The past, present, and future of American labor

Steven Greenhouse

For 19 years, journalist Steven Greenhouse wrote about labor for the New York Times. His new book—Beaten Down, Worked Up: The past present and future of organized labor—looks at labor’s rise, decline and possible rebirth. Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh interviewed him by phone.


Why are there so few labor journalists today?

Newspapers got really smashed in the first decade of this century, and greatly reduced the size of the newsroom. And one of the first beats to go was labor. Editors don’t think the labor beat is as sexy as covering the Seattle Mariners or Beyoncé. And unions are not as powerful and prominent as they used to be.

Why did you write this book?

I think the bumper sticker, “Unions: the folks who brought you the weekend” is very true, and people don’t appreciate that enough. So I wrote this book to help educate a younger generation about what unions are and what they’ve accomplished, to inspire them. Workers are being shafted in many ways, and unions, though often flawed, can really help lift workers. Unfortunately union power and worker power in the U.S. is at the lowest level since World War Two. Because worker power is so weak and corporate power is so great, we’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave. We’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee all workers vacations. In the European Union, 28 nations, all workers are guaranteed four weeks paid vacation. The United States and South Korea are the only two industrialized nations that don’t guarantee paid sick days. Our minimum wage as a percentage of the average worker’s pay is the lowest of any of the 36 OECD nations. So I try educating people about how the decline of unions has hurt the nation.

In mainstream journalism you’re not supposed to take sides. But the tradition of organized labor is to ask “Which side are you on?” Did you feel like you took sides when you were at the New York Times? Do you take sides in this book?

At the New York Times I tried very hard to write balanced stories, fair stories that gave equal say to both sides, and I very rarely got complaints about favoring one side or the other. I got lots of complaints from unions when I wrote about union corruption. But I also wrote lots of stories about Walmart and Target engaging in wage theft, making people work off the clock. And Walmart and Target weren’t happy with me writing these stories. Now since leaving the New York Times, I felt a little more freedom to express opinions. In the book I tried to make it fair to all sides. In writing about the air traffic controllers strike, I also give the views of Ronald Reagan. But I believe that unions are the most effective way to lift millions of workers. And I think that’s almost an objective statement. When I say that unions can do good, I don’t think I’m taking a side. I believe that a market economy can help lift millions of people. I think unions can help lift millions of people.

Why has the union movement become smaller and weaker in the last 40 years?

There are many reasons. A big one is the decline of manufacturing employment in the United States. It’s gone from about 19.5 million to about 12.5 million, and manufacturing was long the core of labor strength in the nation. Manufacturing declined in large part because of offshoring. So much was moved to China and Vietnam and Bangladesh and Mexico.  Another reason is that corporate America fights so hard against unions. In no other industrial nation do corporations fight so hard to beat back and quash unionization efforts. I was an economics reporter in Europe for five years for the New York Times. Corporations there see unions as legitimate institutions they’ve got to deal with and work with to create profits and prosperity, whereas in the United States, a lot of corporations see unions as the enemy. Then there’s the big increase in service sector employment. Beauty parlors and nail salons and restaurants are generally harder to unionize. A fourth reason is that unions have too often been asleep at the wheel and done far too little unionizing.

Why have Democratic politicians been such fair weather friends, and Republicans ever more dedicated enemies?

Republicans have been very focused on trying to cripple unions, as we saw with Scott Walker in Wisconsin with all these anti-union-fee laws, which are unfortunately called “right-to-work” laws. And Democrats have increasingly seen themselves as the party of lawyers and doctors and engineers and Hollywood and Wall Street. In this insane political system we have where politicians have to chase after donors, there are huge incentives to focus more on Wall Street hedge fund managers than steel workers in Pittsburgh or Walmart workers who make $27,000 a year.

What do you think holds the most promise for restoring the power of organized labor to improve conditions for working people?

A few years ago a lot of people were saying labor really seems dead in the water. And then out of nowhere in early 2018 came the West Virginia teachers strike, which was huge, and then the Oklahoma teacher strike, and Arizona, and LA. And all of a sudden labor is on the front page and leading the TV news, and people are feeling excited about labor. Success begets more success. I think the teacher strike help lead to the big Stop and Shop strike in New England. And the teachers strikes really opened peoples eyes. What’s great about the teacher strikes is they weren’t just about raising teacher pay but about helping improve education. Bargaining for the common good I think is really important. Unions see that they’re not as strong as they once were. It’s good for them to develop partnerships with community groups and environmentalists. And we seen that with the Fight for 15 too: It’s like, “We’re not the unions of old that cared only about helping our members. We are unions that are trying to lift up all of society.” I think that’s really helping open peoples’ eyes about the opportunity unions present and how they can lift millions of workers and overall communities.

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