According to several polls from throughout the past year, the public perception of labor unions is improving in America — even as union membership continues to steadily decline.
Two recent polls find that Americans have a divided, but improving, view of organized labor. According to a survey from Republican-leaning Rasmussen Reports released Sunday, 44 percent of American adults have a favorable opinion of labor unions, while 45 percent view them unfavorably; 14 percent view unions very favorably, while 24 percent view them very unfavorably. This marks a minor improvement from Rasmussen’s 2012 poll, which found that 42 percent had a favorable opinion of labor unions, compared to 49 percent who had an unfavorable view.
The slight shift mirrors the results of a Pew Research Center poll from late June, which found that 51 percent hold a favorable view of labor unions, compared to 42 percent who view them unfavorably. That represents a significant improvement from Pew’s previous poll on the topic in August 2011, when public perception of unions hit its nadir. During that time of widespread economic dissatisfaction, just 41 percent of Americans viewed labor unions favorably.
The rebound in unions’ favorability comes during a time of heightened activity by the labor movement — 2013 has seen high-profile protests against low, stagnating wages, new “right-to-work” laws in several states, and North Carolina’s ultra-conservative turn, among other issues.
There is a broad consensus in favor of at least one of labor’s top legislative priorities: raising the federal minimum wage. Throughout the past year, polls from Pew Research Center, Gallup, and Rasmussen Reports have all found that overwhelming majorities favor raising the minimum wage from its current rate of $7.25 per hour. A Hart Research Associates poll from July found that 80 percent of Americans — including 62 percent of Republicans — support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, over one dollar per hour higher than President Obama has proposed.
Still, despite these positive poll results, labor still has cause for great concern in 2013. As Pew’s Bruce Drake points out, union membership declined from 11.8 percent of the workforce in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is sharply down from 1983 — the first year for which the BLS has comparable data — when 20.1 percent of the workforce was affiliated with a labor union. That percentage has fallen in every single year since.
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