I heard this joke on a tour of an old Oakland theater: The guide was talking about how, after a renovation, workers carried a bulky, antique couch up two flights of stairs. “They said it used to take six workers to bring up the couch,” she said. “But now with the union, it takes eight.” The crowd murmured a half-chuckle, prompting the guide to explain it further. “It’s because they’re lazy,” she said, and everyone laughed.
It was an innocuous moment, quickly forgotten. But the underlying stereotype is a problem labor union organizers have to deal with. A Pew survey from earlier this year found that while more Americans look favorably upon labor unions than they have since 2002, only 11 percent of the country’s workers belong to one, the lowest rate since 1983. That means most people only know about unions secondhand—from popular culture, news stories, and even jokes.
There’s little mystery why union membership is so low. For decades, the right has engaged in attacks on unions, a traditional Democratic constituency. Most recently, a case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court could cripple public sector unions by not requiring non-members represented by unions in collective bargaining agreements to pay dues.*