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Less white and less male: Labor movement finds new support

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) union workers with SEIU Local 1021 hold signs as they picket in front of the Lake Merritt station on July 2, 2013 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) union workers with SEIU Local 1021 hold signs as they picket in front of the Lake Merritt station on July 2, 2013 in Oakland,...

A new survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press undermines the popular image of unionists as burly, white, middle-aged men. In fact, Pew found that labor unions had the highest approval ratings among women, people of color, and young people between the ages of 18 and 29. Whites and retirees held a majority unfavorable opinion of organized labor, while approval among men was just one percentage higher than disapproval.

Higher support among women and people of color should come as no surprise, said City University of New York sociologist Penny Lewis. [Disclosure: Lewis was author's professor in grad school.]

"African-Americans are now disproportionately unionized," she told msnbc. "It is expected that there's going to be broad support among African-Americans, just as there's much broader support among union households." A 2012 white paper [PDF] from University of California Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education found that 13.1% of all working African-Americans were union members, compared to 11% of all non-black workers.

Women don't make up a majority of the unionized workforce, but they've been narrowing the gap for years. They make up about 45% of the unionized workforce according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics—and they're gaining.

"They're pretty much unionized at the same rate they're working, which has to do with high density in the public sector," said Lewis. More than one-third of public sector workers remain in unions, compared to 6.6% of those employed in the private sector.

The predominance of women and people of color in the labor movement is a relatively recent phenomenon. Lewis traced it back to the Vietnam War era, when unions "started organizing within health care and you started to have organizing within the public sector." At the same time, traditionally unionized sectors of the workforce, such as manufacturing, came under attack from employers looking to cut slash labor costs.

"They fled the most expensive parts of the labor market, which is what had been unionized in the 1930s and 40s," said Lewis. Because of when they had been organized, unions in those sectors tended to consist overwhelmingly of white men.

"There's been a wing of the labor movement that's been historically exclusionary, and still is," said Columbia University political science professor Dorian Warren. "And that's been the case with the construction trades." But for the most part, the American labor movement looks less white and less male-dominated than ever.

The Pew survey also showed a rebound in public approval of labor unions from its record low in summer 2011. Organized labor now holds a 51% approval rating, up a full 10 percentage points from two years ago.

Warren attributed unions' low-approval rating at the time to a series of attacks from the right.

"If you look at media coverage around that time in 2010, 2011, that's the time when public employee unions are very much in the news and the right wing is on the attack," he said, citing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's high-profile legislation to remove collective bargaining rights for public employees in his state. He suggested that the public's appetite for curtailing public sector unionism may have dissipated as it failed to improve the economy in any significant way.

"After Walker does his thing, and Michigan, and all of these other states, I think the public overall thinks, 'Wait a minute, we didn't solve the fiscal crisis,'" said Warren.

But the rise in labor's public image was matched with a similar rebound for the favorability of private corporations. Warren ascribed that to an overall recovery in public trust of institutions following the economic collapse. A look at Pew's numbers since 1985 shows that public opinion of corporations and organized labor has been roughly correlated for decades.

The biggest surprise in the numbers, said Lewis, is the broad support for unionization among young people. Those between the ages of 18 and 29 had a 61% favorable impression of labor unions, higher than within any other demographic subgroup besides union households and registered Democrats.

Millennial support for unions "reflects the precarity so many young people are facing" and the influence of the Occupy era, said Lewis.