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“Beaten Down, Worked Up”: Steven Greenhouse on the Past, Present and Future of American Labor

StorySeptember 18, 2019
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As UAW workers stand on picket lines across the country, teachers prepare to strike in Chicago, and thousands of healthcare workers with Kaiser Permanente plan to strike in October, 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.” Among other issues, Greenhouse discusses how labor and climate activists are teaming up to push for a Green New Deal.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Steven, in your book, you talk about, obviously, the corporate assault and the inability of unions to organize, based on how the labor laws are being implemented by government. But you also talk about the self-inflicted wounds of the labor movement. And you talk about corruption that existed for many years in many labor unions — we’re seeing that now with some of the investigations of the UAW; the sexism and racism of the union movement itself, that didn’t allow women workers and African Americans even to get into unions, or then to be able to get into leadership. But I’m wondering — you also touch on this whole question of the failure of the labor movement to deal with the changing nature of work and technology. One of the most fascinating things in your book, you talk about companies like TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk and how workers are being forced to organize in those — talk about — most people don’t even know what these things are.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: That’s a lot of ground to cover. So, you know, I make clear in the book that, on one hand, some unions very much discriminated against women, workers of color, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics. But I also make clear that, you know, going back over a century, women were an incredibly important part of the labor movement — you know, Mother Jones. I write about this amazing strike in New York in 1909, 20,000 female garment workers, most of them immigrants. You know, a lot of workers take for granted the 40-hour week. And I explain, these people, you know, fought, fought, went on strike for two months in the dead of winter, just to win a 52-hour workweek. And I make clear that — you know, I have a chapter on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, and other unions backed them very strongly as they fought for both labor rights and respect on the job and civil rights.

But, as you say, Juan, you know, there has been too much discrimination, too much corruption. The UAW, unfortunately, has had a corruption scandal that is tarring it right now, and that’s hurting its image as it launches this big strike. You know, I often — when I was covering labor for The New York Times for 19 years, people would often say to me, “Oh, unions are so corrupt.” And I’d say, “I don’t know if unions are any more corrupt, you know, pound for pound, person for person, than business is.” You know, look at Purdue Pharma and opiates. Look at the Trump administration and how corrupt that is. I don’t think unions are any more corrupt. And I think that the —

AMY GOODMAN: Look at the president.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: And, you know, in the 1950s and 1960s, the age of — you know, the bad days of the Teamsters and the longshoremen and On the Waterfront, there was horrendous corruption. And the unions are much, much cleaner now. You know, there’s much less corruption, but there’s still — you know, one bit of corruption is still too much.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we move on to —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I wanted to ask you about this TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk, if you could talk about them.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Oh, right, right, yeah. So, in the book, I explain, you know, 50 different ways that corporate America is trying to squeeze workers and weaken unions. It’s using more temps. It’s contracting out more. Now the latest is using apps to turn more and more workers into like “here today, gone tomorrow,” “here this minute, gone next minute” workers, so they don’t have to — they owe very little loyalty or responsibility to these workers. You know, it says — and this is the big fight now with Uber and Lyft. It says — the companies are saying, “You’re not employees; you’re just independent contractors.” And if they’re employees, then the workers can unionize. If they’re employees, the companies have to pay part of the Social Security and Medicare taxes. If they’re employees, then they’re covered by anti-discrimination laws, anti-sexual harassment laws. So the companies really want to put millions and millions of workers into this independent contractor box. And they love this idea of, like, using apps so we can get a worker to work for 15 minutes, and then dump him or her. It’s just a — it’s like ideal. You know, there’s no responsibility to the worker. They’re here, they’re gone. They’re not covered by minimum wage or overtime laws.

And one of the big challenges for the labor movement and for all worker advocates, as I explain in my book, is like figuring out a way to lift these workers so that they could improve their wages. You know, there are all these Uber and Lyft drivers who work 60, 70 hours a week. They’re busting their humps to try to support their families. They’re not getting health benefits from their jobs. And, you know, there’s this breakthrough in California. The state Legislature passed a bill that would declare Uber and Lyft drivers employees rather than independent contractors, so that would give them overtime and minimum wage coverage. It would have the companies contribute to their Social Security and Medicare. It would give them protections against race and sex discrimination. Now, the companies say, “This is going to cost us too much. This is going to hurt our business model. We’re going to have to hire fewer drivers. This is going to be worse for consumers. You might have to wait six minutes rather than four minutes for someone to pick you up.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mention there’s 500,000 people working for Uber right now?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: In the U.S., there’s more than 500,000. And worldwide, there are over a million. And this fight is playing out in England and France and Germany, too.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have Whole Foods cutting the medical benefits of 1,900 workers. And we said in headlines, you know, Jeff Bezos owns Whole Foods, because Amazon owns Whole Foods. He, Bezos, makes more money than the cost of the entire year of benefits for these nearly 2,000 employees in something like two to six hours, he makes.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Sometimes you wonder who does public relations for these people. Like, this is a real black eye for Bezos. You know, he’s so rich, and he’s really sticking it to these 2,000 workers, part-time workers, who — I’m sure, many of whom are having a hard time making ends meet.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then we’re going to come back. Steven Greenhouse, longtime journalist, author of the new book Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Rolling Mills Burning Down” by the folk musician John Cohen, who died on Monday at the age of 87. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times journalist. He is now author of the new book Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. Among other things, we’ve been talking about this UAW strike, first major UAW strike in 12 years at GM.

Interestingly, the Sunrise Movement, well known for pushing the Green New Deal, you know, sitting down at Nancy Pelosi’s office right before she was named House speaker again — Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, threw her support behind the strike, tweeting, “All workers deserve a right to fair wages, guaranteed healthcare, job security & basic dignity.” Talk about the Green New Deal and what this means for jobs today, and how companies like GM are adapting and how environmentalists are working with unions now.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Right. I think the Green New Deal is a great idea. I do think we face a real global warming crisis. I think we, as a nation, you know, our leadership is going in the very wrong direction. And when the Green New Deal was first announced, it was leaked out prematurely, before some details were worked out. A lot of union folks got angry and uneasy, because they worry that coal mines and coal-fired power plants and gas-fired power plants would be closing very quickly and throw many, many people out of work. And I think the plan was released before they had finished working through — and the phrase now is — “ensuring a just transition.” And union leaders are increasingly working with environmentalists to figure out what this just transition would be.

You know, Bernie Sanders’ labor platform, Elizabeth Warren’s — Bernie’s Green New Deal platform and Elizabeth Warren’s both have very good ideas, like, OK, we’re going to close some coal mines — you know, coal mines are going to close. Coal-[fired power] plants are going to close. And people are going to get laid off. So, you know, Bernie suggests paying them full wages for five years, providing them with training, providing them with full health benefits, providing — you know, making sure their pensions are still paid into. And ideas, proposals like that go very far to reassure unions.

And I was in Germany in the spring, and the Social Democratic Party there is really hurting, you know, whereas the Green Party is doing very well. And people say the Socialist Democrats don’t have enough ideas. And I think a lot of people on the left should really embrace the Green New Deal, because it can mean trillions of dollars in spending on infrastructure. Many of them could be great middle-class union jobs. A lot of them require huge skills. There’s this big push to build wind turbines, that Governor Cuomo and environmentalists here and labor people in New York have really led the way on, to create thousands of really good-paying jobs.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Steve, in your book, you have a chapter on a revolution that most people don’t pay much attention to: what’s been happening in Nevada in recent years and how Nevada has rapidly changed from a red state into a blue state, and largely as a result of the efforts of the Culinary Workers Union in Nevada. Could you talk about that, especially in the context of the past of the labor movement, that it was always anti-immigrant, for many, many decades, until only recently, and how that’s affected the growth of labor in Nevada?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Sure. So, I have a section in the book about the unfortunate decline of unions and worker power, and how that has led to wage stagnation, increased inequality and, you know, a horrible political system where the Koch brothers and billionaires and corporate donors dominate. And, you know, that’s depressing and needs to be fixed.

And then I have several chapters laying out various models about how to rebuild worker power. You know, the teacher strikes did a lot to show that workers could fight again. The Fight for $15 has, in many ways, been very successful.

Then I also devote a chapter to, you know, to my mind — to what is, to my mind, one of the best, most impressive, most forward-looking, most aggressive unions in the United States. That’s the Culinary Union in Las Vegas. They represent dishwashers and hotel housekeepers. And they’re 60, 70% immigrant workers. And while much of the labor movement has been shrinking in size, the Culinary Union has grown from 18,000 workers in the 1980s — it’s more than tripled — to 60,000 workers now. And it represents workers in the big hotel casinos. And nationwide, hotel housekeepers average $11 an hour. They often work just 25 hours a week, make less than $400 a week, make less than $20,000 a year. In Las Vegas, the hotel housekeepers earn, on average, $19.50 an hour. They’re guaranteed 40-hour weeks. They make almost $800 a week, $40,000 a year. I profile a hotel housekeeper, wonderful woman, Francis Garcia, an immigrant from Honduras. She, alone, is able — on her salary from the Culinary as a housekeeper, is able to raise three kids. She has a very nice apartment, you know, big-screen TV. Her kids are going to college. I mean, it shows that where there’s a strong, enlightened union that involves the people, that is willing to engage in strikes, to make sure the employers pay their fair share, that these jobs that are often low-wage elsewhere can be really good middle-class jobs with lots of respect.

Now, on politics — so, remember, in 2016, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all flipped from blue to red, those supposedly blue, all, states. Well, in Nevada, thanks largely to this amazing union, which really knows how to mobilize its members, Nevada has flipped from red to blue. And in the 2018 election, Nevada was the only state where an incumbent Republican senator lost his seat.

So, this is a union that, pardon my French, is really kicking ass. It’s really doing a very impressive job. And I devote a chapter to it because they’re doing so many things that other unions and other worker advocates should be doing. They’re involving their members. They’re mobilizing their members. They’re willing to confront the employer. They’re organizing. They do amazing organizing, organizing several thousand workers a year.

AMY GOODMAN: And in Nevada, Clinton beat Trump.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah. And the crazy thing is, Nevada is a right-to-work state. So, you know, often unions are very reluctant to organize in right-to-work states because that means workers can’t be required to pay union dues. So, the Culinary did such an amazing job helping its workers that over 95% of the people pay union dues, which is much higher than in most unions in right-to-work states.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve referenced the teacher strikes. And we cannot say enough about the significance of these in the last year. And then also the upcoming Chicago teachers’ strike. If you can refer to what’s happening here, this — Chicago appears to be heading for a strike, as the teachers’ union in the country’s third-largest district continues to negotiate after rejecting the district’s latest offer. Teachers have been pushing for better pay, smaller class sizes, among other demands. In addition to teachers, workers in SEIU Local 73 say thousands of special ed classroom assistants, bus aids, security officers, custodians could strike as early as October 17th, if the newly elected Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot continues in Rahm Emanuel’s pro-austerity path. The last Chicago teachers’ strike, seven years ago.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, the Chicago Teachers Union has also been one of the leading lights in labor. And the strike in 2012 against Rahm Emanuel and his austerity policies was really a signal event in modern labor history. And it kind of encouraged, years later, the strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, that I write about in the book. And, you know, I have an op-ed in today’s New York Times saying the teacher strikes and their success, in ways, emboldened the GM workers. They feel that labor has wind at their backs. They saw that the teachers’ strikes had huge public support, because the public is concerned about wage stagnation, income inequality. So I think the GM workers are tapping into that sentiment.

Now, in Chicago still, this very militant union, the Chicago Teachers Union, they’re unhappy with continued austerity policies. I mean, I wouldn’t love to be mayor of Chicago right now, because it does — it’s a city with a big budget squeeze, and they’re saying to the union, you know, “Sorry, we can’t spend as much as you like,” and the union is saying, “There are all these gazillionaires in Chicago. You could certainly tax them more to help improve their schools.” And it’s another unhappy tug-of-war. Let’s hope they reach a settlement without a strike.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering if you could comment, in the few moments we have, about the tensions that sometimes arise between labor’s direct interests for its members and the general societal issues. I’m talking about, for instance, SEIU for many years cozying up to Republicans and conservatives, who were governors or political leaders, as long as they supported card check for their members. And so you have this tension that sometimes arises between the need to service your members versus the general social goals of the labor movement.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, we’re in New York. So, the SEIU agreed not to oppose Republican Governor George Pataki so long as Pataki agreed to spend an extra billion to $2 billion for Medicaid and healthcare in New York. And that was good for the union members, but also very good for a lot of New Yorkers who need healthcare. Now, some people say that was a selfish deal. The SEIU says, “That was good for us, and that was good for New Yorkers at large.”

One of the really interesting developments now in labor is, I think a lot of unions realized, “Hey, we’re being perceived too often as narrow, self-interested, just fighting for ourselves.” And there’s really this fast-growing movement called Bargaining for the Common Good. And again, that was led by the Chicago Teachers Union. And then West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona teachers, then Los Angeles teachers, said, “We’re not fighting — yeah, we’ve had a wage freeze for two years or four years. And yes, we want a raise. But we’re not just fighting for that.” In West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, they saw that the Republican government was cutting taxes to the rich, cutting taxes on fracking, cutting taxes for corporations, while the education budgets were being starved, you know, and there were pay freezes for teachers and not enough money for textbooks, and class sizes were getting larger. And they said, you know, “We’re going on strike not just for us, but to help the community.”

And, you know, the strike this fall by the hotel workers at Marriott, they adopted a slogan that they knew — that they thought would resonate with the public, and it really did. They said, “One job should be enough.” I mean, it was crazy that all these workers were juggling two and three jobs, they were getting small raises, while rents in San Francisco and Boston were soaring.

So, unions are really — you know, unions see that they’re not as strong as they once were — and I explain this in detail — so they realize, “We have to reach out to community partners and environmental partners and immigrant groups. And, all together, we could achieve a lot more than we can alone.”

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Greenhouse, please stay after. We’ll do Part 2 and ask you about your assessment of the presidential candidates’ records on labor. Steven Greenhouse, longtime journalist, covered labor for The New York Times for decades. He has a new book out, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. This is Democracy Now!

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