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Majority of American private-sector workers won’t join union because of politics

A strong majority of American private sector workers do not want unions to engage in politics and want a more collaborative relationship between employers and employees, according to a new poll commissioned by American Compass and conducted by YouGov.

Despite polling data from Gallup showing unions are more popular than they have been in years, in the YouGov poll only 35% of workers who are not in a union said they would vote to join one. The top reason respondents gave for not wanting to join a union? Union political engagement. 

Of the respondents who said they would vote against joining a union, 75% gave union political involvement as a reason. Other reasons receiving strong support were the cost of dues at 73%, union corruption at 66%, and union defense of bad employees at 65%.

This shows a gap between what people think about the abstract idea of employees organizing to get better pay and benefits, versus the reputation of unions in America today as being corrupt, political organizations.

Respondents were also asked whether unions should speak out on issues like education reform, immigration, sexual harassment, and racial justice – issues listed as priorities by the AFL-CIO and SEIU. Of the 19 issues listed, none of them received a majority of support as issues the unions should lobby for, including issues that directly affect employees like workplace health and safety and a minimum wage increase.

A strong majority of respondents – 59% – said they similarly didn’t want employers to engage on social justice issues.

Across all economic categories – from working class to upper class – employees said they had an excellent or good relationship with their employer. Fewer than one in 10 workers said they had a poor relationship. 

For workers identified as “potential union members” – 77% said they would rather be represented by fellow workers, compared to 23% who said they favored an outside organization. Half of employees and potential union members said they would prefer to deal with management directly than going through a collective body.

On public versus private sector unions, 77% of respondents felt the same about all unions, while 16% said they were more favorable toward private sector unions, and 7% said they were more favorable toward public sector unions.

American Compass is using the results of the survey to continue to push for sectoral bargaining, despite any indication that this change would benefit employees. Sectoral bargaining allows unions to bargain for wages and and working conditions across an occupation or industry. Scholars at American Compass have proposed a grand bargain or sorts for changes to federal labor law –eliminate political spending by unions, but give unions greater access to employees through sectoral bargaining.

There are clear problems with sectoral bargaining, but the biggest problem with this proposal is its utter impracticality. To think the political left would agree to a bargain that would cut off a major source of its funding is incredibly naïve. The labor leaders who would supposedly endorse this bargain have been groomed as political ideologues. How do you change the culture of unions to create apolitical, collaborative organizations? It certainly won’t happen because of a change in federal labor law. It has to happen from the bottom up.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.

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