Understanding the changing landscape of American labor unions
Photo by Andras Adam | Unsplash
With recent Writers Guild of America and United Auto Workers strikes, labor unions have been in the public eye more and more in recent months, but public perception of American labor unions has been changing for much longer.
Americans’ approval rate of unions hit 71 percent in 2022, the highest since 1965 and a massive improvement over the last decade and a half, according to a Gallup poll. In 2009, just 48 percent of Americans approved of unions, according to Gallup.
Furthermore, a poll conducted by GBAO and commissioned by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States, showed an approval rate of 88 percent from people under 30 earlier this year.
But even with the growing news coverage of strikes and union activities, many people still don’t know what unions do, says Brandon Dew, district representative for Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 in Utah.
“I think even with those statistics, I don’t think that people in general understand unions, and that is what we do and how we benefit things as a whole,” Dew says. “So I think there’s a messaging problem there for sure.”
What does a labor union do?
Unions advocate for higher pay, improved benefits and safer working conditions. Wage inequality is probably the top union motivator in the current labor market, but it’s working conditions that might be somewhat overlooked by the general public.
Dew says he’s heard from some people that unions had a time and place, but “that time has passed,” and workplaces are now safe, eliminating the necessity of unions.
“I guess I would argue that ‘Has the time passed?’ We now have child labor that has been brought back into states because we have populations that aren’t fulfilling,” he says. “So now we have states that are allowing younger people to go into meatpacking plants and other very dangerous jobs.”
In March, the Economic Policy Institute published a report stating that the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws was up 37 percent, and at least 10 states had introduced or passed laws altering child labor protections.
Wage inequality is likely to be workers’ top current concern, says University of Utah Associate Professor of History and Gender Studies Matthew Basso.
“When they think about their own pocketbooks, they’re looking at the really massive wealth inequality in the United States, something that we know has been growing dramatically,” Basso says. “They see, obviously, headline folks like billionaires, … but they also just see a smaller portion of Americans doing really, really well, and they don’t feel like they’re being rewarded for their hard work.”
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reports that through March of 2023, the top 10 percent of households had 69 percent of the total household wealth in the U.S. The bottom 50 percent had just 2.4 percent of the wealth.
The legislative power of approval ratings
Unions are not universally praised. Gallup research found that 53 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of independents disapproved of unions in 2023. Favorability among Republicans actually surpassed 50 percent for the first time this century in 2022, at 56 percent, but that was immediately followed by a drop of nine percentage points in 2023.
"Today, Utah has one of the lowest rates of union participation in the country—3.9 percent in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Beyond Utah, despite union favorability on the rise, the unionization rate hit a record low of 10.1 percent in 2022, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year the BLS collected data. For union advocates, reversing that trend could be a long process."
Opponents of unions often believe that unions hurt businesses. A study from the Economic Policy Institute found that when taking benefits into account, unions raise unionized workers’ wages and compensation by about 28 percent, which can be a significant shift for a company.
Those union opponents have in the past controlled public perception through anti-union campaigns and hampered union influence through legislation, Dew says. For example, Utah repealed its state prevailing wage law in 1981. At the time, Americans’ approval of unions was consistently between 50 and 60 percent, according to Gallup.
A prevailing wage “is the basic hourly rate of wages and benefits paid to a number of similarly employed workers in a given geography,” as defined by the Center for American Progress. Federal acts require contractors and subcontractors to pay locally prevailing wages and provide benefits, and about half of the U.S. states and some cities have their own prevailing wage laws, according to the Center for American Progress.
A dozen years after the law was repealed, a 1993 report from the University of Utah Economics Department reported that the repeal “accelerated the decline in the union share of the state’s construction labor market, drove down average construction wages in the state, and decreased union apprenticeship training for construction.”
Today, Utah has one of the lowest rates of union participation in the country—3.9 percent in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Beyond Utah, despite union favorability on the rise, the unionization rate hit a record low of 10.1 percent in 2022, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year the BLS collected data. For union advocates, reversing that trend could be a long process.
“I don’t see that the major law change will actually happen anytime soon, even under the Biden administration, because I think the Trump administration changed a lot of legal staff, so many judges in the Supreme Court, everywhere. They were replaced by more conservative views,” says Eunice Sookyung Han, an economics professor at the University of Utah specializing in labor unions and educational policy. “So trying to reverse that trend is happening, but I’m not sure it’s going to be very successful.”
It remains to be seen how increased media attention will change union approval rates or spur any change in participation. The strikes of 2023, like the Writers Guild strike, could have an impact, but Han doesn’t think it will be negative.
“I think it’s more positive toward general public opinion than negative, but again, pro-business will always perceive this as anti-business,” she says.
Dew is optimistic that viewpoint can be overcome, citing 40 percent growth in the Operating Engineers Local No. 3 since 2014.
“I would argue that that’s hard work by the union itself, going out and showing value to contractors because we as a union, the operating engineers, believe that it’s not an us vs. them mentality with the employer,” he says. “It’s us as a partnership with the employer.”
Dew, who worked as a heavy-duty repairman mechanic, says unions can help “find a qualified workforce and make sure that our employers have the best people that can be productive and earn that good wage and benefit.”
Utah’s 10-year percentage decrease in union membership between 2010 and 2020 was one of the largest in the country, according to 24/7 Wall St. Still, union membership increased from 3.5 to 3.9 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to BLS figures. Dew believes the trend can still be reversed.
“I have a very optimistic hope that unionization is going to grow within this country,” he says. “I believe we’re seeing it grow here in the state of Utah and our union.”