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 labour reporter Steven Greenhouse.
At the beginning of this decade, less than seven per cent of private-sector workers belonged to a union, and support for organised labour unions was at an all-time low. Corporations were using illegal tactics to stop unionisation, tactics unheard-of in other countries, and new hires at the biggest companies were often required to watch anti-labour 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 organised 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 organising work that labor unions like SEIU had been doing for decades. This required unions to spend money on organising people who would most likely never pay dues. You’ll have to read Mr 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.
Mr Greenhouse probably knows more about what is happening in the American workplace than anybody else in the country, having covered labour 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.
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.
Just because history is not foreordained does not mean it is random, however. One powerful lesson of the UAW 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 labour disputes. At one point, Secretary of Labour Frances Perkins yells over the phone at the head of GM: “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 labour 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 Mr 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.
Mr 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 unionisation flier was found in a Walmart bathroom, the company sent in a SWAT team the next day to nip empowerment in the bud.
They don’t seem to hesitate to break the law, either. On the books, it is illegal to fire leaders of a unionisation 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.
Toward the very end, Mr Greenhouse shifts from storytelling to polemic, a cri de coeur vision of what labour could be. To get there, he argues that a critical first step is publicly financed elections; labour 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 organising, 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 centre of our news.
Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor
Alfred A Knopf; $27.95; 397 pages
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