By Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org
Vice President Joe Biden may have delivered a fiery speech in support of unions at a Labor Day appearance in Detroit, but a Gallup poll released just days before painted a sobering picture for union backers.
When asked if they would vote for right-to-work laws, 71 percent of Americans in the national survey said they would. That number included 65 percent of Democrats.
What’s more, the national figure is 9 percent higher than in 1957, when the U.S. economy was riding a post-war wave that saw union participation at record numbers:
The Gallup survey came out last Thursday and showed a political divide when it came to opinions about labor unions, with 77 percent of Democrats approving and 57 percent of Republicans disapproving. Independents approved of unions by a 47-40 margin.
When specifically asked about approving of right-to-work laws, even Democrats came out in favor by a 35-point margin:
“People may not have completely understood the question, but beyond that, I think (the Gallup poll) reflects the decreasing presence and powers of unions in the country,” Joseph Slater, law professor and labor expert at the University of Toledo, told Watchdog.org. “They haven’t gotten their message out to people who are skeptical of unions.”
Some 24 states have right-to-work laws, which gives employees the right to decide for themselves whether or not to join or financially support a union. Michigan — where Biden spoke on Monday — in 2012 became the most recent state to pass right-to-work legislation, even though Michigan is considered the cradle of the labor movement in the United States.
Supporters say right-to-work laws ensure personal freedom and attract businesses and point to the booming states of North Dakota and Texas as examples.
Detractors call the laws “right-to-work-for-less” and point to the generally higher level of pay and benefits workers receive in states that don’t have the law in place.
The political battle lines are forming for potentially more states to join the right-to-work contingent.
Earlier this year, Missouri legislators engaged in a fierce fight to pass a right-to-work bill, but it fell four votes shy in the state House of Representatives.
This November, Republicans in the Kentucky Legislature hope to take the state House for the first time since 1921 and want to pass right-to-work legislation.
On Sunday, a statewide poll of registered voters in Kentucky showed 55 percent approving of a right-to-work bill.
“Unions were good things when workers were treated terribly, like having to work 15-hour days, but unions now, from what I read, are about raising a lot of money,” Glenda Dryden, a clerk in the Madison County sheriff’s office, told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “People should be able to work without having to join unions.”
But Fred Zegelien, a Clark County actor, disagreed.
“If you are going to receive the benefits from a union, you should pay the dues,” he said.
In New Mexico, both the state House and Senate passed right-to-work laws in 1979 and 1981 but Gov. Bruce King, a Democrat, vetoed the bills each time.
This November, New Mexico Republicans hope to take the state House for the first time since 1952, which would bolster the chances of a right-to-work bill. However, Democrats hold a sizeable majority in the state Senate.
Union supporters can point to one positive sign in the Gallup survey: Overall approval of labor unions has ticked up five points in the last five years. On the other hand, approval has been trending downward since reaching 75 percent approval in the 1950s:
Slater said the U.S. labor movement is heading in two different directions. Traditional union membership in industries like manufacturing has cratered. It only accounts for about 6 percent of the labor force. Meanwhile, public sectors unions representing government workers are on the increase. Slater says about 40 percent of public employees such as police, firefighters and teachers are unionized.
“Union labor in the public sector, I would say, is robust,” Slater said. “Union labor in the private sector is getting close to being on life support.”