September 7, 2022

Americans ‘Approve’ of Unions, but They Don’t Want to Belong to One

Union membership has been falling for decades. Today, only 1 in 10 Americans belongs to a union.

The advent of Labor Day generally brings a round of cheerleading for unions, and this year was no exception.

“Unions are on a roll,” exulted E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. “Unions are cool again,” proclaimed CBS News. “Unions are at last on the rise again,” Vox reported happily. Pro-union activists and pundits were especially encouraged by a new Gallup poll, which found that 71 percent of Americans say they approve of unions, the highest level recorded since 1965.

There’s no question that organized labor has racked up some impressive wins over the past year, above all the fast-moving campaign to unionize Starbucks coffee shops. Since December, employees at more than 220 Starbucks locations have voted to join the Workers United union, while those at another 100 or so have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections. In the first three-quarters of the current fiscal year, unions filed petitions with the NLRB seeking to represent 1,573 American workplaces. Nearly 20 percent of them were for Starbucks. That is an abnormally high level of union activity for a single employer, and a major component of the organizing surge that labor activists have been celebrating.

There have been a few other high-profile union wins. In April, an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., became the first workplace in the company’s history to unionize. An Apple Store in Maryland voted to form a union in June, another first. Likewise a Chipotle restaurant in Michigan last month.

But does that add up to unions being “at last on the rise again”? Not even close.

Seven in 10 Americans may tell Gallup that they approve of labor unions, but only 1 in 10 belongs to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Within the private sector, union membership is even rarer — just 6.1 percent in 2021. That number has been dropping for decades. It was 17 percent in 1983 and nearly 36 percent in 1953. In the abstract, the public may be favorably disposed toward unions. As a practical matter, union membership holds no interest for most Americans.

In Gallup’s new survey, only 11 percent of nonunion employees describe themselves as “extremely interested” in joining a union, while 58 percent say they are “not interested at all.” The spate of union elections around the country in recent months has gotten tons of media attention, but that doesn’t alter a brute fact: The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t belong to a labor union and most don’t want to join one.

From January through July of this year, there were 826 union elections in US workplaces employing 41,000 potential union members. “Even if the unions had won all those votes,” CNN noted in a Labor Day story, “it would be a drop in the bucket among the estimated 105 million workers at US businesses who don’t belong to a union.” Organizing baristas to request union representation at 200-plus Starbucks coffee shops in a matter of months is a remarkable achievement, but the company has more than 15,000 locations in the United States. And in nearly 50 of the Starbucks elections to date, the employees voted not to unionize.

During an appearance on Monday at the Greater Boston Labor Council’s annual Labor Day breakfast, Vice President Kamala Harris repeated President Biden’s frequent pledge to “lead the most pro-union administration in America’s history” and lambasted “extremist so-called leaders [who] are fighting to turn back the clock to a time before workers had the freedom to organize.” Such rhetoric draws applause at union breakfasts. But how salient is it to a 21st-century workforce that no longer regards union membership as the best or only ticket to economic security?

Unions didn’t decline over the past two or three generations because reactionary legislators passed laws to cripple them or because evil employers had too much power. They declined because in the eyes of most working Americans, especially those not on a government payroll, they grew obsolete and irrelevant.

“Unions flourished during the era of assembly lines and standardization, when schedules were rigid and outputs, employees, and even customers were expected to be identical,” write Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie and Regan Taylor. “As everything in our lives becomes more personalized, it only makes sense unions would fade, which is exactly what’s happened.”

In 2022, Americans approve of labor unions the way they approve of running marathons or enlisting in the military: admirable in theory, fine for those so inclined, but not something they choose for themselves. We’re not in 1953 anymore. Not even 1983. The unions’ heyday is over, and it won’t be coming back.

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