsters to picket and disrupt traffic on Wednesday in San Pedro, California. (Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

In the wake of this month’s (at least provisional) defeat in Bessemer, America’s labor movement has a significant opportunity in the form of the PRO Act. Currently pending in the Senate after passage through the House, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act would constitute the most decisive and comprehensive reform of labor law in decades — in addition to making several of the tactics employed by Amazon during the recent union drive illegal. In essence, it would both make it easier to form unions and make them more durable over the long term — also including provisions that would penalize both companies and their executives for violating workers’ rights.

Though the bill’s chances in the Senate are slim in the short term, the broader moment is potentially a watershed for the labor movement, whose membership has dropped precipitously since the 1980s, when some 20 percent of Americans belonged to unions (today, the figure is less than 11 percent). And, as the findings of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center suggest, renewed efforts to strengthen and expand union membership have a majority of Americans on their side. General approval of organized labor has fluctuated in recent decades, though it declined noticeably during the first decade of the twenty-first century — Pew identifying a 12 percent drop in favorability toward unions between 2001 and 2013.

The center’s most recent survey, however, finds that a solid majority is today concerned about the long-term decline of America’s labor movement and its implications for working people. Pew’s analysis, conducted among over five thousand American adults between April 5 and 11, identified some 56 percent who agree that “the large reduction over the past several decades in the percentage of workers who are represented by unions” has been either “somewhat” or “very” bad for the country. Meanwhile, 60 percent said that the long-term reduction in union membership has been “bad for working people.”

Unsurprisingly, labor’s strongest support comes from self-identified Democrats — the supermajority of whom agreed that the decline of unions has been bad, both for the country and for working Americans in general. Nonetheless, hostility toward the labor movement from Republicans was less pronounced than some might expect: 40 percent and 42 percent, respectively, saying that the drop in union membership had been bad for the country and working people. Negative attitudes toward the labor movement were also much less pronounced among Republicans under the age of 40.

As is the case for voting rights, health care reform, and innumerable other issues, the greatest impediment to the renewal of America’s unions will be elites and special interests rather than popular opinion. The National Retail Federation has called the PRO Act “the worst bill in Congress,” while the US Chamber of Commerce claims it would “undermine worker rights, ensnare employers in unrelated labor disputes, disrupt the economy, and force individual Americans to pay union dues regardless of their wishes.” Both, alongside other corporate groups, can be expected to offer strong resistance as the bill is debated in the Senate.

Had the PRO Act been in effect, it’s very likely the Bessemer vote would have gone very differently. Unfortunately, its legislative passage will face the same slanted landscape presently confronting America’s workers whenever they try to unionize: laws tilted in capital’s favor, vociferous hostility from a slick PR machine with unlimited cash, and a process that gives one side the advantage by definition. Nevertheless, as the labor movement mounts a concerted push for the most potentially significant labor reform in a generation, it will likely find a majority of Americans on its side.