A mixed bag of high approval, declining membership, and stubbornly low wages greets a proud but anxious workforce, as Americans prepare to step away from their jobs this Labor Day weekend.
According to a Gallup poll released this week ahead of Monday’s federal holiday, 64% of Americans say they approve of unions, a dramatic increase of 16% over a record-low figure registered in 2009.
This marks the third consecutive year that more than 60% of the poll’s respondents have expressed support for unions, and this year’s survey saw labor unions garner their fourth-highest approval rate of the past 50 years. Americans held higher opinions of unions in March 1999 (66%), August 1999 (65%), and August 2003 (65%).
“Higher public support for unions in the past few years likely reflects the relatively good economic conditions in place, particularly low unemployment,” Gallup said in a statement released with its findings.
“By contrast, the lowest union approval ratings in Gallup history came from 2009 through 2012, years of high unemployment that followed the Great Recession.”
This year is something of a milestone: It’s the 125th anniversary of Labor Day, a holiday dating back to President Grover Cleveland’s signing in 1894 of a law to create a federal holiday to honor and celebrate the nation’s working people.
Gallup noted that over decades of measuring the public’s opinion toward organized labor, from 1936 through 1967, positive attitudes consistently exceeded 60%. From 1967 onward, positive views tracked about 10% lower on average and rarely exceeded 60%.
Gallup said Americans of all stripes and political persuasions — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — all view unions more favorably than they did at the low point a decade or so ago.
“Democrats (82%) remain far more likely than Republicans (45%) to approve of unions,” Gallup said, adding that those positive views are double-digits higher than in 2009.
Yet for all the upbeat feeling associated with unions, membership is on a downward spiral, falling by about half over the past 35 years, according to a Pew Research Center fact sheet released on Thursday to coincide with the Labor Day weekend.
“Union membership peaked in 1954 at nearly 35% of all U.S. workers (excluding the self-employed), but in 2018 the unionization rate was just 10.5%,” wrote Drew DeSilver at Pew.
According to figures complied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), union membership dropped by 0.2% to 14.7 million workers last year, little change from 2017. By comparison, however, union membership rate was 20.1% in 1983, the first year for which the BLS has comparable figures, and there were 17.7 million union workers.
What’s more, the BLS reported that a persistently stubborn wage gap separates some groups of workers from their colleagues. For example, women are paid just 85 cents for every dollar men are paid. White males have a higher median hourly wage ($21) than every other racial, ethnic, or gender subgroup except Asian men ($24).
“The wage gap between young workers with college degrees and their less-educated counterparts is the widest in decades,” the BLS reported, noting that despite the high cost of college attendance young college graduates fare better than young people with only a high school degree or less.
Specifically, the bureau found that in the July survey period, only 2.2% of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher were unemployed, compared to 3.6% for adults with only a high school diploma and 5.1% for adults who didn’t graduate from high school.
“While unemployment among all groups has fallen since the depths of the Great Recession to levels not seen since the 1960s, it’s still true that the higher someone’s educational attainment is, the more likely they are to have a job.”
All this job-related data tends to take a backseat to other holiday weekend news that serves as another indicator of the nation’s economy: Labor Day sales.
It’s only true, of course, if one is well employed enough to take advantage of retailers’ mark-downs, but as USA Today reported recently, “the glorious long weekend … also happens to be a fantastic shopping holiday.”