Today, the publics feeling toward labor is more positive, and public feeling toward big business more negative, than at any time in five decades.
Between 1964, when the American National Election Studies (ANES) began collecting data, and 2012, Americans’ sentiment toward labor unions and big business trended together, each suffering public opinion surges and dips in tandem. But by 2016, these sentiments had unlinked: Americans’ feelings toward big business chilled, while feelings toward labor unions warmed. ANES just released data from late 2020, and it reveals that this post-2012 trend continued into the pandemic.
Looking across generations, Americans born after 1975 have particularly strong positive feelings toward labor unions over big business.
Democrats and independents have always felt more positively toward labor unions and less positively toward big business than Republicans, and that pro-union sentiment has risen to record heights since 2012. But even among Republicans, the union versus big business sentiment gap rose quickly between 2012 and 2016, and hit a record high in 2020.
Unions also help workers establish and leverage a collective voice to raise concerns and demand better protections, making them especially valuable to workers when the Covid-19 pandemic has upended long-held expectations of workplace norms. Indeed, evidence from the pandemic suggests that union members had safer workplace practices and conditions than non-union members, and risk of Covid led to greater interest in unionization.
The combination of the public’s heightened interest in unions and the widening representation gap underscores how biased our current labor laws have become against workers.
New legislation – like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act– can help rebalance bargaining power in the labor market, supporting workers’ ability to bargain on more-equal terms with representatives of concentrated wealth. If passed, the PRO Act would repeal state laws that undermine unions, institute tougher penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights to organize, and recognize gig workers’ right to collectively bargain.
Independent of the PRO Act’s legislative future, the swelling public support for labor and simultaneous declining support for big business suggests a transformational shift in terrain.
Information and data from Guardian 2021