Saturday, November 16, 2019

New Labor History by Greenhouse is a Tour de Force, Recommended for Teachers and Students Alike

            Journalist Steven Greenhouse’s new book is a tour de force history of the labor movement, particularly as it has unfolded since the New Deal.  See Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor (Penguin/Random House 2019).

            And the book is, indeed, a history of labor and not simply of unions. The author, in this regard, treats the remarkable phenomena of fast-food workers campaigning for equitable pay in the “Fight for $15” movement and immigrant tomato harvesters fighting for humane working conditions in Florida. These are workers who were not, and are not likely to be, laboring under the auspices of a collective bargaining agreement. The same can be said of the Amazon and Wal-Mart workers he discusses, who have connected via Facebook and other Internet vehicles to work towards better pay and working conditions.

            While this new book discusses all aspects of labor, front and center is the unavoidable account of the decline of union power and influence. Greenhouse, in this regard, sets forth the familiar, shocking statistics: only 6.4% of workers in the private sector enjoy union protection, with only 10.5% of the workforce, overall, unionized. He explains the many reasons for this phenomenon, which in fact seems to have been a long time coming, ever since the Taft-Hartley Act made it harder for workers to unionize. More recent developments are the changing nature of employment and industry, labor’s own bad image, the remorseless efforts of corporations to fight unionization, and the Citizens’ United effect of allowing millions of business-interest dollars into political campaigns.  

            For those sympathetic to labor, the Greenhouse book is a grim read. On hopeful notes, he identifies recent successes, such as the remarkable influence of Culinary Workers’ #226 in Las Vegas, which brought collective bargaining to most of the resort casinos; and the rebellion of underpaid public-school teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, where even Trump-supporting educators joined with their union colleagues and successfully demanded fairer treatment. Still, Greenhouse asserts that major changes in the National Labor Relations Act, and in how unions imagine and run themselves, will be required before most workers gain true voice and are treated and paid fairly.        

            The issues of workplace safety, and compensation for the same, are part of the story, if only on the periphery. In the present day, he observes, employment sites where worker representation is absent often feature significant hazards to health (he sets forth, among others, an utterly plausible account of a dangerous recycling plant). Meanwhile, gig labor platforms like Uber establish their workers as independent contractors, often disavowing responsibility for safety and compensation. And, in a return to the roots of the modern labor movement, the author sets forth a portrait of the redoubtable Frances Perkins, who was animated by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to devote her career to workplace safety, workers’ compensation, and other forms of social insurance.

            An account new to this writer: Martin Luther King, Jr. was famously (and fatefully), in Memphis in 1968 in support of the momentous sanitation workers’ strike. An unhappy situation had long been simmering, but the workers became truly disaffected, prompting, in part, the strike, when two of their colleagues died in a mishap caused by chronically malfunctioning vehicles. According to Greenhouse, “neither Cole nor Walker had workers’ compensation coverage because of a loophole in the law. That meant no death benefits for their families. Nor were Cole and Walker able to afford the life insurance the city offered. The families were left in penury, receiving just one month’s salary and a special $500 special payment – not even enough to cover burial expenses….”   

            Greenhouse, with his top-notch new book, is treating issues that have been in the headlines the last few decades. The attentive reader will find his topics familiar. However, the author skillfully brings the whole story together, fills in gaps in one’s knowledge, and offers recommendations for what he asserts is much-needed change. This writer wasted not a moment in reading this epic treatment of labor in the present day and recent past.


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