Favorable views of labor unions have plummeted since 2007, amid growing public skepticism about unions’ purpose and power. Currently, 41% say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions while about as many (42%) express an unfavorable opinion. In January 2007, a clear majority (58%) had a favorable view of unions while just 31% had an unfavorable impression.

The latest nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 3-9 among 1,383 adults reached on cell phones and landlines, finds that favorable opinions of unions have fallen across demographic and partisan groups. Still, far more Democrats have favorable views of unions (56%) than do independents (38%) or Republicans (29%).

Last year, a Pew Research survey found a decline in the proportion of the public saying labor unions are necessary to protect working people, while more expressed concern about the power of unions. In April 2009, 61% agreed with the statement “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person,” down from 68% in 2007 and 74% in 2003. In the same survey, six-in-ten (61%) agreed that “labor unions have too much power,” up from 52% in 1999.

The findings about eroding public support for unions are consistent with other recent surveys. In August 2009, Gallup found that fewer than half of Americans (48%) approve of labor unions, an all-time low for a question that has been asked since 1936. In August 2008, 59% said they approved of labor unions.

Declines in Labor Favorability Among Most Groups

In recent years, positive attitudes about labor unions have declined significantly across most demographic groups. The largest change has come among those 65 and older. Currently 29% of this group says they have a favorable opinion of unions, down 31 points from 60% in 2007. Notably, those younger than 30 are the only age group in which a majority (53%) expresses a favorable view of unions; even so, far more young people (66%) expressed a positive opinion two years ago.

Though ratings by whites and blacks are both down, a greater percentage of African Americans continues to have a favorable impression of unions – just as they did in 2007. Currently, 59% of blacks say they have a positive view of unions, down from 75% three years ago. Just more than a third of whites (37%) express a favorable opinion, down from 54% in 2007.

Labor union favorability among Republicans has dropped from 47% to 29%, while unfavorable opinions have risen from 45% to 58%. Independents show a similar shift (54% favorable in 2007 to 38% now). Democrats remain the most positive about unions – but in smaller numbers: 56% say they have a favorable opinion today, down from 70% in 2007; unfavorable opinions have increased from 19% to 26%.

One group that has shown virtually no change is union households. Today, 74% of those in union households say they have a favorable view of labor unions; 22% have an unfavorable view. Three years ago, 77% had a favorable view, while 19% had an unfavorable opinion.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 12.3 percent of wage and salary workers in the United States belonged to unions in 2009. That was comparable to 2008 (12.4%), but down from 20.1% in 1983, the first year when comparable data are available. BLS says that more public sector workers now belong to unions than private sector workers.

Fewer See Labor Unions as Necessary

Pew Research’s April 2009 survey of the public’s political and social values – see “Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era,” May 21, 2009 – found declines in the proportions of independents and Republicans saying labor unions are necessary to protect working people.

Just 53% of independents agreed that labor unions are necessary to protect working people, down from 67% in 2007 and 73% a decade earlier. Fewer than half of Republicans (44%) agreed with that statement in 2009, down nine points from 2007 (and 1999). Democrats, meanwhile, showed little change over the 10-year period, with at least 80% consistently saying that unions were needed to protect working people each time the question was asked.

In 2009, 82% of African Americans said unions were necessary to protect working people, little changed from 83% a decade earlier. By contrast, the proportion of whites agreeing with this statement fell to 54% in 2009 from 67% in 1999. Labor unions lost support among white men, in particular. Just 47% of white men agreed that labor unions were necessary to protect working people, down from 67% in 2003. Over that same period, the percentage of white women who saw unions as necessary declined by 11 points (from 72% to 61%).

That survey also found an increasing proportion saying labor unions are too powerful. Last year, 61% agreed that unions have too much power, while 33% disagreed. In 1999, the last time this question was asked, the divide was narrower: 52% agreed that unions had too much power; 40% disagreed.

Again, most of the change of opinion came among independents and Republicans. Among independents, 66% said unions had too much power, up from 53% in 1999. Three-quarters of Republicans (75%) last year said that unions had too much power, up from 65% 10 years earlier. By comparison, 46% of Democrats concurred, which was little changed from 1999 (42%).