You might think that during an economic crisis that leads to job loss, workers might begin to think more positively about unions, seeing them as a possible buffer that would keep each individual worker from being completely on his or her own. But Nate Silver, over at FiveThirtyEight, posted a graph showing the relationship between the unemployment rate and public support for labor unions, based on historical data that goes back as far as 1948, and it’s distinctly negative:
Of course, support for unions has been decreasing in general since World War II, so some of the trend is likely due to that. But Silver says that even after controlling for the overall downward trend in support for organized labor, we see:
…a decrease in approval of 2.1 points for unions for every point increase in unemployment. Both relationships [this one, and the model without taking the overall downward trend into account] are highly statistically significant.
So what would explain this? The obvious answer would be that people must in some way blame unions for job loss–perhaps believing that they have negotiated pay and benefits that are too high and as a result have driven companies out of the U.S., causing people to lose jobs.
Or maybe some workers who were in unions blame them for not negotiating hard enough to keep their jobs–perhaps as people lose jobs, or see those around them losing theirs, they feel that their unions didn’t do everything possible to save their jobs, that union leaders got scared and gave in to corporate demands to allow layoffs. That might explain the decrease in support for some, though today unionization is low enough that it’s not enough to have a large impact on overall levels of support.
Another possible explanation is that during a time of rising unemployment, people simply feel they can’t afford to support unions–that they need a job now, and they’ll oppose unions and collective bargaining if they think that makes it less likely that employers will be hiring. In that case, they may not be blaming unions for unemployment directly, but may think that unions are a luxury that just have to be discarded when you’re desperate, individually or as a nation.
Jamie — September 8, 2009
I'm currently frustrated with unions because a job I was next in line for has been held up by the union ... I've been waiting for the union to finish 'processing' it for four months, and in the mean time I've been doing temp work to get by. Their bureaucracy is hard to swallow when your livelihood is on the line.
George — September 8, 2009
Unions are designed to protect people who already have a job, and are therefore part of the union. These are also usually skilled workers. They act to protect jobs and increase benefits for members, but make more difficult to hire new employees, especially unskilled workers.
For example, if a union negotiates a high minimum wage and a set of benefits that must be given to each new employee, the company has an incentive to hire fewer new employees. Moreover those new employees must meet higher standards in order to be valuable enough to be worth paying the union negotiated wages and benefits. It becomes much more difficult to take a chance on a person you may like, but who is inexperienced.
E.M. — September 8, 2009
I've been a union organizer for several years now and my personal experience is it's the last. It's the "I'm just lucky to have a job - any job - right now" mentality.
I've never actually heard the second reason as an explanation for why someone didn't want to form a union at their workplace; and I've only ever heard the first reason a few times. When organizing workers where there's a shortage so there's actually very high demand despite the unemployment rate (certain types of healthcare workers for example) I don't hear any of these. In that case if a person doesn't want to be in a union, it's "I can negotiate my own salary without the union."
Of course, this is a small sample size. :-)
Sighter — September 8, 2009
I'm all for organized labor, I want to make that plain. But we do ourselves a disservice by not at least MENTIONING the possible basic economics problem behind this observed phenomena.
It can be done simply. Make a supply and demand chart with one line sloping down (the demand -- as price of labor drops, quantity demanded rises), and one line sloping up (the supply -- as price of labor rises, quantity supplied goes up). Where they meet is the logical point where suppliers of labor and employers of labor can maximize both the cost of labor and the cost of labor supplied.
Then draw a horizontal line across the chart, above the intersection. By collectively negotiating a wage above market value (or a benefit that acts like a wage increase, such as paid leave), a worker manage to secure himself or herself a good-paying job. But the amount demanded is now smaller, because the price makes it prohibitive to hire more people. And at this price, the supply of labor is higher too -- but the horizontal line represents the number of workers willing to work at this price, but who can't get into the market.
I think there are ample reasons to support collective bargaining, but we really need to be aware of this pretty simple issue instead of sort of goggling at this sort of data like it is mind-blowing. The reasons why people might oppose unions during unemployment are simple, pocketbook-oriented, incentive-driven reasons. We have to show them why, in the long run, society is better off with unions than without.
And we should start, I think, with narratives -- I'm thinking Norma Jean? Talking about concrete working conditions, as opposed to simply the extra amount you'll bring home, is a good place to start.
Dan Lyke — September 9, 2009
Long ago I had a manual labor job, and I promised myself when I left that that never again would I work in a place that had a union. That was in relatively good times, but I'd imagine that workers are looking at a structure which prevents them from making their workplace more efficient, that prevents the employer from rewarding innovation, and are realizing that in a global market for labor that model no longer works.
In the intervening years I've several times run across union literature, and it's always setting up a "labor vs management" attitude. If companies, especially in times of economic stress, are better communicating that "we're all on the same team", then of course workers are going to find unions less attractive.
It's no longer "us against management", it's "us and management against our Chinese (or whatever) competition".
Gregor J. Rothfuss — September 12, 2009
Gallup finds organized labor taking a significant image hit in the past year. While 66% of Americans continue to believe unions are beneficial to their own members, a slight majority now say unions hurt the nation's economy. More broadly, fewer than half of Americans -- 48%, an all-time low -- approve of labor unions, down from 59% a year ago.
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