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America Has Union Envy

We want more and stronger unions

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Though union membership is at a low, a large majority of Americans agree we need more and stronger unions. - Michael Nagle/Marketplace

Here is an astonishing juxtaposition of two datapoints in America today. At a time when union membership of our workforce is at a record low of 10.3%, a large majority of Americans, 65% of us, hold a positive view of unions.

We admire something that most of us don’t have access to. Can this be called union-envy?

Put in historical perspective, this disparity is alarming. We haven’t seen a divide between union membership and public opinion about unions this large since before the National Labors Act of 1935. That act empowered the formation of unions and helped build America’s strongest-in-the-world middle class. But before the NLA many workers suffered harsh exploitation at the hands of management. Which explains why people viewed unions as an equalizing force representing their interests against the powerful.

And, it seems, here we are again. How did we get here?

Record Low Membership

American unions started having real impact on working and living conditions in the 1930s and 40s. Membership in a trade union reached 33% of all Americans in 1947 and stayed in that range until late 1970s. This is a period when more Americans entered the middle class, bought a home, got a degree, than ever before. For these reasons and more, this era is often referred to as our Golden Age.

But starting in the 60s and escalating to this decade, forces in business and their representatives in government have waged a war against collective bargaining, slowly chipping away at union power. It was a bifurcated attack. In federal and state houses and courts, crippling legislation handcuffed, and in some extreme cases illegalized union membership. While in the court of public opinion, a long-running, “unions are the problem” mud-slinging campaign seeped into culture. You can read the entire ugly history here.

A decades-long onslaught against unions is losing its appeal with Americans. A large majority of us now want unions to have more influence, not less.

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Record Approval Rating

This decades-long onslaught drove public opinion of unions into the 40th percentiles in the late 00s. But in recent years it’s started to become clear what the fact of weakened unions has meant to the American way of life. Now, like before the NLA, the annual income of the top 10% in America equals more than half of our Gross Domestic Product. The rest is shared among the less-fortunate 90% of us.

Many in this 90% feel they are on a treadmill, working hard but getting nowhere. The laborer who once believed she could attain things like home-ownership and a better life for her kids, is now demoralized. The scales are no longer balanced and the power is in the hands of the wealthy.

And then comes the pandemic that has demonstrated clearly the need for collective effort and concern for safety to achieve a greater mutual benefit. These are all union tenets and the power of these beliefs is evident today.

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The Public Opinion Trend

Since that sub-50% ebb in 2009, public approval of unions has been on a steady climb. Putting all of this data together helps clarify now our current disparity between union membership and public opinion of unions. Many of us now realize – at least 65% – that unions are, in fact, not the problem at all. They are the answer to many of our current woes. An increase in that other number, the 10.3% membership rate, will follow, but that result will need our efforts to get it in line with our wishes.


And when that happens, we’ll start to see a return to the days when more Americans share in our national prosperity – a return to our Golden Age successes.

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