What do Americans think about labor unions and “right-to-work” policies?
On June 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) case. With the Court’s 5-4 majority decision in favor of the plaintiff, Mark Janus, it struck down the current arrangement that all workers covered by the AFSCME union’s employment contract have to pay some “fair share” dues. That ruling makes a “right-to-work” policy, which allows public union-covered workers to opt out of paying any union dues, the law of the land. It is also anticipated to weaken the power of unions across the United States, especially in the 22 states that have not previously passed “right-to-work” legislation.
In early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, the APM Survey asked a nationally representative survey of American adults what they think about labor unions and the “right-to-work” policy at the heart of the Janus case. The results of the APM Survey indicate Americans are evenly divided about whether union dues should be mandated or the choice of each worker. However, 62 percent of Americans feel the United States would be “better off” if unions were “stronger” compared to only 23 percent who prefer “weaker” unions. On both topics, differences of opinion exist by income, political party, race and more.
Americans are evenly split in their preference for mandating dues or the “right-to-work” option that allows union workers to decide
Americans are evenly split in their preference for “fair share” (mandating some dues of all union workers) as opposed to “right-to-work” (where each worker covered by union contract may opt out of paying dues) policy regarding unionization.
A “right-to-work” approach is favored by higher proportions of those with a high school diploma or less educational attainment, those without direct union membership experience by any member of their household, Republicans, and those living in the South. Among those who support “right-to-work”:
Almost half (46%) indicated they thought it was their personal right or freedom to decide for themselves whether to pay dues. Five percent indicated dues were too expensive.
In general, however, support for “right-to-work” does not indicate anti-union sentiment, as half of those who favor “right-to-work” also indicate that the U.S. would be better off if unions were stronger.
A “fair share” approach is favored by a majority of non-Hispanic Whites, those with at least some college or higher educational attainment, and those living in states that have not adopted “right-to-work” legislation.
Additionally, “fair share” is favored by about 60 percent of those who have direct union experience themselves or through a household member, and those living in North Eastern states. Among those who support “fair share” policies:
About half expressed that they should be paying for the benefits or services they receive from the union, while 15 percent felt that if you choose to sign a union contract or take a union job, then you should pay the dues. Another seven percent mentioned a sense of fairness, that if some people are paying the dues then everyone should have to.
62 percent of Americans wish unions were stronger
A majority of Americans (62%) indicate that “stronger” unions would be better for the country; only one-quarter indicate a preference for “weaker” unions.
More than three-fourths of Latinos and African-Americans, Democrats, and those favoring “fair share” as opposed to “right-to-work” policies wish unions were stronger.
Stronger unions are preferred by at least two-thirds of women, those age 18-44, those with an associate’s degree or less education, and those with annual household incomes below $50,000.
Weaker unions are preferred by at least one-third of those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more, Republicans, and those favoring "right-to-work” policies over a “fair share” approach to unionization.
The APM Survey found that roughly 12 percent of current full-time workers are unionized, and five percent of all adults are currently union members. However, the reach and impact of unionization on Americans far exceeds these figures, with 40 percent of APM Survey respondents indicating that either some other household member or they themselves had been a union member at some time.
Background about the Supreme Court ruling on Janus
On June 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public sector unions cannot charge fees to employees covered by the union’s collective bargaining agreement, if they do not wish to join the union. In a 5-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME, the court ruled the mandated fees are unconstitutional.
With the Janus decision the Court overruled the precedent set in the 1977 case Abood v. the Detroit Board of Education. In Abood, the Court let stand a Michigan statute which permits local government unions to charge fees to all employees covered by union-negotiated contracts. More than 40 years after that ruling, Mark Janus, an employee of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, and his lawyers claimed that the “fair share” dues he had to pay the union violated his right to free speech, and resulted in compelled support of a political organization that was contrary to his personal views. Janus’ employment contract is covered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
The implications of the Court’s Janus decision could be wide-ranging, as millions of public-sector workers will now be able to opt out of paying dues to their labor unions, potentially weakening the unions’ membership rolls and power. Twenty-eight states have already enacted “right-to-work” (through legislation or constitutional amendment), allowing workers to opt out of paying “fair share” dues. The remaining 22 have not, but will now be subject to the Court’s ruling affecting all public sector unions. Collectively, “right-to-work” states have far lower union membership, with 6.3 percent unionized, compared with 15.4 percent unionized in non-right-to-work states.
About the APM Survey on labor unions
Between May 30 and June 3, 2018, the APM Survey asked about 1,000 American adults the following questions:
Labor unions negotiate the wages and benefits for all workers covered by union contracts. In some states, workers covered by union contracts are required to pay at least some union dues, even if they choose not to be full union members. However, in other states workers can decide for themselves whether or not to pay union dues. Which is closer to your view?
- All workers covered by union contracts should pay at least some union dues…or…
- Each worker covered by a union contract should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to pay dues
Why do you feel that way?
In general, do you think the U.S. would be better off if labor unions were stronger or weaker?
(If respondent is employed full-time) Are you currently a member of a labor union?
Have you or anyone in your household EVER been a member of a labor union?
The partners for this APM Survey include: Marketplace, Minnesota Public Radio News, and Southern California Public Radio. Those interested in partnering with the APM Research Lab on future iterations of the APM Survey are encouraged to contact us.