Supporters of Fight for $15 rally in Detroit, July 30, 2019.Credit…Erin Kirkland for The New York Times
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BEATEN DOWN, WORKED UP
By Steven Greenhouse
There’s an enormous upheaval in the American workplace right now, and those who tell you they know how the next decade will pan out — for good or ill — don’t know their history. That’s one of the main lessons of “Beaten Down, Worked Up,” the engrossing, character-driven, panoramic new book on the past and present of worker organizing by the former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse.
At the beginning of this decade, less than 7 percent of private-sector workers belonged to a union, and support for organized labor unions was at an all-time low. Corporations were using illegal tactics to stop unionization, tactics unheard-of in other countries, and new hires at the biggest companies were often required to watch anti-labor propaganda depicting unions as greedy and self-interested.
It was in this climate that 40 fast-food employees met in a New York City teachers union hall in August 2012. The meeting was organized by the grass-roots group New York Communities for Change and the Service Employees International Union after the community group, canvassing door to door on housing issues, kept unearthing worker complaints. The people at the August meeting were angry at how little they were being paid, some stuck at $7.25 an hour after 10 years of work. One woman spoke about being fired for eating a chicken nugget. When one man raised his arms to show burns, the room came alive, arm after arm being raised, each worker sharing scars from McDonald’s, Domino’s, Burger King, KFC.
At a second meeting a month later, 75 workers showed up and debated what demands they should make. They settled on something that seemed impossible, but was the bare minimum they needed to live and work with respect: $15 an hour, and a union.
The “Fight for $15” was born, leading to huge rallies and predawn fast-food walkouts across the country. The workers lacked union protection, and big corporations shelled out cash telling lawmakers that raising the wage would cause small businesses to collapse and result in economic disaster. Nonetheless, the workers won. A wave of minimum wage raises passed. In New York, the rate hit the magic number of $15 an hour.
Those 2012 meetings and the Fight for $15 almost didn’t happen; this was not the kind of organizing work that labor unions like S.E.I.U. had been doing for decades. This required unions to spend money on organizing people who would most likely never pay dues. You’ll have to read Greenhouse’s book to learn why the union did it, and how a $50 million failure by one of the country’s biggest unions led to one of its greatest recent successes.
Greenhouse probably knows more about what is happening in the American workplace than anybody else in the country, having covered labor as a journalist for two decades. He achieves a near-impossible task, producing a page-turning book that spans a century of worker strikes, without overcondensing or oversimplifying, and with plausible suggestions for the future. This is labor history seen from the moments when that history could have turned out differently.
For several decades, it was fashionable to see the forces of history as inexorable. Big-idea books like “Guns, Germs, and Steel” or “Why Nations Fail” told people not only why things happened, but why they had to happen the way they did.
Greenhouse indulges in no such fatalism. The arc of history doesn’t bend toward justice or toward tyranny. In his telling, history is made by human beings facing difficult choices about whether or not to strike, how long, how much to demand and when to compromise. As such, this is a book that breathes hope based on contingency. If history wasn’t overdetermined in 1930, 1981 or 2012, it isn’t overdetermined now.
The book is full of high-stakes episodes in which the right decision is not clear. The “powerful sword” of the strike gets special attention throughout. In the 1970s, there were nearly 300 large strikes — comprising at least 1,000 workers — every year. After Reagan, that number plummeted to under 60. From 2008 to 2018, the average number was just 13.
The 1936-37 General Motors sit-down strikes by the United Automobile Workers, which led to the unionization of the auto industry — and widespread unionization across other sectors — get a heart-pounding chapter, where union leadership is constantly struggling with its own membership, the membership itself is divided and public opinion shifts perilously. At one of many critical moments, a change in wind literally changes the outcome of an encounter with the police: Tear gas directed at strikers and their supporters flies back, forcing a police retreat. The G.M. workers’ spirits go up and down, they make strategies that work better than planned and others that are foiled altogether. There are several times when it looks as if they will fail entirely, and could be killed doing so.
Just because history is not foreordained does not mean it is random, however. One powerful lesson of the U.A.W. sit-down is the importance of radical vision and the bravery of a few workers; another is that elected and appointed officials can make a huge difference in private labor disputes. At one point, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins yells over the phone at the head of G.M.: “You are a scoundrel and a skunk, Mr. Sloan! … You don’t deserve to be counted among decent men! … You have betrayed the men who work for you.” Alfred Sloan apparently retorted: “You can’t talk like that to me! I’m worth $70 million, and I made it all myself!”
With the breaking of the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, the Reagan years are generally understood as the tipping point in labor history. It would be tempting to write about that strike through the lens of Reagan’s ideology alone or, alternatively, to blame the strikers for their defeat. But Greenhouse gives the events leading up to the strike the respect and context they deserve, making it possible even for a reader who knows exactly how it turns out to hope that things might go differently, because the world from inside the minds of the strikers seems so coherent.
Great nonfiction requires great characters, and Greenhouse has the gift of portraiture. He is able to draw a complex, human portrait of a worker with a minimum of words, making the reader greedy for more details, not just about the policies but about the people. And he has both the newspaper writer’s ability to find the one or two individuals whose personal stories exemplify a larger point, and the historian’s ability to make what has already happened seem unlikely. He is skilled at homing in on the moments of the highest uncertainty, and transforming them into stories with quick and destabilizing twists and turns.
Greenhouse may be a great advocate for unions, but he has no patience for union insiders who have grown used to internal power and external weakness, who ask for too little and focus too much attention on strategies designed to minimize damage. George Meany, the longtime head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., comes in for special scorn, standing for insular, uninspired, bureaucratic leadership. Meany once said: “I used to worry about the membership, about the size of membership. But quite a few years ago I just stopped worrying about it, because to me it doesn’t make any difference.” He added, “Why should we worry about organizing people who do not appear to want to be organized?” Union officials during the 1970s may not have been as direct, but they had the same view, and it showed up in their spending: While in the 1930s, unions spent over half their money on organizing, in the 1970s, many unions spent under 5 percent.
But Greenhouse’s greatest anger is for the large companies — and their Wall Street owners — that have no human connection to the workplace and that are pushing the limits with new tactics to demoralize workers and strip them of their power and dignity. When a unionization flier was found in a Walmart bathroom, the company sent in a SWAT team the next day to nip empowerment in the bud. Companies also buy up the airwaves: In 2017, Boeing ran 485 television ads aimed at 3,000 workers during a unionization drive.
They don’t seem to hesitate to break the law, either. On the books, it is illegal to fire leaders of a unionization effort, or to threaten employees with the loss of benefits if they engage in union activities. But studies show that a third of companies fire union supporters, and that union organizers may face up to a one-in-five chance of being fired for demanding a union.
In 57 percent of unionization drives, companies illegally threaten to close the operations if a union is voted in. If they are caught, the companies know that the National Labor Relations Board is likely to require nothing more from them than to post a note saying they know it was wrong, and promising not to do it again.
Yet despite all of the threats of retaliation, there are real signs of growing militancy and solidarity in the work force. Teachers protesting in red states have won improbable victories, while tech workers have gained major concessions from their companies. Labor unions are more popular today than in any year of Obama’s presidency.
Greenhouse’s creed in essence is found in his acknowledgments, where he thanks his parents for teaching him that “all labor that helps humanity has dignity and that every worker, no matter how low paid or humble, deserves respect.” Toward the very end, he shifts from storytelling to polemic, a cri de coeur vision of what labor could be. To get there, he argues that a critical first step is publicly financed elections; labor laws won’t change without breaking the grip of big money on politics, and if we ignore campaign finance law, we do so at workers’ peril. It will also require union leaders to embrace and invest in the hard work of organizing, and to organize workers who will never pay dues. And it will require putting the stories of work — and of working men and women — at the center of our news.