In thinking about the aspirations of today’s workers, veteran New York Times journalist Steven Greenhouse quotes labor activist Rose Schneiderman in his new book, “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor” (Knopf). Schneiderman, who had been a garment worker in the early years of the 20th century, said, “The workers must have bread, but she must have roses, too” — “to have the sun and music and art.” Here, Greenhouse tells the backstories of the American workplace, reporting on the men and women who built and advanced the labor movement. The author, who grew up in Massapequa, L.I. — where his father was a high school teacher and active in the teachers’ union — covered labor for The Times for 19 years during his more than 30 years as a reporter there.
JW: We are approaching Labor Day 2019: How do you describe the state of unions?
Greenhouse: By many measures, unions have sunk to their weakest point in decades. Just 10.5 percent of workers are in unions, down from 35 percent in the 1950s. At the same time, unions are flexing their muscles the most they have in years, as we saw with the huge teacher strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma and Los Angeles. Many well-educated workers are rushing into unions: digital media journalists, adjunct professors and graduate students.
How did you become interested in the subject of labor?
I grew up listening to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and the Weavers. My parents were very interested in the labor movement and civil rights movement, and I inherited their interests. At The Times, after covering the State Department, I wanted to switch to a beat where I would be writing about flesh-and-blood humans. That led me to the labor beat.
You speak of the connection between the weak state of the U.S. labor movement and income equality. How might a stronger labor movement lead to less inequality?
In recent years, American corporations have been making record profits and doing record stock buybacks — all while after-inflation wages have largely stagnated. If unions were stronger, they’d make sure corporations shared more of their prosperity with workers.
In 1969, Golda Meir addressed an AFL-CIO convention in Atlantic City and told the crowd that her father belonged to the Carpenters’ Union. The audience cheered for 15 minutes. They saw her, as the daughter of a union man, as one of them. Why did that happen, and could that happen today?
That evidently showed a tremendous nostalgia and respect for labor’s early struggles, and it showed a desire to embrace Golda and her values as labor’s values. Nowadays Amy Klobuchar often boasts that her parents were in unions — candidates know that’s a line that connects.
Your book traces the history of American labor and the current state of workers and unions. Why did you begin your historical discussion where you did?
I have long been fascinated by Clara Lemlich, who sparked the largest strike by women workers in American history. She was a Ukrainian Jew whose family immigrated to New York after the horrific Kishinev pogrom. Lemlich hoped to become a doctor, but speaking only Yiddish, she was relegated to working in sweatshops. She was shocked by the conditions, working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in dark, dusty factories. At a meeting in Cooper Union’s Great Hall in 1909, Lemlich called for a general strike and that ignited a famous walkout by female garment workers, called the Uprising of the 20,000. The strikers were overwhelmingly Jewish.
How do you see the role of Jews in the labor movement’s early days? Do they still have a significant presence?
Jews — with their idealism and impatience with injustice — played an important role in the early labor movement. Samuel Gompers was the first president of the American Federation of Labor. Sidney Hillman was the visionary president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Many Jews still hold prominent roles, most notably Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. There’s also Sara Horowitz, the visionary founder of the Freelancers Union — who proudly tells of how she carries on the traditions of the Bund and Jewish labor leaders from yesteryear.
How would recharged labor unions help strengthen America?
Unions have helped create a fairer, more democratic nation: lifting millions of workers and giving average, non-affluent Americans a greater voice in politics. Corporations spend $3 billion a year on lobbying in Washington, more than 60 times the $48 million unions spend. That helps explain why Congress gave corporations a huge tax cut, but refuses to raise the minimum wage. A stronger labor movement would change our nation’s priorities and help ensure that corporate interests don’t dominate our politics.
Would you generalize to say that working conditions are better these days?
In many ways working conditions are worse than two and three decades ago. White-collar workers are increasingly working 60- and 70-hour weeks. Factory and service-sector workers face more pressure and stress to increase their output. Many employers are showing less loyalty to workers, often preferring to hire temps and gig workers. Jobs have grown more unstable and precarious than in decades past.
Can you cite any positive signs for the future of “a new and different labor union”?
The teachers’ strikes aimed not just to lift teacher pay but to improve our schools. That has led to far greater support for teachers’ unions. Unions increasingly see the advantages of fighting not just for themselves, but for the greater community. The Fight for $15 [minimum wage] is an unusual, union-supported effort that lifted wages for 22 million workers, most of them non-union. I haven’t seen so much labor energy in years.