On Labor Day 2019, Americans strongly support unions, just not belonging

This is quintessential America, as the country marks the 125th anniversary of an official Labor Day.

Nearly two-out-of-three Americans support labor unions. But only one-in-ten put their money where their mouth is and become members.

The idea of a formal federal holiday to celebrate the average working American gained strength in the late 19th century at the height of the Industrial Revolution as the once dominant rural agrarian economy began shrinking.

Union organizers had pushed the idea for some time. OK, there were riots too. Low and poor working conditions created an eager membership. It seems many worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, often in fetid conditions.

President Grover Cleveland signed the measure in 1894 to create a misnamed federal Labor Day holiday when everyone would refrain from labor.

A new Gallup poll found strikingly increased support for unions. Between the mid-1930s, when it first asked the question, and the mid-1960s professed support for organized labor averaged 68 percent.

In 1967, that support began dropping and has averaged about 10 points less in succeeding years of the question.

Now, however, support has surged to 64 percent, among the highest levels in the past half-century. Only in 1999 and 2003 has support been slightly higher.

Historically, support has run higher during times of strong job growth and low unemployment, such as now, and lower support during difficult economic times such as the Obama administration.

Paradoxically, however, actual union membership has sunk again. It’s now just 10 percent of the labor force, down from 13 percent in recent years.

Employed workers between ages 35 and 54 are more than twice as likely to be union members (13 percent) as the coming generation of younger employees from age 18 to 34.

Workers down South are least likely to belong to a union (5 percent), while workers in the East and West are more likely (15 and 14 percent respectively). The Midwest, a more recent political battleground over right-to-work laws has about 10 percent membership.

Not a shocker that government workers report the highest unionization rate at 37 percent.

All of which may help explain why Labor Day has become for many less about celebrating factory workers and more about marking the unofficial end of summer.