Why Do We Love Unions When Almost None Of Us Can Join One?

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A recent Gallup poll shows that more Americans approve of unions than did in 1965. But the same survey shows that very few of us can join a union. Why?

Gallup: More Americans approve of unions, but so few of us can actually join one.

A 2022 Gallup poll says Americans give unions their highest approval rating since 1965. A super majority of us, 71%, agree that unions are good. And for one of the largest segments of our workforce, people between 18 and 34, approval of unions is even higher, 72%, making them, according to Harold Myerson of the American Prospect, the most pro-union generations since the 1930s and 40s.

Considering how popular the idea of unionization is with Millennials and Gen Zers, it is stunning to learn another key finding from that same Gallup poll: Only 3% of them actually belong to a union.

How is something that is as popular as union membership also so remotely inaccessible to so many? Please consider these high points.

Millennials and GenZers are the most pro-union generations since the 1930s and 40s

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While 72% of Millennials and GenZers approve of unions—represented by the Freedom Tower, built in New York entirely by union labor—a mere 3% of them actually belong to one.

The People with the Power Use it to Keep the Power

The main reason that unionization is rare in America today is because very powerful, rich people see unions as their adversaries. These union-haters own and run businesses, or profit from them as shareholders, or receive corporate largess in the form of political donation or funding. They have worked for decades to minimize union influence through a successful two-plank strategy.

The first plank has been to taint our perception of unions. They have worked to convince Americans that unions are actually bad for us and the country. For decades corporate managers, through their media mouthpieces, have portrayed union members as thugs, as lazy opportunists, and as un-American. These bosses and their political lapdogs have blamed unions for low productivity, and for high prices.

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Posters at Delta and Amazon encourage workers to vote against unionization with misleading arguments about dues and benefits. They decry money out of your pocket while they pad their own (see charts below). These are well-documented arguments of union-busters.

The Data Doesn't Lie

But today, these anti-union arguments have finally worn thin with the American public. We’ve watched union membership dwindle and corporate profits skyrocket—even during our current inflationary period. We’ve seen the people who make up just 10% of our population seize more than 50% of our gross national income—the largest income disparity since just before the Great Depression.

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As unions are weakened by insidious laws and powerful people, the middle class struggles and the rich get much, much richer.

Two charts from the Economic Policy Institute reveal the relationship between union strength and the income level of the middle class compared to the top wage earners. As unions are weakened, the rich get much, much richer.

Meanwhile we’ve seen unions fight for the safety of exploited workers, defend workers against corporate wage theft, argue for humane working conditions, and strive to win fair pay for fair work. These fights shed light on the reality that many workplaces need strong union representation. The old corporate portrayals of unions are more than out-of-step with what we believe, they’re laughable. Case in point: 71% of Americans approve of unions.

That data point should strike fear in the hearts of those who seek to hand-cuff unions. But they take solace in the second plank of their decades-long anti-union campaign, which has been even more successful and intractable. The same people who sought to smear unions have also done much to cripple workers’ legal and practical ability to organize. Though most workers may want unions, in many places, unionization is virtually impossible.

A majority of US states, 27, have enacted so-called right-to-work laws. Supporters of right-to-work say the laws protect workers from being forced to join a union. But federal law already does that. The real purpose of right-to-work is to make it harder for workers to form unions and collectively bargain with management.

Right-to-work lowers union membership by requiring that all non-union employees at unionized companies also enjoy the benefits that have been negotiated by unions, without having to also contribute to or be a member of the union. “Free-riders” is what they’re appropriately called.

This free-ride drives more people to reject joining a union. Why bother with dues and meetings if you’ll get the benefits anyway? Shrinking unions then have less negotiating power. Their bargaining results become weaker as a result. Workers then see unions as being less effective, and so even fewer people join them. This evolution is how many unions disappeared over the years in right-to-work states.

This history presaged the financial tragedy that afflicts our economy today. Right-to-work laws create higher income disparity between management and workers, according to a 2020 study published in the American Journal of Sociology.

Please think about the straight line in that history, from cause to effect, who drove the result and who benefitted from it. Powerful, wealthy people enlisted the help of media and pols to write and enact anti-union laws in 27 states, laws that were recently calcified by the Supreme Court, that put more money in their own pockets. These are the wealthiest 10% who already take 50% of the income pie.

Meanwhile, the workers, restrained from unionizing in insidious ways, continue to fight for the right to take a bathroom break or to be fairly paid for all the hours they’ve worked.

These facts explain why 72% of American Millennials and Gen Zers—soon to be America’s largest voting segment—approve of unions and why only 3% belong to one.

Right-to-work is wrong for America. Support unions. Support builders, business-people, politicians and leaders who support unions.

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