Public support for unions solid

New Gallup poll finds firm U.S. majority backs unions, with approval rising

Members of the United Steelworkers union await President Trump on his visit to the U.S. Steel Granite City Works earlier this summer. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Members of the United Steelworkers union await President Trump on his visit to the U.S. Steel Granite City Works earlier this summer. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

In the face of persistent attacks on unions and adverse Supreme Court decisions, a new poll finds public support for union workers steady and rising.

The Gallup poll, released Thursday, found that 62 percent of the U.S. public approves of unions, up a notch from 61 percent a year ago. But before that the annual poll had to go back to 2003 to find three-fifths approval for unions.

There was surprising agreement across all demographics. Men, women, young adults, middle-aged, older, college-educated and those without degrees, in all regions of the country: all showed majority support for unions, usually three-fifths.

Only Republicans sided against unions, and that by a slim margin of 47 percent to 45, with 8 percent holding no opinion.

The poll goes back to 1936, with unions in their heyday in the mid-'50s, when 75 percent of the U.S. public supported them. Support only slipped below 60 percent in the late '70s and early '80s before climbing back above in the late 1990s and early 2000s, hitting 65 percent in 2003. 

Union support suffered under the George W. Bush administration, and bottomed out below a majority at 48 percent in 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession, when all workers, union and nonunion, feared for their jobs. But it's now back above three-fifths two years running.

A solid plurality would like to see union influence grow: 39 percent, with 29 percent thinking unions should exert less influence and 26 percent thinking it should stay the same. But there's little optimism. A majority, 51 percent, believe union influence will wane, with 19 percent believing that unions will grow stronger, and 24 percent thinking union influence will stay the same.

No doubt about it, unions have been under attack, in Illinois and nationwide. The U.S. Supreme Court's Janus decision in June undermined the ability of public-worker unions to collect so-called fair-share fees. The Illinois Economic Policy Institute forecast that would eventually cut the salaries of police officers, firefighters, and teachers by 3.6 percent, with an effect on the private sector as well resulting in a $33 billion drain on the U.S. economy.

The political effect of the court decision was almost instantaneous. Gov. Bruce Rauner immediately used it to set up a state website encouraging public workers to drop out of unions, and just this week the like-minded, conservative Illinois Policy Institute staged a public mail and internet campaign urging teachers and other public workers to opt out of union membership.

Rauner also vetoed bills that would have allowed paramedics to unionize for collective bargaining, and another that would have allowed university research workers to unionize.

Given Rauner's antagonism toward unions, it should come as no surprise that, even as hundreds of steelworkers welcomed President Trump to the U.S. Granite City Works this summer after his protective tariffs regained some of their jobs, the local United Steelworkers have already endorsed Rauner's Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker. 

And it's worth noting that Missouri voters rejected a right-to-work law passed by the legislature in a referendum.

 So the union battle wages on, but maybe with a respite this weekend with the Labor Day holiday, adopted by the United States in the 1890s as a way to co-opt the International Workers' Day holiday on May 1.

With that, we wish a happy Labor Day to all One Illinois readers.