Labor unions are more popular than ever. A recent Gallup poll found support for unions at 71%, the highest it has been since Gallup started asking the question in 1965. 

They are enjoying a comeback thanks to highly visible organizing campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon, a tight labor market and concerns around COVID-19 in the workplace. But can their popularity last?

With so few workers belonging to unions anymore, it may be that today’s workforce likes the idea of unions, even if they don’t fully understand the good and bad consequences of employment in a unionized workplace. The number of workers in the private sector who are represented by unions has declined for years. In 2021, that number was only 6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

American unions look a lot different today than they did in their heyday. The old image of a working-class laborer is no longer representative of the majority of union members. Today, a unionized employee is more likely to work as a teacher or university professor in the public sector, where 34% of employees are unionized. 

This shift from blue-collar to white-collar employees, and from the private sector to the public sector, has meant changes in how union leadership behaves. With more government employees as union members, union leaders have a bigger incentive to try to increase their membership by growing the size of government. 

You can see this playing out in how unions spend their money. Unions are among the biggest donors to the Democratic Party and to progressive causes. 

The National Education Association, using its members’ dues, spent twice as much on politics last year as it did on representing its members — $18 million compared to $9 million, according to a union report filed with the federal Department of Labor. Most of that money went to left-leaning candidates or causes. Open Secrets pegged union spending in the 2016 election at $217 million, with 90% of that money going to Democrats — putting them out of sync with many of their members. 

Potential union members don’t like union engagement in politics, according to a survey of 3,000 working-age adults by the conservative think tank American Compass. The survey found the No. 1 reason workers said they would vote against unionization was union political involvement.

There are good things that come from workers organizing, to be sure. Having a united, coherent voice on workplace issues can help employees who feel ignored or poorly treated by their employers. And collective bargaining can — with the right approach — lead to better outcomes for workers and for employers. But American unions haven’t always shown that they make the lives of workers better, especially because of their adversarial approach to workplace issues. 

Unfortunately, unions have found they have an incentive to keep employees angry and unsatisfied, in order to keep them convinced they need union representatives to help them. Case in point: A “vision” board at a North Carolina Association of Educators conference in August listed “grow locals through conflict,” as one of the association’s goals. 

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A survey of teachers conducted earlier this year found only 12% were satisfied with their jobs. But teachers are among the most highly unionized employees in the country. Clearly there is a disconnect here. 

There is also some question about whether unions actually help workers get better pay. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show an overall pay premium for unionized employees, but that bump almost evaporates when cost of living and union dues are factored in. (Employees are more likely to be unionized in high-cost states like California and New York.) The picture also becomes less clear when you look at worker pay by industry

The Gallup poll had some other interesting findings. Unionized workers said they were happy to be in unions, while nonunion workers, even those who support unions generally, said they were unlikely to vote to join a union. Union employees were also found to be less engaged at work than those not in a union. 

Starbucks workers aside, the Gallup poll doesn’t seem to indicate that a union revival is coming anytime soon. That could change if unions showed a willingness to evolve from being adversarial and political, and instead put workers first.  

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