The FINANCIAL — In the U.S., 61% of adults say they approve of labor unions, the highest percentage since the 65% approval recorded in 2003. The current labor union approval is up five percentage points from last year and is 13 points above the all-time low found in 2009.
Unions have regained popularity since bottoming out at the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009. That survey marked the first and only time in Gallup’s trend dating back to 1936 that support for unions was below 50%.
Historically, unions have enjoyed strong support from the American public. In 1936, 72% of Americans approved of labor unions. Union approval peaked in the 1950s when it reached 75% in 1953 and 1957. Approval remained in the 60% range throughout the 2000s, right up to the election of Barack Obama as president. After plummeting in 2009, union approval remained lower than in its heyday but began climbing.
Democrats Twice as Likely as Republicans to Approve Unions
Eighty-one percent of Democrats approve of unions this year — significantly higher than the 42% of Republicans who approve. This disparity is not as stark as it was in 2011 when Republican approval was 26% and Democratic approval was 78%. Democratic approval of unions has been fairly steady over time, while the approval levels of independents and Republicans have fluctuated.
Republicans’ approval of unions rose since last year, possibly due to the presidency of Republican Donald Trump. Even though Trump is not an avid supporter of unions, his rhetoric about restoring U.S. manufacturing jobs and cordial relations with some top labor union leaders at the start of his term may have softened Republican attitudes about unions.
Republican approval of unions is similar to when the last Republican president, George W. Bush, left office. It is possible that Republicans may now perceive unions as less threatening because Trump is unlikely to expand their power.
More Americans Would Like to See Labor Unions Have Greater Influence
As more U.S. adults approve of unions, their interest in wanting unions to have more influence is also on the rise. Thirty-nine percent of Americans would like unions to have more influence — the highest figure recorded in the 18 years Gallup has asked this question.
Consequently, those who want labor unions to have less influence is at a record low of 28%. Thirty percent want unions to have the same influence as today.
The “influence” response mirrors the “approval” response in that the more Americans approve of unions, the more they want them to have greater influence. When support for unions dipped in the late 2000s and early 2010s, so too did the idea of unions having more influence.
Still, Americans remain more pessimistic than optimistic about unions’ future. Forty-six percent say they think unions will become weaker than they are today, while 27% say they will be the same and 22% say stronger.
For the past 80 years, unions have been an integral part of the American labor force. Since 1936, shortly after Congress legalized private sector unions and collective bargaining, U.S. adults have approved — sometimes overwhelmingly — of labor unions. This trend has endured despite a historical decrease in union membership; Gallup’s latest survey shows that 10% of Americans report personally being a union member, while 16% live in a union household.
Unions have regained the approval of the American people after dropping during the Great Recession. As more time passes since the bailout of two of the Big Three auto companies, a possible reason unions dipped in approval, it appears that unions are once again solidly popular.
There are likely limits to this approval, however. Republicans’ lower approval of unions, as part of a growing political polarization on a number of issues, means that solid union support may never return to the levels seen from the 1930s to 1960s.