James Surowiecki of The New Yorker reports that "more than seventy percent of those surveyed in a 1937 Gallup poll said they favored unions." My, how times have changed: "A 2010 Pew Research poll offered even worse numbers, with just forty-one percent of respondents saying they had a favorable view of unions, the lowest level of support in the history of that poll."
Surowiecki succinctly lays out the reasons for the decline, showing that many now view unions as "just another interest group," and paints a dire picture of the labor movement in the United States: "Labor, in other words, may be caught in a vicious cycle, becoming progressively less influential and more unpopular. The Great Depression invigorated the modern American labor movement. The Great Recession has crippled it."
UPDATE: Because this topic resonates with a lot of readers, I'll try to post some of the comments here as well as in the comment section:
William Weber writes:
I am from Flint. I will always believe in the positive outcomes that the union has achieved for workers (including the world famous sit down strike in 1936-1937). We are all better today because of what unions have accomplished. However, I do believe that what started out as a necessary grass roots movement to protect workers and ensure fair working conditions, has now transformed into a way for union leadership to make outrageous wages and screw the people they represent, the companies they operate in, and the general public. It's no longer about what is fair and just. It's now about how much can I get, how can I sue for breach of contract, and what's in it for me. Most of the people I know and speak with are very anti-union, and I live in California. If the current trend continues, and the leadership continues to operate in this way, well, let's just say that unions will mostly disappear. I feel sad about that because the workers will no longer have a voice or representation. I certainly don't buy into the theory that the recession has anything to do with it. I hope that all unions throw out their current leadership and align themselves with the reasons that unions were established. Regardless, I will always look for the "Union Label."
The general public's view of unions has been influenced by two patterns of behavior. These may be more common in recent decades than in earlier times, or maybe are just better publicized now:
1. Some unions have been more focused on the near-term gains of their current members than the ability of the companies with whom they're associated to compete effectively. Among other effects, this results in companies failing, and the US becoming uncompetitive internationally.
2. Some unions in sole-provider roles, such as those associated with essential governmental services, regulated utilities, sole commercial providers of essential quasi-governmental services, and socially essential commercial services have been willing to use their social leverage to extract increases in total compensation that are much greater than the average rate of inflation, thereby increasing their compensation relative to the rest of society while increasing the tax or cost burden on the rest of society.
Some of the general public see these behaviors as an abandonment of the original union concept of protect-the-workers-from-uncaring-management, and its replacement with raise-up-our-members-screw-everyone-else. Naturally, this perception results in pushback on the part of the screwees, who see such unionism as greedy and anti-patriotic.
In parts of the country where social duty and patriotism are regarded especially highly, i.e. southern and western states, it's become quite difficult to get workers to unionize even though the national union makes a strong argument that it would be able to achieve an increase in their compensation. My guess is that this problem for the union movement will continue until unions internalize that it's more important for the US and its individual companies to be economically competitive than for their members to have compensation increases, and that compensation increases at a rate greater than inflation in fact result in social harm.
My father was an organizer for John L. Lewis's coal miners union in the twenties when it was a very hazardous undertaking. The company goons made it difficult to hold meetings in church basements,civic halls or anywhere you could gather the workers to discuss the merits of unionizing. This was in Penn. and W.Virginia. I recall him once saying that one of their tactics was slipping a pistol cartridge into your coat pocket as a warning or causing some disruption to break up those meetings. He was young and mean and stuck with it because he was a believer in the .
He came to Michigan and worked in the auto factories in Detroit when jobs were easy to get. Moved to Flint and became an employee of Consumers Power Co. after working at local auto factories. He used his organizing ability to unite the workers at the utility company, and to form the first union there under the "UAW" banner with the approval of the President of the CIO (Congress of ), which later became the UWUA ( ) this was in 1939-40.
He and four other organizers became regional directors and organized the rest of the United States. Region five included the state of Michigan which was his patch. Besides Consumers Powers, the rest of this state, including private utility companies was organized with the exception of which was IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). After almost forty years of being local 101 President he retired from Consumers Power Company with thirteen years active seniority!
The many justified reasons for which unionism was based upon, and I can name a bunch, have morphed into some unreasonable demands and lack of leadership quality-elitism being one of them. My father was dismayed by the manner in which things had deteriorated before he passed on in the late eighties after being a pillar in this movement. He did his part for the betterment of the worker rights when his efforts were more appreciated. He is a member of "Who's Who in American Labor" and I'm very proud of his tenacity and achievement.