Public opinion of labor unions has shifted with America’s economic fortunes. As Americans reeled from the 2007-09 Great Recession, public trust of economic institutions including business, government and labor unions took a plunge. Union approval dropped below 50% for the first time since the 1940s.
By 2020, however, unions crawled back to 65% public approval, though 10 percentage points below peak public support for unions in the 1950s, according to Gallup.
In a 2016 Gallup poll, half of respondents said that organized labor mostly helps the economy, while 41% said it mostly hurts. And in 2018, only 39% of Americans said they would like to see organized labor’s influence grow, while more than half said they’d prefer union influence to remain at the same level or diminish.
This is, in part, due to a changing perception of unions as good for the unionized worker but bad for everyone else. According to a 2018 survey and analysis published by Penn State, organized labor is still largely perceived as “pale, male, and stale” and a drag on the economy.
Californians support bargaining power for workers, with nearly 8 in 10 agreeing that it is important for workers to organize so that employers do not take advantage of them, according to a 2020 PPIC poll. But 7 in 10 say they’re not in a workplace that offers membership in or affiliation with a union, occupation association, worker center, or other group that represents workers.
That broad endorsement for unions, however, didn’t materialize in the Prop. 22 fight: 59% of voters sided with gig companies in keeping workers as freelancers rather than classify them as employees, which would have allowed workers to unionize. Party affiliation was a key indicator.
Today, unions have more traction among younger, minority and lower-income Americans.