Do Liberals Like Unions?

As right-wing politicians in the U.S. have been on a sustained offensive against organized labor, it has become commonplace for self-identified “conservatives” to lash out at labor unions. But how do those who identify as “liberals” feel about organized labor?

My analysis of the 2012 American National Election Study shows that self-identified “liberals” feel better about unions than one might expect, given the overall weakness of organized labor in the U.S. The ANES “feeling thermometer” asks respondents to rate their feelings about an individual, group, or institution on a temperature scale of 0-100. Here are the responses for unions vs. those for big business:


To get some context for these responses, I’ve also charted average “temperatures” for some of the most liked and least liked groups – middle class people and atheists:


Self-identified “liberals” feel pretty good about unions, as do those with at least one union member in their household, while self-identified “conservatives” feel much better about big business than they do about organized labor. Perhaps one surprise here is that union households feel a bit better about big business than do self-identified “liberals.” I’ll have more to say about this in my next post.

Should those on the political Left support unions? If one believes that extreme economic inequality is a bad thing and that working people deserve decent incomes and safe working conditions, the answer is “yes.” This doesn’t mean that every union always does what is right. Unions in the U.S. have sometimes been guilty of discrimination, corruption, and have sometimes put short-term economic gain for their members ahead of broader working-class solidarity. But the most fundamental fact about capitalism is that every dollar paid for a worker’s wages is a dollar not taken home by a business owner as profit. Business owners make profits by squeezing unpaid labor out of their employees (an argument I explain and defend in a paper recently published in Contemporary Political Theory). There is no mystery about the fact that the incomes of the richest 1% have skyrocketed while wages for ordinary workers have flatlined as union strength has declined. Workers need to be organized in order to fight for their own economic interests, because it is always in their employer’s interest to pay them as little as possible.

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