In Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s recent documentary American Factory, the first feature documentary produced by Barack and Michelle Obama for Netflix about a Chinese takeover of a former General Motors plant in Ohio, there is a scene in which a factory official is shown admitting to spying on union activists at work. “I have many ways to deal with them,” the official says, grinning. He holds up his phone to show pictures of one organizer. “This is him. This person here . . . You won’t see him in two weeks’ time.” It’s technically illegal to fire someone for organizing, but the penalties are trivial, and since employers in the United States can fire someone at will for almost any reason, or no reason at all, it’s easy to find a pretext.
The vignette illustrates the point that many of labor’s problems could be solved with simple changes to the law. “Card check” legislation, for example, would eliminate a huge barrier to organizing new workplaces by allowing the formation of a union when a majority of workers sign up for one. Card check would eliminate the unfair National Labor Relations Board elections process, which gives employers free rein to force anti-union propaganda on their employees and even fire organizers.
Expanding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include labor organizers alongside sex, race, and other protected classes, which some pro-labor legislators and activists have advocated, would also go a long way toward levelling the playing field. If union organizing became a protected category like race or sex, workers fired for organizing could sue for damages, which opens employers up to serious money judgments, as opposed to the trivial fines they currently face.
However, we’re unlikely to see these legal remedies come to fruition any time soon. Republicans won’t support them and Democrats simply don’t prioritize them. Republicans know how unions contribute to Democratic political success (as well as being ideologically opposed to them in principle), and thus make an effort to destroy them at every opportunity. Meanwhile, Democrats tend to take labor for granted. Even when they had control of both houses and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, they failed to pass card check.
Hard though it may be to believe, average hourly pay for American workers remains below the levels of 1973, after accounting for inflation. Just 10.5 percent of U.S. workers belong to unions today, compared to 35 percent in the 1950s. That said, there is some good news. Nearly half of Americans say they’d like to belong to a union. It’s easy to see why. Fifty million Americans earn less than $15 an hour. Union members earn 13.6 percent more on average, and unionized black workers earn 16.4 percent more. In addition, belonging to a union increases your odds of having employer-sponsored health insurance by over 50 percent. Approval of labor unions is nearing a 50-year high, with 62 percent of Americans now saying they are in favor of them.
So, is there hope? Steven Greenhouse, who covered labor for The New York Times for nearly two decades, harbors no illusions about the magnitude of the crisis in his new book Beaten Down, Worked Up. Unions have been hunted to near extinction by a lavishly funded coalition of big business interests and conservative ideologues. “The decline of unions, and of worker bargaining power in general, has taken a toll on our nation. It has contributed to many of the country’s major problems: increased income inequality, wage stagnation, declining mobility, the high number of low-wage jobs, and the skewing of our politics in favor of corporations and wealthy campaign donors,” he writes. Greenhouse sees some reason for optimism, but he argues that if the labor movement is to recover, it will have to adopt innovative organizing tactics and embrace not only members and potential members, but the entire working class.
The book opens with a vivid series of sketches of working people being abused and exploited: from jobs lost because of pregnancy and illness, to rampant wage theft, to Uber’s absolute power over its drivers’ incomes. Greenhouse suggests that the common denominator is a decline in worker voice: Without unions, workers have no mechanism to speak up, and companies have no obligation to listen. The book also recaps some of the great labor victories of the twentieth century, focusing on the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand of 1909-10, the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37, and the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968, and showing how labor built power through a combination of tactical brilliance, militancy, and shrewd alliances with powerful political allies like Franklin Roosevelt. Finally, Greenhouse tracks labor’s decline from the 1980s through the present day and presents some innovative alternative organizing models that might help arrest the downturn, including the recent wave of red-state teachers’ strikes and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)’s phenomenally successful Fight for $15 campaign.
In doing so, Greenhouse astutely diagnoses the problem we face: We’re in an inequality death spiral. Historically, unions are one of the most effective checks on inequality. The collapse of labor made the rich richer. Strike activity slowed down in the 1980s after Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers. Factories were relocated overseas. Outsourcing, automation, and globalization have been very lucrative for capital. Labor has increased its productivity year over year, but wages have not kept pace with those gains.
Billionaires are investing some of those riches to further undermine unions. One of the best chapters in the book is an account of the assault on public-sector labor, the last bastion of high union density in the U.S. economy, where 33.9 percent of workers still belong to a union (compared to about 6.4 percent in the private sector). An early and brutal battle in this ongoing war was governor Scott Walker’s 2010 campaign for Act 10, a law that eliminated collective bargaining for most public sector workers in Wisconsin. Union membership in Wisconsin has plummeted by 53.9 percent since Act 10 became law, bringing the state’s union density below the national average for the first time in a century.
Greenhouse explains succinctly why public-sector unions were such an attractive target for Republican politicians and their wealthy donors in Wisconsin: “For them, [crippling these unions] would be a trifecta, it would weaken a financial pillar of the Democrats, undercut a vocal supporter of ‘big government,’ and hobble their ability to win pay increases that often led to higher taxes.”
Greenhouse offers a sketch of how the ultra-rich marshaled their resources in favor of Act 10—and toward boosting Walker’s career. The governor’s campaign chair, Michael Grebe, was also president of a right-wing foundation with an endowment of $850 million. The foundation gave $520,000 to Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers-affiliated nonprofit to push for Act 10, according to Greenhouse. When Walker’s foes campaigned to recall him, even more billionaires stepped up with six-figure donations, including roofing magnate Diane Hendricks, casino owner and business magnate Sheldon Adelson, Amway heir Dick DeVos, and Bob “Swift Boat” Perry from Texas. The anti-recall forces outraised their opponents seven to one, and Walker survived with 53 percent of the vote.
The war on labor is part of a general shift toward what Greenhouse calls “managerial militancy,” by which he means management that seeks to crush unions outright rather than coexist with them. Unlike managers of the past, they aren’t just fighting for the upper hand; they’re in a battle to the death. Strikes were once a very effective weapon for extracting higher wages. However, in the 1970s, strikes became less a tool than a trap for many unions. Employers started baiting workers into strikes in the hopes of crushing their unions. A company can hold out a lot longer than most union locals’ dwindling strike funds, especially if the firm can keep up production with the help of scabs. Greenhouse explains that, historically, bosses had been reluctant to use scabs because replacement workers hurt morale, not to mention a company’s public image.
But when President Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers of the Professional Air Traffic Controller Organization (PATCO) and jailed their leaders, his ruthlessness sent an unmistakable signal to business leaders everywhere: If the President of the United States can be lauded as a capitalist hero for mercilessly crushing a strike, they too could probably get away with it. Greenhouse delves into the tragedy of the PATCO strike in detail. On the campaign trail, Reagan had promised to deal fairly with the air traffic controllers’ union, only to crush their strike by sanctimoniously invoking their no-strike oath and branding the strikers as lawless. The strike was illegal, yes; but the strikers also knew that more than 150,000 federal postal workers hadn’t been fired for a wildcat strike in 1970 when Richard Nixon was President. They also knew that as governor of California, Reagan hadn’t fired any public employees in the course of hundreds of illegal strikes, and he even signed legislation giving California public employees the right to bargain collectively. The controllers therefore believed that, as a former union man himself, Reagan would give them a square deal. They badly mistook the measure of the President and the tenor of the time. “The strike proved to be a resounding victory for the president,” Greenhouse writes, “The Washington Post noted that PATCO, like the rogue states of Libya and North Korea, had served as a perfect foil for Reagan.”
This episode stood in stark contrast to the Roosevelt era, when Americans felt that their President wanted them to join a union. FDR didn’t actually say that, and he was slightly annoyed with John Lewis of the United Mine Workers for claiming he did, but it was true that the U.S. government under Roosevelt not only tolerated unions, but actively promoted them as an instrument in a larger economic policy to stabilize the economy and promote domestic tranquility and shared prosperity following decades of punctuated but violent labor conflict.
Since Reagan, however, “[a] profound change in American capitalism—its swing from managerial capitalism to investor capitalism…has undercut workers and unions alike,” Greenhouse writes. Corporations used to proclaim the welfare of multiple stakeholders (workers, clients, society at large) as integral to their mission. That ethos changed in the 1980s and ‘90s as shareholder value became the only measure of success. And thanks to the mobility of capital, a CEO might not live in the same city as the plant he was squeezing.
Not surprisingly, the average Fortune 500 CEO made $14.5 million in 2018, which is 287 times as much as the average worker. In decades past, the children of plant owners and plant workers might go to school together, their families might worship at the same churches, they might shop at the same grocery store. Today, CEOs are so rich that they and their workers might as well live on separate planets. Walmart knows its low-wage workers depend on food stamps, but Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon will probably never set foot in a grocery store where he might see his workers using them.
Some of the historical material in Beaten Down, Worked Up is well-trodden territory for anyone familiar with the history, particularly its accounts of the garment strikes of the early twentieth century and of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. But Greenhouse enriches even these frequently told stories with unexpected facts. You’ve likely already heard about how future FDR Labor Secretary Frances Perkins was radicalized by witnessing the Triangle Fire. But did you know that Perkins was the victim of a right-wing birther conspiracy? Her enemies alleged that she was secretly a Russian-born Jew, real name Mathilda Watsky. Instead of a long-form birth certificate, Perkins used her family tree to debunk the allegations, tracing her Protestant heritage back several generations, but adding that if she were a Jew, she wouldn’t keep it a secret.
Greenhouse also offers several in-depth case studies of innovative and successful labor models that are worthy of further attention. He delves into the story of the mighty Culinary Workers Local 226 of Las Vegas, which esteemed Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston has called the “most potent grassroots organization in this state.” Culinary workers knocked on 350,000 doors during the 2016 campaign season and played a key role in flipping a U.S. Senate seat from red to blue.
The local is multi-racial, multilingual and—most unexpectedly—thriving despite the fact that Nevada is a right-to-work state. Culinary’s leaders say that they have to work extra hard to convince their workers that their dues are worth paying, since they aren’t obliged to pay. But pay they do: An astonishing 95 percent of the workers represented by Culinary 226 pay their dues. The key, the former head of the local tells Greenhouse, is to maintain “a continual conversation with workers around economic issues.”
Culinary has moved thousands of cleaners, bartenders, and other service-industry workers into the middle class. The local runs a free training academy where members can polish their hospitality skills or train for even higher-paying jobs in the industry. They recruit and train shop stewards from the rank-and-file and put rank-and-file members on their bargaining committees.
As inspiring as Culinary’s history is, Greenhouse reminds us that Culinary’s success owes much to the high profit margins of legalized gambling. These achievements didn’t come easily: Culinary had to build up its power over time before it could force the casinos to do right by their workforce. But there was also enough money sloshing around the industry to satisfy both workers and shareholders. Culinary’s leaders nonetheless insist that their multi-racial, rank-and-file-driven, politically engaged model can be replicated by other unions. There’s no doubt that other unions could benefit from Culinary’s model, but it’s unclear whether they will see gains on the same scale in less-profitable industries.
Another standout section of the book is Greenhouse’s discussion of the SEIU and the transformative Fight for $15 campaign. In 2010, the leaders of SEIU were frustrated because the percentage of workers in private sector unions had continued to decline despite the union’s own relatively successful organizing efforts and the presence of a Democrat in the White House.
As former organizing director Scott Courtney explained to Greenhouse, the union realized that organizing one workplace at a time would take too long to create the desired impact, so they began to think about other models. Eventually SEIU teamed up with a grassroots group in Brooklyn called New York Communities for Change (NYCC). The two groups set out to enlist the nation’s four million fast food workers in a mass movement for economic justice. From the beginning, the emphasis was on recruiting and training frontline workers to organize their peers, as opposed to relying on professional organizers.
The premise was simple: Organize brief walkouts from fast-food restaurants in as many cities as possible and publicize them heavily. These kinds of walkouts were less likely to provoke firings and they didn’t impose as much hardship on the workers as prolonged work stoppages would. If a manager tried to fire a worker for walking out, their allies would show up in force and demand they be rehired. The workers usually got their jobs back, and Fight for $15 got another shot at the news cycle. The first walkout took place in New York City on November 29, 2012, but the movement soon spread nationwide.
Organizers encouraged frontline workers to share their stories of hardship and frustration and their dreams of a better life, they cultivated alliances with other progressive organizations and religious groups, and they hired PR pros to spread the message on social media. As of 2018, the Fight for $15 had helped 22 million low-wage workers win $68 billion in raises, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
It remains to be seen whether the Fight for $15 will eventually lead to any increase in union density. But even if it doesn’t, it will have improved the lives of millions of people, provided a potent boost to the economy, shifted the conventional economic wisdom within the Democratic Party, and awakened a new generation of activists to the potential of grassroots organizing.
So how optimistic should we be? At the core of Beaten Down, Worked Up is a catch-22 that Greenhouse brings up but never truly resolves. “If we hope to create a more favorable environment for workers, we as a nation will first need to overhaul our campaign finance system,” Greenhouse writes.
Greenhouse, quite reasonably, favors a constitutional amendment to reform our campaign finance system, but it is difficult to see how we can overcome the stranglehold of moneyed interests on our politics without a healthy labor movement. If we can’t even get card check passed, how are we supposed to pass a constitutional amendment to check the people who oppose it? Hence the catch-22: We can’t heal unions until we fix campaign finance, but we can’t get campaign finance reform without a robust labor movement.
Greenhouse is right that if labor is going to reverse its decline it will have to adopt creative organizing tactics that overcome the structural barriers anti-union forces have put in labor’s way. The most important part of this is building a true mass movement of the working class, rather than just representing members or vying for new ones.