PACS news / April 30, 2024

New Stanford Study Finds 92% of Americans Underestimate the Benefits of Unions, Correcting Misperceptions Can Boost Support and Engagement

Findings from the Polarization and Social Change Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society suggest that informing the American public about the material benefits of unionization could increase support for unions, interest in joining unions, and support for pro-labor policies.
How accurate are Americans’ perceptions of the benefits associated with joining a union? And how does that affect their support of unions or interest in joining one?

new study from Jonne Kamphorst and Robb Willer of the Polarization and Social Change Lab (PaSCL) at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS) shows that Americans systematically underestimate the material benefits of unionization—and that when informed about the actual benefits, Americans express greater support for unions and pro-labor policies, and greater interest in joining a union and helping to organize a union in their workplace.

“Polling shows that unions are increasingly popular among Americans, drawing the highest levels of support in decades,” Jonne Kamphorst, PaSCL Research Fellow and lead author of the study, said. “Yet our research suggests that unions would likely be supported even more if people viewed them more accurately—a finding that could have important implications for American workers, voters, policymakers, labor advocates, and businesses.”

To explore Americans’ perceptions of the benefits of unionization, Kamphorst and Willer conducted a survey on a representative sample of 1,430 Americans asking them to estimate the levels of material benefits earned by unionized and non-unionized workers in the U.S., considering annual income, health care, retirement benefits, and more.

The survey found that a large majority of Americans greatly underestimate the material benefits of unions. For example:89 percent of surveyed Americans underestimated the life-time income premium associated with union membership;72 percent underestimated the percentage of union members who receive health insurance from their employer; and97 percent overestimated the average union dues rate (estimating it to be more than 10 percent of a union worker’s income when it is in fact close to 1 percent).Using an overall, composite measure of all the benefits studied, 92 percent of Americans underestimated the material benefits of unionization.
Kamphorst and Willer also tested the effect of correcting Americans’ perceptions, by randomly assigning the Americans they surveyed to receive accurate information, drawn from academic and government research, on the benefits associated with unionization. They then re-surveyed their participants after receiving this information (or not), finding that those whose perceptions were corrected showed more positive views of unions across many measures. Americans who received the corrective information reported greater support for unions and pro-labor policies and greater interest in joining a union and helping to organize a union in their workplace.

“Our results suggest interest in joining unions—and support for policies that would reform U.S. labor law—would be higher if not for significant underestimates of the material benefits associated with unionization,” Robb Willer, director of PaSCL and faculty co-director of Stanford PACS, said. “These misperceptions may help explain why interest in joining unions in the U.S. continues to lag behind peer countries. Highlighting the benefits of unionization to the American public could change that dynamic significantly.”

Read the full article, “Correcting Misperceptions of the Material Benefits Associated with Union Membership Increases Americans’ Interest in Joining Unions,” via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

To schedule interviews with the authors, contact Robb Willer at