UAW General Motors Strike Is Rooted in Decades-Long Struggle for Dignity

Web ExclusiveSeptember 18, 2019
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We speak with longtime labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, author of the new book “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor,” on the history of American unions, the recent wave of teacher and auto worker strikes, and where the 2020 candidates fall on labor issues.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with Steven Greenhouse, the longtime journalist who covered labor for The New York Times for decades. His new book is called Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.

Before we go to the record of the presidential candidates, what you’re looking at in the plans of these candidates, I just wanted to ask you about the title, Beaten Down, Worked Up, Steve.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, we were looking for different titles, and one was maybe The Struggle. We decided that wasn’t sexy enough. And so, I came up with this idea that, you know, American workers have been beaten down. Unions have often been beaten down. You know, they’re the Wobblies, the coal miners. You know, I write about female garment workers who go on strike early last century. They’re beaten up by the cops and by hired thugs. So, American workers have really been beaten down physically, and also their wages have been beaten down. Their benefits have gotten worse.

And at the same time, they get very worked up. You know, they’re the West Virginia teachers. They are proud, educated people. They felt really beaten down. They hadn’t had raises for years. And then they got very, very worked up. That began this huge wave of strikes. And it’s kind of the same thing —

AMY GOODMAN: Strikes across the country.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah, across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And then they made a deal with the governor, ironically, named Governor Justice?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes, the richest person in West Virginia, who triggered the strike by saying, “We’re just going to give you raises of 1% a year for five years,” while they were paying higher premiums every year for health insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get to the presidential candidates, but talk about the history of that wave of strikes. Give us the specifics of what happened in West Virginia, starting with the richest man —

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Sure. So —

AMY GOODMAN: — in West Virginia, Governor Justice.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, you know, I have a chapter on — in this book, on the Red for Ed teacher strikes. And I talk to Jay O’Neal and Emily Comer, English teacher, Spanish teacher, and how these two people, members of the DSA, really, with a focus — 

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Socialists of America.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, Democratic — really triggered the strike. They were fed up about, you know, wages being fairly frozen. And they were even more fed up about, you know, the — there were so many tax cuts in West Virginia that there wasn’t enough money to fund the teachers’, the government employees’ health program, so every year the health premiums went up generally more than their raises.

And then the governor announced, “Well, I’m just going to give you a raise of 1% a year for five years,” which wouldn’t have even covered generally the healthcare premiums. And then the government health insurer announced that it was going to have this new app where if unless you walked like three, four miles a day, they were going to raise your — you know, raise your deductible by $500.

And, like, the teachers were just up in arms. And they founded this Facebook page. And it went from, you know, 10, 20, 100 workers to — once the governor gave the speech and these healthcare changes were announced, it went up to 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 people. And it’s amazing to see how a strike can really come out of a Facebook page.

But, you know, it wasn’t just all virtual. You know, they got the teacher leaders to have these meetings. And this was a strike — this was the first teacher strike, big teacher strike, since the Chicago strike. And they said, “One of the reasons it started in West Virginia was our state has this great legacy of union militancy, dating from the United Mine Workers.”

AMY GOODMAN: And so, it went from West Virginia to —

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: It went from West — so, in Oklahoma, a young teacher was watching TV and thought, you know, “Well, they could do it in West Virginia. You know, we should do it here in Oklahoma.” And he started a Facebook page, and it went from like zero to 300 miles an hour. Like, overnight, it got 20,000 people. You know —

AMY GOODMAN: Where school is just four days a week, so teachers could have second and third jobs?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: And in some — you know, I interviewed teachers with master’s degrees, who were making less than $40,000 a year, less than $50,000 a year, after 20 years on the job. They were — one guy was juggling three jobs, you know, a guy with a master’s degree.

Then, in Arizona, they saw what was happening in West Virginia, and they got on the phone with folks in West Virginia. One of the leaders, 23-year-old Noah Karvelis, he was making $32,000, $33,000 a year. You know, try to live on that. Another teacher I interviewed said that, you know, she hadn’t had a raise in 10 years. And so, like, these teachers are really feeling beaten down and worked up.

And the teacher strikes really sent a message throughout labor across America that unions can really fight, unions can really be inspiring, unions can really win. And in this book, I talk about the difficulties unions have, but I also explain that there are real opportunities and real hope for unions and labor.

AMY GOODMAN: On the UAW strike, in the first part of our interview, we talked about the significance of this first major nationwide strike in 12 years. But what about the history of the UAW? Explain the seminal moments in UAW history.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, in my book, I have chapters on two of the most important strikes in American history. You know, the Flint sit-down strike, which was against General Motors, 1936, '37 — GM was then the nation's largest company. It was ferociously anti-union. It had like 200 company spies. Whenever there was an effort to form a union local, its company spies would infiltrate. You know, it got the cops to beat up strikers and beat up protesters.

And the workers — you know, so this was after the National Labor Relations Act was passed under FDR. Workers were feeling a little more hope, a little more support. And they tried to figure out: How do we bring the most powerful company in the nation, maybe on Earth, to its knees to recognize a union? And they figured, “Let’s hold a sit-down in a key plant that made — you know, that stamped the bodies that GM needed to produce cars.” And for almost two months, they sat down, again, in the middle of winter, in Flint, Michigan. And they really shut down GM. And FDR and his great Labor Secretary Frances Perkins also placed real pressure on GM to recognize the union, that this strike was really hurting GM and hurting the whole nation’s economy.

AMY GOODMAN: I just was in Washington, D.C., and saw the Frances Perkins Department of Labor.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I wonder if President Trump will be changing the name of that building. But she was the first woman secretary of labor.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah. I have a chapter on Frances Perkins, who, to my mind, is maybe the most underrated person in American history. And Elizabeth Warren gave a big speech, you know, not far from here, in Washington Square, the other day, and a lot of it was about the great Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member, an amazing labor secretary. You know, thanks to her, we have Social Security and unemployment insurance and child labor laws and minimum wage and 40-hour workweek. And she did amazing —

AMY GOODMAN: And the one thing she didn’t get, that she continued to fight for, for her life — 

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Universal health coverage, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — was Medicare for All.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you mentioned Elizabeth Warren, and thousands of people turned out for her major talk in Washington Square. She is vying with President Trump for sizes of crowds, like Bernie Sanders’ crowds of the past. Let’s talk about the presidential candidates and how you rate them when it comes to labor, Steven Greenhouse.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I moderated a presidential labor forum in Las Vegas, and I gave Elizabeth Warren and some of the other candidates copies of my book. So when she talked about Frances Perkins the other day at Washington Square, I wondered, “Did she crib from my chapter?” Maybe she did. That would be very flattering.

So, this campaign is very different from what Hillary Clinton was doing, you know, in 2016. And in my book, I discuss that I think one of the big reasons the Democrats lost in 2016 was that Hillary, while her written platform sounded very good on labor and workers, she didn’t really campaign much on it. And I think workers in the Midwest, you know, in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Pennsylvania, felt that. And she was perceived as like the candidate of the professional class, lawyers, Wall Street folks, Hollywood celebrities.

And Trump came in saying, “I’m the blue-collar guy. I’m going to shake things up. I realize the system is rigged against you.” I argue in my book that he’s rigged the system even more against workers and even more in favor of corporations and the wealthy.

So, the big — so, I think, you know, the candidates now — Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, you know, [Julián] Castro, Beto and Buttigieg — they all see that for the Democrats to win, it’s important to really speak to workers and speak to unions. And I think they also realize that one of the reasons the Democrats — a big reason the Democrats lost was that the unions in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan have shrunk greatly. As I explain in the book, you know, thanks to — as a result of Scott Walker’s war against labor unions in Wisconsin — 

AMY GOODMAN: In Wisconsin.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: In Wisconsin — lost 43% of their members, 177,000 people. Trump’s winning margin —

AMY GOODMAN: And yet Walker then was voted out.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Walker was voted out. But Trump’s winning margin was 22,000. And the unions had lost 177,000 members. In Michigan, unions had lost 144,000; Trump won by 11,000. So, I think the candidates realize that for the good of the Democrats, it will help to rebuild unions. And they also see that the system is broken, that there’s huge income inequality, and they want to help workers. So, you know, Bernie has a great labor platform to make it easy to unionize. Elizabeth Warren has —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it means to have a great labor platform.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I mean, that — you know, so, he wants to make it easier to unionize, to have card check. So, as soon as a majority of workers at a workplace sign up, they could unionize, rather than go through a prolonged election where management can really bang workers over the head. He wants greater penalties against employers when they break the law to stop unions. He wants to drop our whole at-will employment system and replace it with a just cause system to create much —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, at will, you can be fired for any reason. If you show up to work and your boss doesn’t like the color of your shoelaces, you can get fired. You know, you can’t be fired for your age, for your sex, for your race. But, at will, you could be fired for anything. And if it’s a just cause system, you know, you can only be fired for just cause, you know, that you’re incompetent, you keep showing up late. And if you feel you were fired wrongly, then it can go to an arbitrator.

Elizabeth Warren has come out with a trade platform that some labor friends of mine say it’s far better than anything they’ve ever seen from a politician. And, you know, she says, “For far too long, America’s trade negotiators, Democratic and Republican, have really catered to corporate interests and really short-changed worker and environmental interests in trade negotiations.” And she has this very smart, elaborate policy saying we should — when we negotiate trade agreements, we should do it in a way that lifts standards and makes sure that, you know, standards for workers, for the environment and anti-corruption are lifted.

So, some surprises, like Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, have these amazing pro-labor platforms. And Buttigieg’s is like, I say, everyone should read. You wouldn’t expect that from Mayor Pete. But it’s really, really smart and well written, and really walks people through how workers in the U.S. are being shafted and what can be done about them. And, you know, Beto and Buttigieg have many of the same proposals that Bernie does about how to strengthen unions, you know, how to help gig workers, like Uber and Lyft drivers, to bring them more security, to increase their wages.

And, you know, Cory Booker has this good idea that whenever a company does a stock buyback, you know, we’re going to take a lot of the money that goes to stock buyback and instead distribute that in bonuses to the workers.

Kamala Harris has some — you know, has proposed raising wages, salaries for teachers by $13,500, on average. She and Pramila Jayapal have co-introduced the —

AMY GOODMAN: Pramila Jayapal, the congresswoman from Washington state.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, from Washington — a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, to have them covered by minimum wage and overtime laws, to set regulations on hours and improve conditions for them.

So, there’s a lot going on. And I didn’t mention some of the others, but, you know, they’re doing a lot of good things, too, for labor.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of Elizabeth Warren framing a lot of the issues as corruption as opposed to systemic?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: I mean, corruption, in my mind, is systemic. And you need to change the system. You know, so one of the big points I make in my book is that, you know, things are really tilted very badly against workers because of our campaign finance system is so broken, that in the 2016 election, corporations donated $3.4 billion, more than 16 times as much as the $213 [million] given by unions. Each year in Washington, corporate lobbyists — corporations spend almost $3 billion on lobbying, which is more than 60 times as much as unions do. So, it’s a broken system, but it’s also a corrupt system. It’s like people buy policy, I argue. You know, why, when corporate profits on the stock market were already at record levels, did Trump and the Republicans rush out to cut taxes for corporations? It’s like, you know, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what about the Obama years? Did worker power increase, or the opposite?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: It probably stayed around the same. There were great hopes that under Obama, that he would do a lot more to help workers. But every time, since FDR, that presidents have tried to enact laws to make it easy to unionize — you know, under LBJ, under Jimmy Carter, under Bill Clinton, and again under Barack Obama — Republican filibusters have blocked it. And it’s, you know, the fact that there are all these bright red, low-population states, you know, with two senators each, as much as California has, that makes it very hard, as you know better than I, Amy, to enact progressive legislation. Obama issued a lot of, you know, regulations, but regulations can only do so much. And then Trump has like moved very, very quickly to wipe out everything Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, under Obama, he instructed the Democratic Party not to get involved with the Wisconsin uprising. And, of course, the Wisconsin uprising was this — I mean, Wisconsin had never really seen anything like this, 150,000 people marching in and sleeping in on the Capitol, protesting the busting of unions by then-Governor Walker. But the Democratic Party, where was it?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, you know, I was in Wisconsin covering it. And, you know, at that point, Obama wasn’t that popular. His party had gotten whooped in the 2010 election. And he made the decision — maybe it was a wrong decision — that if I get involved in Wisconsin, it might make things worse for the unions and might make things worse for me. I think, in retrospect, seeing how Wisconsin played out very badly for the Democrats and unions, maybe it would have worked out better if he had gotten involved. And remember, you know, Obama did not like to fight. He was, you know, a brilliant guy, very honest guy, but he didn’t love to get into these big drag-down, knockout fights.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, finally, the assessment of labor under Trump and the power of labor? Well, we keep referring to it. Can you speak specifically about where it’s gone? What are the Trump policies that have so disempowered workers?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I’ve written several pieces saying that Donald Trump is even more anti-worker and anti-union than Ronald Reagan, which is saying a lot. And this is a guy — you know, Reagan didn’t run as “I’m the huge champion of blue-collar folks,” whereas Trump ran and said, you know, “I’m your best friend. I’m your champion.” He’s still — you know, yesterday, he was saying, “All these UAW members love me, and I’ve done great things for them.”

You know, so, I wrote this long article for The American Prospect laying out 30, 40 things he’s done that are anti-worker. He’s rolled back Obama’s — Obama extended overtime protection to millions more workers; Trump has scrapped that. Obama issued this very important rule to require Wall Street firms to act in workers’ best interest on their 401(k)s; you know, Trump has wiped out that rule. That could cost a lot of workers tens of thousands of dollars, you know, over the 30 or 40 years of investing before they retire.

AMY GOODMAN: And these are just changing Department of Labor rules.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Changing rules, yeah. So, he’s named as labor secretary Eugene Scalia, who was corporate America’s very top gun, top lawyer, in fighting any new worker protections.

AMY GOODMAN: The son of the Supreme Court justice.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The son of Antonin Scalia. And he’s reduced safety standards for oil and gas rig workers. And, you know, he’s, overturned an Obama rule — Obama was going to limit awarding federal contracts to companies that were repeat violators of minimum-wage laws, overtime laws, sexual harassment laws, racial discrimination laws. That went out the window. And just, you know, his Supreme Court nominees have been parts of some very, very anti-worker labor decisions. His NLRB is doing — you know, working superaggressively to try to make it harder to unionize. I mean, it’s across the board.

Yes, wages have gone up a little under Donald Trump, and therefore he says, “I’m a great pro-worker president.” Well, wages also went up under Barack Obama. Under Obama, unemployment fell from 10% peak to 4.7%, dropping 5.3 percentage points. Under the great Donald Trump, it’s fallen from 4.7% to 3.7%. So, he keeps saying, “I’ve done so much better than Obama.” No, it’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: What most surprised you? I mean, you’re a labor reporter for decades. What most surprised you in researching Beaten Down, Worked Up?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: In truth, well, two things: how great Frances Perkins was — I didn’t realize how amazing she was — and I wrote about the strike of the 20,000 female garment workers and how just courageous and heroic these women were. I mean, they just — you know, they were beaten up. They were sent to jail, you know, teenagers sent to prison just for picketing.

AMY GOODMAN: This would eventually lead to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the ILGWU?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah, and the 52-hour week and the recognition of unions.

And another thing that surprised me, the great Samuel Gompers. He could be very racist. And he was one of the main sponsors of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1881. He —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain who Samuel Gompers was.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Samuel Gompers, sorry, was the founder of — co-founder, first president of the American Federation of Labor, the main labor federation,

AMY GOODMAN: That would eventually go together with CIO.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The AFL-CIO.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There were a lot of Chinese workers coming and working on the railroad. And, you know, like today, a lot of American workers said, “Oh, there are too many immigrants. They’re dragging down standards.” And Gompers became very anti-immigrant, and he said some really racist, false, derogatory things about, you know, Chinese, Chinese workers. And sometimes he didn’t do enough to stop, you know, racial segregation in various unions. And that became a big fight.

Another, you know, thing I write about is how great of a labor leader A. Philip Randolph was, the African-American head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. I mean, there were some great — you know, Walter Reuther, Frances Perkins, you know, Clara Lemlich, head of the female garment workers’ strike. You know, there were some really great labor leaders, and we need more like them right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Steven Greenhouse, longtime journalist, covered labor for The New York Times for decades, has a new book out. It’s called Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much.

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