by Samuel Morris for Labor News Up To The Minute
Support for organized labor has even gone up among Republican voters – perhaps Trump’s faux-populism had an unintended effect
‘The shift of public opinion in favor of organized labor comes against a backdrop of decades of declining union membership rates but rising union interest among workers.’
Today, public feeling toward labor is more positive, and public feeling toward big business more negative, than at any time in five decades. What’s more, workers increasingly want to be in unions: over half of Americans say they would vote for a union at work, while only 11 percent of US employees currently belong to one – largely because labor laws remain stacked in favor of big business.
Americans’ rising affinity for organized labor and antipathy toward big business opens up new possibilities for a more balanced economy and society – but not without reform to the labor laws that hold workers back. For instance, because penalties are negligible, Amazon management has repeatedly violated workers’ rights when workers acted collectively to improve their working conditions. When workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, recently started to unionize, management seems to have acted illegally again and the unionization effort failed. By making an example of one person, bank robbers can control a whole crowd; too many managers have felt free to follow that logic with impunity.
Between 1964, when the American National Election Studies (ANES) began collecting data, and 2012, Americans’ sentiment toward labor unions and big business trended together, each suffering public opinion surges and dips in tandem. But by 2016, these sentiments had unlinked: Americans’ feelings toward big business chilled, while feelings toward labor unions warmed. ANES just released data from late 2020, and it reveals that this post-2012 trend continued into the pandemic.
Today, all political and all age cohorts hold record or near-record positive views favoring labor over big business. Looking across generations, Americans born after 1975 have particularly strong positive feelings toward labor unions over big business. Democrats and independents have always felt more positively toward labor unions and less positively toward big business than Republicans, and that pro-union bent has risen to record heights since 2012. But even among Republicans, the union versus big business sentiment gap rose quickly between 2012 and 2016, and hit a record high in 2020.
So, why the recent public sentiment uptick? Since 2012, workers have organized and engaged in highly publicized minimum wage and union fights, which helped populist wings ascend and anti-labor, pro-business wings weaken within each party. Since 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders, long a vocal advocate of labor and antagonist of big business, has helped solidify a strong pro-labor constituency in the Democratic party and within the broader political landscape. Sanders’s prominent presidential campaigns served as an organizing vehicle for a pro-labor left, and he continues to help garner public support for union efforts. As president, Biden has taken unprecedented pro-labor stances and helped consolidate liberal support for unions.
The left isn’t the only reason why union support is up nationwide. Ironically, for all of Trump’s atrocious anti-labor and pro-corporate policies, his phony populism may have realigned labor-business opinion among Republican voters. His red-herring bloviating in support of unions and against corporations could be partly responsible for broadening labor and declining big business sentiment, especially among some Americans on the right.
The shift of public opinion in favor of organized labor comes against a backdrop of decades of declining union membership rates but rising union interest among workers. As such, the representation gap – the difference between the share of workers who’d like to be in a union and those who are – is wider than it’s been in decades.
Beyond the impact unions have on their members – including higher wages, better health, retirement and other fringe benefits, and reduced racial resentment – unions benefit non-member workers, too. Higher pay in union firms can increase competition for labor such that nonunion firms raise wages. Strong unions reduce inequality, and they increase voter turnout, the election of working- and middle-class Americans to public office, and charitable giving.
Unions also help workers establish and leverage a collective voice to raise concerns and demand better protections, making them especially valuable to workers when the Covid-19 pandemic has upended long-held expectations of workplace norms. Indeed, evidence from the pandemic suggests that union members had safer workplace practices and conditions than nonunion members, and risk of Covid led to greater interest in unionization and greater willingness to engage in workplace collective actions, like going on strike or joining a protest.
The combination of the public’s heightened sympathy for unions and the widening representation gap underscores how biased our current labor laws are against workers. Because unionization pulls power toward workers and away from managers and owners, employers go to extreme lengths – from outright intimidation to illegally firing leaders – to suppress unionization. Penalties for violating workers’ rights to organize are negligible, letting managers violate workers’ rights with impunity.
New legislation – like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act – can help rebalance bargaining power in the labor market, supporting workers’ ability to bargain on more-equal terms with representatives of concentrated wealth. If passed, the PRO Act would repeal state laws that undermine unions, institute tougher penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights to organize, and recognize gig workers’ right to collectively bargain.
Independent of the PRO Act’s legislative future – a future made uncertain by the Senate’s long history of obstructing progressive labor reform – the swelling public support for labor and simultaneous declining support for big business suggests a transformational shift in terrain. While previously, public perception of organized labor and organized capital was balanced, that no longer holds. These days, Americans worry far more about organized capital than organized labor.