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The Future for Labor

A new book heralds workers fighting for a fair deal—even when they can’t join unions.

David McNew / Getty Images

In high school, in the late ’90s, my friends and I played hooky and drove to Flint, Michigan, where we heard there was going to be a strike at the Delphi plant, an auto parts supplier to General Motors. We got there just in time to see the men walking out, marching slowly in horizontal lines, joined at the arms. Some of them were singing. An audience stood outside the plant gates, watching silently, and for a moment, everything held still. Later, I learned that 5,800 men and women had struck the Flint East plant, only to be joined by 2,700 strikers at nearby Flint Metal a week later. The two strikes were poised to shut down all 32 (at the time) GM assembly plants in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. That moment at the gates changed the trajectory of my life: My first post-college job was as a labor reporter.

Knopf, 416 pp., $27.95

A large, traditional strike action like the one I witnessed is now fairly rare. Striking used to be a union’s biggest tool. But in today’s employer-friendly atmosphere, with rife with anti-union legislation like the recent wave of right-to-work laws, strikes are used as an opportunity for employers to break the union, from firing the leaders to lockouts to hiring permanent replacement workers. From 2010 to 2017, there were fewer than 13 strikes involving 1,000 workers per year in the private sector. That’s a major reversal from the average annual number of major strikes in the 1980s (83) and throughout the 1970s (288).

Considering these numbers, it almost feels strange to be writing about unions in America at all right now. Labor unions represent only 6.4 percent of America’s private-sector workers and 10.5 percent of workers overall—the lowest percentages in 100 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Why concentrate on the tiny minority of workers in union jobs when there are so many blue-collar, pink-collar, and even white-collar workers who can’t get anything close to a fair deal from their bosses?

That’s one of the main questions that Steven Greenhouse, who covered labor and workplace issues for The New York Times for 19 years, asks and answers in his new book, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. Greenhouse believes in the labor movement—it is a fact, he writes, that union jobs still empower workers and pay more—but he’s also a realist. He makes it clear that unorganized workers can enjoy benefits won partly on behalf of money and time put in by organized labor, and that’s OK. As Greenhouse chronicles alternate and nontraditional ways of organizing, the overarching lesson of the book is that virtually everybody ends up better off from mobilizing—even if they don’t add their names to union rolls.

While Greenhouse gives us some history lessons—the same we’ve read about in many other books (the momentous Flint sit-down strike of 1936 to ’37, the disastrous 1981 PATCO strike), the most engaging parts of the book recount those nontraditional fights, which Greenhouse calls “unusually successful modern-day labor efforts that signal a hopeful path for workers.”

Some of these workers, like a determined group of fast-food workers, cannot get recognized as a union by their employer—and still they fought on in a different way. Farmworkers—like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that pick tomatoes for places like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and Wal-Mart, belong to a class that’s exempt from the National Labor Relations Act—meaning that they have no right to unionize. With the West Virginia teachers—the group that started the 2018 teacher strike wave—they were severely weakened as a union, as they didn’t have the power to collectively bargain or strike. Yet strike they did anyway.

In the most successful of these movements, power truly shifts, or at least hangs in the balance. The Fight for $15, for example, a movement that started with New York City fast-food workers and quickly went national in 2012 (Greenhouse was the first reporter to cover it when he was at The New York Times), showed that you don’t need a union to win a better wage; in fact, you don’t even need your employer to bargain with you. To begin with the McDonald’s workers tried the traditional route: They met with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizers and decided they wanted a union. At a time when many employees were making $7.25 an hour, one of their major aims was to secure a $15 wage, among the other benefits—most of them not related to compensation—that a union contract could provide. They were also angry enough to strike, staging a one-day walkout in New York City with 200 people. By December of 2012, strikes were held in 100 cities.

Still, McDonald’s refused to talk with the workers or recognize a union. But there was something else happening: In 2014, Seattle had just adopted a $15 minimum wage as part of a larger living-wage battle. As a result, the Fight for $15 group saw a new path: They no longer had to pressure McDonald’s; they could move the fight and pressure government, city by city, working with a coalition of unions, community, immigrant, and other progressive groups. And, as Greenhouse emphasizes, they were no longer fighting by themselves.

Chicago’s city council voted to approve $13 minimum wage, and Los Angeles was next with $15. The list of cities and states with a $15 minimum wage eventually included San Francisco, Minneapolis, much of New York state, and California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. In New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo passed the $15 living wage by using something called the wage board, a Depression-era tool that determined what the living wage should be for certain industries; in this case, fast-food workers. Greenhouse is in favor of the wage board’s potential overall: In theory, he says, “this industry-wide type of bargaining could also be done for hotels, nursing homes, nail salons, and other fields.”

While the fast-food workers didn’t get their union, ultimately, they won something different, important but also more diffuse. Greenhouse quotes SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, who has said that through the Fight for $15’s participation in the nationwide living wage battles raised pay, either directly or indirectly, for 22 million workers.

The tomato pickers of Immokalee, Florida showed that, for the mobilized workers of the 21st century, organization is the real key, especially for workers that are shut out of traditional union for whatever reason. In Immokalee, migrants pick tomatoes, which are sold to a handful of big growers, which are then sold to major companies like Taco Bell. Until recently, the conditions for the pickers have been close to modern slavery. A dozen years ago, it was a hellish job: abuse on every level, including sexual, with workers regularly not receiving pay for everything they picked.

In 1993, farmworker activists founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a coalition that did outreach and education. They struck against different growers twice, but progress was piecemeal. Instead of playing whack-a-mole with the growers, the Coalition decided to pressure high-profile buyers, starting a national boycott against Taco Bell and asking the company to adopt a code of conduct—including things like minimum wages and benefits, working hours, and employee safety—and also asked Taco Bell to pay a penny more per pound for its Florida tomatoes. After four years, in 2005, Taco Bell agreed. Next, the Coalition went after McDonald’s, with the same demands, plus a third one: that McDonald’s help create a monitoring system to make sure the tomato growers complied with the code of conduct.

McDonald’s agreed, and soon other major fast food chains and groceries acquiesced to their demands. Now, Immokalee tomato pickers work under a code of conduct that bans verbal and sexual abuse, that provides clean water, that doesn’t force pickers to work in dangerous heat. They get paid for all hours worked, and are protected from retaliation from supervisors. There’s a 24-hour anonymous hotline for complaints. This isn’t a union contract or a union, but Coalition of Immokalee Workers has won many of the same rights they would have gotten with one. In fact, it became instead a first-class workplace monitoring system.

Another theme of Greenhouse’s is that modern labor, in its weakened state, no longer has the luxury of doing things by itself. Starting in the early ’90s, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) was founded with $60,000 in union money. Since then, the organization has been racking up achievements for low-wage workers with the express purpose of not going it alone.

LAANE got real estate developers to pay a living wage to the workers in their buildings and to agree not to oppose unionization. The alliance won a far-reaching minimum wage law and a $15.37 minimum wage for L.A.’s hotel workers. These victories were won through partnerships with other organizations: During a living-wage fight, Greenhouse describes, LAANE sent “a stream of clergy, community leaders, and rank-and-file workers” to speak with city council members. Restaurant workers and janitors joined in too, pointing out that they could barely make their bills. By the time they were done, it had seemed organizers had taken the entire community to city council over the issue, including schoolchildren and people from retirement homes. The coalition aimed to win over all 15 council members, especially in conservative areas. To that end, an organizer told Greenhouse, “Clergy from every denomination began faxing in their support to their council members every day.” Eventually, LAANE won their living wage.

Greenhouse’s book also notes that one of the biggest surprises in 2018 was the wave of teacher strikes. It began in West Virginia, where classroom instructors were mad as hell over constant increases in health-care premiums that ate into tiny paychecks (some as little as $32,000 a year). Although the teachers were represented by two different unions, the Mountain State didn’t allow teachers to bargain collectively or strike, and so educators mobilized via social media and decided to strike illegally, demanding a 5 percent raise. They won after nine days out—and inspired other fed-up educators across the country, in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, and North Carolina. In West Virginia, teachers proved that you can win when your circumstances are severely constrained.

The future of organizing may not lie primarily with the trade unions we associate with the unions of the twentieth century. But, as Greenhouse demonstrates, union tactics have hardly lost their relevance, and can be applied by new kinds of workers—even those who may not be allowed to organize, or might have slim chances of winning a union, or who may already be organized but might not be able to bargain or strike.

The future, according to Greenhouse, may involve other industries creating their own standards-setting organization, as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers did, or setting up a worker center, a kind of alternative labor group, one that doesn’t engage in collective bargaining but supports workers in other ways. Worker centers are nonprofit, community-based organizations that support low-wage workers through services like legal support for wage and hour claims, local advocacy, and organizing for better wages and working conditions. Greenhouse advocates for a law requiring that all worker centers receive voluntary financial dues from the workers they support, and he also suggests that billionaires donate to worker centers. (The latter feels like a goofy suggestion, since so far, billionaires like the Koch brothers enjoy few things more than donating to anti-union legislation).

Greenhouse offers a host of suggestions about how to improve labor, some of which have been made many times before. These include campaign finance reform (Greenhouse is a fan of Bernie Sanders’s attacks on big money) to rein in dark money, like that of the anti-union Koch brothers, and to expand public financing in political campaigns. He suggests creating a national workers’ lobbying group, much as the American Association of Retired People lobbies for the elderly. He suggests a card-check law making it easier to unionize, and righteously proposes a rule requiring stagnant unions to increase their membership, and a lot of other nuts-and-bolts stuff.

Ultimately, Greenhouse equates strong unions, or at least worker power, with democracy itself, and he sees very few limits on what a successful and healthy labor movement could achieve. The union movement could also “champion universal health coverage, free community college, free public universities, more and better apprenticeships, paid paternal leave, a fairer tax system … affordable housing, first-class public schools, excellent transportation, and clean air and water,” he writes at the end of Beaten Down, Worked Up. It’s a ridiculously bold list, and it’s meant to be. Greenhouse wants to see labor involved in every part of American life, building a stronger social safety net and fighting for everyone.