The labor movement has a real public-relations problem, one of their own making, and Gallup quantified it yesterday in a new poll.  Support for unions has dropped below a majority for the first time in the 70 years that Gallup has tracked the question.  Most of the decline has taken place in the last year, and independents have been the key:

Gallup finds organized labor taking a significant image hit in the past year. While 66% of Americans continue to believe unions are beneficial to their own members, a slight majority now say unions hurt the nation’s economy. More broadly, fewer than half of Americans — 48%, an all-time low — approve of labor unions, down from 59% a year ago.

These results are from the 2009 installment of Gallup’s annual Work and Education survey, conducted Aug. 6-9. The 48% of Americans now approving of unions represents the first sub-50% approval since Gallup first asked the question in the 1930s. The previous low was 55%, found in both 1979 and 1981. …

There has been an even larger jump in the percentage saying labor unions mostly hurt the U.S. economy, from 36% in 2006 to 51% today. This is the first time since the question was established in 1997 that more Americans have said unions hurt rather than help the economy. Americans’ general concerns about the current state of the economy could certainly be a factor in these more negative views of unions, in addition to specific perceptions about unions.

At one time in this 72-year history, unions took care to court politicians across the entire political spectrum and keep themselves in the mainstream of political thought.  That has changed over the last twenty years, but it took that long for Americans to realize it.  The union movement has now adopted radical positions on environmentalism, health care, energy, and other issues that sometimes run counter to the economic benefit of their own members — but provide a carbon copy of the hard Left of the Democratic Party.

As a result, unions are no longer just alienating Republicans.  As Gallup points out, independents have now begun rejecting union activism in large numbers.  A year ago, 63% of independents approved of unions, but that number dropped 19 points to 44% today.  In contrast, unions lost 9 points among Republicans (to 29%), and even lost six points among Democrats, dropping from 72% to 66%.  Moderates have begun questioning the labor movement’s goals and tactics.

Perhaps the most dramatic difference comes in the question asked for the last twelve years: do unions help or hurt the national economy?  In  2006, 53% believed unions helped, and only 36% thought they hurt.  In three years, that has reversed itself.  A thin majority of 51% believe unions hurt the overall economy, while only 39% still believe they benefit it.  That perception, especially in a deep recession, will drive disapproval for a long, long time, even without the rank politicization of the union movement.

But don’t discount that affect, either.  Unions have shown up as enforcers for ObamaCare in town-hall forums, causing disruptions and creating violence.  While that may or may not intimidate ObamaCare opponents into silence — so far, it’s been remarkably unsuccessful — it will reinforce the negative connotations of labor in the minds of Americans.  Pushing to end the secret ballot in workplace organizing elections makes them look even more thuggish and radical, as well as greedy and grasping.  Plus their lockstep identification with the Democratic Party as the latter spins downward in approval doesn’t help matters.

The worst of the problem could very well be the bailouts of the last year.  The Bush administration started them, but the Obama administration expanded them and conducted highly questionable interventions for unions in automaker bankruptcy proceedings.  The ObamaCare proposal in the House has another $10 billion bailout for union pension and medical plan funds in it.  These increasingly look like payoffs from an administration desperate for ground troops in policy battles they’re losing by the hour.  That won’t improve the image of unions, and explains at least part of the reason why people think unions hurt the economy.

The current crop of union leadership, especially Andy Stern at the SEIU, will only exacerbate the problem, which is already rapidly deteriorating for Big Labor.  Can the rank-and-file rise up and give these political hacks the boot, or will they remain powerless as their leaders create an utter collapse of the union movement in America?