August 30, 2019 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Labor Day is coming, so Gallup, which identifies Labor Day with unions, just published its annual poll on approval of American labor unions. Gallup reports that “approval of Labor Unions [is] among [the] highest in the past 50 years.” This Labor Day, 64 percent of Americans approve of labor unions. What are we to make of this? Not much. Union leaders may rejoice that the public increasingly approves of what they do, but poll data do not support that conclusion. 

The nearby chart (from Gallup) plots the union-approval rate since 1936, the year following the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Approval was highest (75 percent) in the mid-1950s and lowest (48 percent) in the mid-2000s. Since then, it has crept up to 64 percent.


The question Gallup has always asked is “Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?” But Gallup doesn’t define “labor unions” or specify what they do. Not all labor unions are the same, and in America they are supported by coercive legislation.

I approve of voluntary labor unions. Freedom of association certainly includes groups of workers who decide individually to come together and peacefully to present terms and conditions of employment to employers. I suspect this is what many Gallup respondents had in mind when they asserted their approval of labor unions. If people are free to associate in churches, they are also free to associate in labor unions. Amen!

But American labor unions, as defined by the NLRA, are not voluntary. Workers are not allowed individually to choose whether to associate with labor unions. The decision of whether a group of workers (for example, all production workers at General Motors) will be represented by a specific union (for example, the United Auto Workers) is based on the union’s ability to show majority support among those workers. That support can be demonstrated by a representation election or by a collection of the workers’ signatures on cards signed in the presence of union organizers who may or may not be peaceful. 

If a union can show majority support, then all workers, even those who do not support the union, must submit to union representation. Individual workers are even prohibited from representing themselves. 

The NLRA calls this exclusive representation, and unions justify the coercion by calling it workplace democracy. But democracy is a form of government rule, and unions are not governments. They are private associations of private people.

The NLRA compounds the coercion of exclusive representation with another routine union practice called union security. This means that unions which represent workers who do not want union representation can, except where individual state laws forbid it, force those workers to pay union dues. Forcing workers to pay dues gives unions security against dissident workers who would, if they could, refuse to pay dues. 

Unions argue that exclusive representation forces them to represent all workers, even anti-union workers, and no workers should get unwanted representation for free. They would be, hold your breath, free riders. 

Actually, workers who are forced to pay dues are forced riders. If unions want to protect themselves against free riders, all they have to do is represent only the workers who want such representation. Exclusive representation creates the possibility of free riding. If you abolish exclusive representation — that is, allow unions to represent only those workers who want the representation and who voluntarily pay dues — you abolish free riders.

Back to Gallup: how many respondents would say they support involuntary association with unions? I don’t know because that question has never been asked, but I suspect the number would be small. Imagine that Gallup or any other polling organization asked, “Do you support voluntary unions, involuntary unions, both, or neither?” I expect that voluntary unions would win hands down. That is a testable hypothesis. Let the tests begin.

To Gallup, Labor Day is Union Day, but most American labor is union-free. Only 10.5 percent of the American labor force is unionized. So-called labor leaders are actually only union leaders.  So, happy Labor Day everyone, whether you approve of unions or not.

Charles Baird

Charles W. Baird

Charles W. Baird is Emeritus Professor of Economics at California State University, East Bay and a past Vice President and member of the Board of Directors of the Mont Pelerin.

He was Director of the Smith Center for Private Enterprise Studies at CSUEB from its founding in 1991 to his retirement in 2007.

His research specialty is in law and economics of labor relations.

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