Rise in Unemployment Negatively Correlated With Support for Unions

Posted on Categories Labor & Employment Law

Laborsup Have to admit that I was a little taken aback when I saw this post (and chart) from Nate Silver at 538.com:

Gallup recently found sympathy toward labor unions is at an all-time low, at 48 percent. but then again, unemployment is close to its post-WWII highs. Gallup did not happen to ask this question in late 1982 or early 1983, when unemployment exceeded 10 percent. They did ask in August 1981, when unemployment was up to 7.4 percent and rising rapidly, and at that point support for labor was at 55 percent, which was the lowest figure it had achieved before this year’s survey.

The regression line finds that, for every point’s worth of increase in the unemployment rate, approval of labor unions goes down by 2.6 points. Alternatively, we can add a time trend to the regression model, to account for the fact that participation in labor unions has been declining over time. This softens the relationship slightly, but still implies a decrease in approval of 2.1 points for unions for every point increase in unemployment. Both relationships are highly statistically significant.

So why does support for labor unions go down when unemployment rates rise? Here are some possibility, but would love to hear other thoughts from the reader:

1. The Blame Game:  “It is because of unions and their unreasonable demands for higher wages and benefits that American companies are losing jobs to global competition.”

2. We Need More Unions: “The decrease is union support has actually caused higher unemployment rates, not vice versa. If there were more supports for union, we would have a large middle class, greater consumer spending, and more jobs for everyone.”

3. Need More Safety Nets: “Unions have shot themselves in the foot. Rather than working for saftey net legislation like their European peers, unemployment means that those unemployed blame the unions for not helping them negotiate this difficult economic climate.”

4. Resentment of Unions: “When unemployment is high, the non-unionized working class resent unions for giving their members greater job security while they’re left out in the cold.”

There are many more explanations/theories obviously, so please provide your own in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Rise in Unemployment Negatively Correlated With Support for Unions”

  1. Building off of your #4, perhaps another explanation for this trend stems from the composition of labor unions. Labor unions equal public sector employees. The percentage of private sector employees in unions has dwindled, while the number of public sector employees in unions has increased (or at least stabilized). Therefore, most people equate unions with government sector employees who, from the view of the public, have job security and benefits seemingly impervious to economic reality. As unemployment rises, its only natural for the public look at governmental employees (and with them, unions) in a negative light. I suspect the trend would reverse in times of national economic growth.

  2. If you exclude the one outlier (which I take it is now), what happens to the trend? Using “eyeball regression,” my guess is it stabilizes somewhat. If so then what the graph might actually be tracking is decreasing support for unions over time regardless of employment.

  3. Advanced finance and consumer capitalism has spawned a sprawling middle class with largely self-interested goals and aspirations. We shouldn’t be surprised in this context to find that unions and workers in general are being denigrated. I’m struck that media reports concerning Walter E. Ellis, who has been charged with killing at least seven Milwaukee prostitutes routinely identify Ellis as a “factory worker” or “unemployed factory worker.” Why is that?

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