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.