Are we keeping unions in the friend-zone?

July 19, 2012: 12:23 PM ET

People have a relatively favorable view of unions overall, but they don't seem to want one for themselves. What gives?

By Jonathan A. Segal

FORTUNE -- We have seen a dramatic decline in unionization. In the 1950s, approximately one-third of private sector workers was in a union. Today, the figure is less than 7%. Over the past 50 years, unions have gained strength in the public sector. But now public sector unions are in the hot seat.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin took on the public sector unions directly and aggressively by restricting the unions' bargaining rights. He easily survived a recall attempt in June and other governors may follow Walker's lead on labor.

But Walker's actions should not be viewed in isolation. Earlier this year, Indiana became a right-to-work state, the first such move in 10 years, which allows workers that were once required to join unions can now opt out. New Hampsire may be next. South Carolina, already a right-to-work state, passed a law requiring employers to post a notice informing employees that they don't have to join a union. Michigan is considering a law that would fine public sector illegal strikers. Even the liberal-leaning Massachusetts House enacted legislation that limits public sector workers' bargaining rights relating to health care.

Indeed, anti-union bills are popping up in state legislatures all over the country. And it's fair to expect even more this fall as unions become actively involved in election campaigns.

So, how have unions grown weak?

Not as loathed as Wall Street and Congress (for what it's worth)

As an initial matter, it is important not to draw too absolute a conclusion from a single special election in Wisconsin. After all, only a few years ago, in 2008, unions helped to elect a Democratic president and sizable Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

MORE: Your cheatin' mind for business

Even so, union membership and favorability ratings are declining. While unions were viewed favorably by more than 70% of American workers in the 1930s, that rating has since dropped to approximately 50%, according to Gallup.

But, in context, 50% is not all that low. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, it is approximately the same percentage of Americans who have a favorable impression of corporations (also at an all-time low). And, according to a Harris survey conducted last year, just 26% of Americans believe that people working on Wall Street are "as honest and moral as other people."

Wall Street's faring is  better than Congress, which, according to a poll by Gallup this month, has an approval rating of 17%. Yet, somehow, the vast majority of incumbents return to Washington.

Changing economy, changing workers

While people have a negative view of Congress, they tend to like their own representatives. The opposite seems to be the case for unions. People have a relatively favorable view of unions overall, but they don't want one for themselves.

What's happened? For starters, the U.S. economy has morphed from one that's rooted in manufacturing to one that is primarily based on services. The unions have played no small role in this change. The reality is that it is often cheaper to produce many products abroad without the potential costs and risks that go with having to work with a union. More

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