OPINION: High approval rate of unions isn’t surprising


Economic Policy Institute (EPI)

It’s been nearly 60 years since approval for unions in the U.S. has been this high.

More than 70 percent of Americans now approve of labor unions. Those are the findings of a Gallup poll released late last month, and they shouldn’t be surprising.

Why? U.S. workers see unions as critical to fixing our nation’s broken workplace – where most workers have little power or agency at work.

The pandemic revealed much about work in this country. We saw countless examples of workers performing essential jobs – such as health care and food service. They were forced to work without appropriate health and safety gear and certainly without pay commensurate with the critical nature of the work they were doing.

Those conditions, however, pre-dated the pandemic. The pandemic merely exposed these decades-old anti-worker dynamics. Clearly, as the new poll and recent data on strikes and union organizing show, workers today are rejecting these dynamics and awakening to the benefits of unions.

Nonunion workers are forced to take their jobs – accepting their employer’s terms as is – or leave them. Unions enable workers to have a voice in those terms and set them through collective bargaining.

We know the powerful impact unions have on workers’ lives and broader effects on communities and on our democracy.

Here’s a rundown based on the Economic Policy Institute’s extensive research on unions:


  • Unionized workers (workers covered by a union contract) earn on average 10.2 percent more in wages than nonunionized peers (workers in the same industry and occupation with similar education and experience).
  • Unions don’t just help union workers – they help all of us. When union density is high, nonunion workers benefit, because unions effectively set broader standards – including higher wages.
  • Union workers are more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance. More than nine in 10 workers covered by a union contract (95 percent) have access to employer-sponsored health benefits, compared with just 69 percent of nonunion workers.
  • Union workers have greater access to paid vacation days. Ninety percent of workers covered by a union contract received paid holidays off compared to 78 percent of nonunion workers.
  • Union workers also have greater access to paid sick days. Nine in 10 workers covered by a union contract (92 percent) have access to paid sick days, compared with 77 percent of nonunion workers.

The 17 U.S. states with the highest union densities:

  • Have state minimum wages that are on average 19 percent higher than the national average and 40 percent higher than those in low-union-density states.
  • Have median annual incomes $6,000 higher than the national average. 
  • Have higher-than-average unemployment insurance recipiency rates (that is, a higher share of those who are unemployed actually receive unemployment insurance).

Equity and Equality

  • Black and Hispanic workers get a larger boost from unionization. Black workers represented by a union are paid 13.1 percent more than their nonunionized peers. Hispanic workers represented by unions are paid 18.8 percent more than their nonunionized peers.
  • Unions help raise women’s pay. Hourly wages for women represented by a union are 4.7 percent higher on average than for nonunionized women with comparable characteristics.
  • Research shows that de-unionization accounts for a sizable share of the growth in inequality between typical (median) workers and workers at the high end of the wage distribution in recent decades—on the order of 13-20 percent for women and 33-37 percent for men.


  • Significantly fewer restrictive voting laws have been passed in the 17 highest-union-density states than in the middle 17 states (including D.C.) and the 17 lowest-union-density states.
  • Over 70 percent of low-union-density states passed at least one voter suppression law between 2011 and 2019.

The growing approval of unions is playing out on the ground with more workers seeking to exercise their collective bargaining rights.

Data from the National Labor Relations Board recently analyzed by Bloomberg Law show the exponential increase in election petitions being filed. While the Gallup poll states that most nonunion workers do not respond that they want to join a union, clearly workers are petitioning for union election at elevated rates.

And workers have increasingly felt empowered to fight for what they want.

We were already seeing signs of workers being willing to strike to demand better wages and working conditions. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed an upsurge in major strike activity in 2018 and 2019, marking a 35-year high.

We are experiencing a labor enlightenment of sorts in this country, one in which workers are fed up with an economy and workplace that does not work for them. With approval for unions at the highest since 1965, there is a growing realization that unions can potentially make both work better for all.

(Celine McNicholas is the director of policy and government affairs and the general counsel for the Economic Policy Institute. Eve Tahmincioglu is EPI’s director of communications.)


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