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Amid dismal job market, Americans grow warier of unions

Organized labor might have hoped that the heavy job losses in this deep recession would boost Americans' trust in unions as a counter-balancing force. Instead, just the opposite has happened.

A Gallup poll last month found that the public has become less supportive of unions than at any time since Gallup began asking that question in 1936.

Forty-eight percent of the 1,010 respondents in the Aug. 6-9 telephone poll said they approved of unions, down from 59% a year earlier, Gallup said.

The percentage saying they disapproved of unions jumped to 45% from 31% in the same period. (The rest had no opinion.)

Unionbutton Until this year, the public's general approval rate of unions had always been above 50%. In 1936, when the question was first asked, 72% of respondents approved of unions. Even as recently as 2003 the approval rate was 65%.

The slump in public support for organized labor comes as the AFL-CIO pushes hard in Congress for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize. As my colleague Patrick J. McDonnell notes in his story today on retiring AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, "Business has mounted a massive, costly campaign to derail the [free-choice] measure, labeling it a power grab by 'labor bosses.' "

The AFL-CIO's view of the act (the so-called card-check bill) is here. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's opposing view is here.

The Gallup poll won't help the measure's chances on Capitol Hill. Gallup found that a majority of people -- 66% -- believe that unions help workers who are union members. But 62% believe that unions "mostly hurt" non-union workers, who make up about 88% of the labor force.

And 51% now say unions "mostly hurt" the economy in general, up from 36% in 2006, the last time that question was asked.

Gallup didn't speculate on the reasons behind the erosion of support for organized labor, but it isn't hard to imagine that many people who have increasingly felt less secure about their jobs are antagonistic toward union members who may have more security.

Until now, the previous low in the public approval rating of unions was 55% in 1981 and 1979 -- during the last severe recession.

The perceived generous benefit and pension packages enjoyed by unionized state and local government workers -- at taxpayers' expense -- also may be turning the public against organized labor in general.

In this economy, it's a lot to ask a private-sector worker who isn't even covered by a 401(k) plan to cheerfully support a government worker with a full and guaranteed pension.

-- Tom Petruno

Image: A pin for sale on the AFL-CIO's website.




 

 
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