For this week’s episode of Off-Kilter, Rebecca sat down with longtime labor journalist Steven Greenhouse. He’s someone who really needs no introduction after spending thirty-one years at the New York Times, eighteen of which he spent covering the labor beat, until 2014. He’s also the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker and Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor. And these days he’s a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where he writes about wages and working conditions, labor organizing, and other workplace issues. In a conversation recorded the day after Labor Day, they had a far-ranging chat about the history of Labor Day in the United States; how he got into labor reporting; the rise of the U.S. labor movement and what’s behind recent declines in union participation; some of the most exciting recent developments within American labor, including successful efforts to organize Starbucks and Amazon workers; why he’s especially excited about worker-to-worker organizing as part of the future of the labor movement; and lots more.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I go behind the music with visionary leaders working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance we all deserve. As you know if you listen to this show regularly, I like to say I think of it kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy and everything that connects with them.
So, for this week’s episode, I am so excited to sit down with someone who I feel so incredibly lucky to get to work with and to have gotten to know just a little bit as a fellow senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and that’s longtime labor journalist Steve Greenhouse. He’s someone who really needs no introduction after spending 31 years covering the labor beat for the New York Times until 2014. He’s also the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker and Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor. And these days, as I mentioned, he’s a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where he writes about wages and working conditions, labor organizing, and other workplace issues. You can find lots more about Steve’s work, including several of his recent articles, in our show notes. Steve, it is such a treat to get to sit down with you for the podcast. And Happy Labor Day.
STEVE GREENHOUSE: Happy Labor Day. Great to be here, Rebecca.
VALLAS: I can’t think of a better time for us to be talking. I know this is gonna go to air a little after Labor Day, but it’s a perfect time to be getting to talk with you. I mentioned that you’re a household name for anyone who really cares about the economy, about inequality, about workers’ issues. But just to level the playing field and be fair, as with everyone that I talk with for the podcast, I wanna give you the chance to introduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners ‘cause it’s your first time on the show. So, tell me, how did you get into labor reporting? What was your path to the famous gig as New York Times’ labor reporter?
GREENHOUSE: Great question. So, I grew up in a family. My parents grew up in the Depression. They were very poor. They were very concerned about workers. They were very pro-union. So, I grew up in a household where we listened to Pete Seeger and Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and songs, If I Had a Hammer, and I went to summer camp where we sang We Shall Overcome. And I guess I cared about social justice issues, worker issues growing up. Then I became a journalist. I went to the New York Times. I started as a business reporter. I covered steel and other industries, and there are a lot of labor issues there. Then I was in Chicago for the New York Times for three years as the Midwest business correspondent. Again, a lot of labor issues, you know, factory closings. Then I was the European economics correspondent for the New York Times for five years. And again, a lot of labor issues because there was high unemployment, lots of strikes. Then I was in the Washington bureau of the New York Times for four years. I was covering the State Department and diplomacy, and I got very tired of doing it because it was all policy, and I wanted to write about human beings and flesh and blood.
So, I asked whether there’s an opening to cover the labor beat because it’s, you know, I’ve been very interested in workers, very interested in labor policy. And one of my best friends says, “Steve, you were a reporter in the New York Times Paris bureau! You were a Washington correspondent. Why would you wanna cover labor? That’s such a unsexy beat, and you’re a sexy rep-, and that’s an unsexy beat.” And I said, “I think it could be a great beat,” covering the trials and tribulations of 150 million workers, people who get cheated out of the minimum wage, people who die on the job because of unsafe conditions, how immigrant workers are mistreated, how workers at Walmart are treated or mistreated. And I pushed for the beat because I wanted to write about human beings again and also about policy, rather than just writing about more abstract things like diplomacy.
And I remember when I first started at the New York Times in the business section, the brilliant guy who was the business editor, he said, “Steve, what do you wanna do when you grow up? What do you wanna be when you’re, you know, what would you love to be eventually at the New York Times?” I said, “I’d like to be a labor reporter.” He said, he sneered, said, “What?!” Anyway. White House correspondent maybe, but not labor reporter. But I covered labor for the New York Times for almost 19 years. And as I tell people, if I’d done a really poor job, they would’ve kicked me off the beat pretty quickly. So, they must’ve been fairly happy with how I was doing.
VALLAS: I love that answer. And also, you sort of embedded in that, right, is a lot of what your legacy is through that job that you really pioneered, you really, you’re one of the people who made labor reporting sexy, right? There’s a ton of labor reporters now, not nearly as many as we need. But it’s kind of become cool to be a labor reporter! And that wasn’t even really a beat until you said that’s something that we need more of.
GREENHOUSE: Yes and no. I mean, in the 1950s and ‘60s, labor was very big. And in the 1930s, labor was a huge, a huge issue. A New York Times labor reporter in the 1930s actually won a Pulitzer Prize for covering labor. And in the 1950s and ‘60s, the fights between the mighty United Auto Workers and the mighty United Steelworkers and U.S. Steel and GM and Ford, those were front-page stories. Those were huge stories. And every paper had two or three labor reporters then. Fast forward to the 1990s when I began covering labor and unions were much weaker and not in the news, a lot of papers stopped covering labor. I remember I started covering labor in 1995. I went to the annual AFL-CIO winter meeting in Bal Harbour, Florida. There must’ve been 20, 25 reporters from the St. Louis Globe Dispatch, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Boston Globe.
Fast forward like 18, 19 years later, when I went to an AFL-CIO winter meeting in Texas, I was the only daily reporter there. And just so many papers dropped having a labor reporter. But I felt a responsibility, as for a while, I was the only full-time labor reporter in a daily newspaper in the country. The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times no longer had. And I felt I had to show, I had to do a good job covering this issue because no one else was, and I had to show, I wanted to show that this is an important subset, and other people, other papers should be covering it. And I had a lot of good exclusives and important stories, and slowly more and more folks started covering labor again. And it’s great for my ego, and it would make my mother very happy, but some people say kind of I helped save the labor beat for the nation.
VALLAS: Well, let me reframe then.
GREENHOUSE: I wasn’t modest. I shouldn’t talk like that.
VALLAS: Well, no. But I’m the one saying it, so if you’re agreeing with me, I’ll take that. But my point that I’m trying to make, I guess I’ll reframe is, maybe you didn’t make it sexy, but you made it sexy again, right? And I think that that’s something that’s been— I’ll show my age, right? That’s during my lifetime. That’s what I’ve witnessed. I wasn’t around in the ‘50s and ‘60s to see that first level of the history. But I feel like this is a really good segue to actually tell a little bit of the history behind the labor movement in America.
Something I thought would be fun to start this conversation off with is actually the history behind Labor Day, ‘cause you and I are talking just the day after Labor Day, and a lot of folks enjoy the day off from work. Maybe people realize it has something to do with the labor movement, but I suspect a lot of folks, even folks who are listening, might not know a ton about why we celebrate it. And I’ll actually share part of why I was inspired to start our conversation here is because over the weekend, I actually had a conversation with one of our neighbors and her nine-year-old twin boys, and I wished them all a Happy Labor Day. We were sort of saying hello over the fence, and they said, “Oh, what is Labor Day? Is it a day for laboring?” [chuckles] And I said, “No, actually, it’s quite the opposite.” And they’re these two adorable nine-year-old boys who are also very smart, very precocious. So, then they asked questions, and they said, “Oh! Well, then why is it a day where we don’t work? Where did that come from?” And so, for a couple of nine-year-old boys who live across the street, and for anyone else who could use a refresher on the history, I figured few people are as well qualified to answer that question as you are. So, where did Labor Day came from?
GREENHOUSE: Another very good question. So, I think a lot of people nowadays think Labor Day is a day for picnics and barbecues, but they forget it has a distinguished history. Labor unions really grew strong both in the United States and Europe, in the late 1800s. And in Europe, they started celebrating a special day for labor to celebrate workers. And a lot of workers felt they were taken advantage of, and they wanted more respect, they wanted more dignity, they wanted more recognition, and Labor Day became a way to do that. And in Europe, it was on May 1st. But in the United States, they, a lot of politicians thought, oh, May 1st is a day for communist union people and socialist union people, and we in the United States don’t want that. And meanwhile, the Knights of Labor and other unions in the United States were making a lot of noise. There was a very famous strike in 1894, the Pullman strike, where Pullman was a huge railroad company and had really had a company town just outside Chicago called Pullman. And the nation’s economy was in trouble, and it cut all its workers’ wages, but it didn’t cut the rents. It charged the workers in Pullman, and the workers said, understandably, “This is unfair,” so there was a big strike by the Pullman car workers who built the cars. And then the rest of the nation’s railroad unions walked out in support of the strike. And President Cleveland and some governors called in the National Guard. And guess what. It’s happened far too many times in American history, and far too many people forget that the National Guard killed a lot of strikers. And Grover Cleveland thought, this is not good. I’m gonna wanna run for president again, and I need support from workers. And one way to kiss-kiss to make up with workers was to say we will designate a Labor Day to show that I, Grover Cleveland, respect workers. So, Labor Day became an important day to say we appreciate workers. We support what you do. We don’t, we the capitalists, don’t want you to be too angry at us because we’re gonna throw you this bone of a Labor Day.
But many union people see it as a day for solidarity, for flexing their muscles to show what we’ve accomplished. And again, many people forget that American workers in the late 1800s up through the 1940s, 1950s, a lot of average workers really had a hard time making ends meet. They were really struggling. And the union movement really took off in the 1930s during the Great Depression, and the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers, they became very powerful unions. They staged some extremely important strikes, you know, lead story of the nation’s newspapers when the United Auto Workers finally, finally, finally unionized the nation’s largest company, General Motors, at the time. And through those strikes and through the formation of these unions, the auto workers, the steelworkers, the machinists, they got these very powerful, very rich companies—GM, Ford, Chrysler, United States Steel, Bethlehem Steel—to start paying very good wages with good health coverage and good pensions. And too many people forget that it was really unions in the 1950s and 1960s, with their muscle, with their demand for economic justice that were essential, pivotal, key to creating America’s middle class.
And another thing people forget is the unions just didn’t win much better wages for people at GM and Ford and Chrysler and U.S. Steel and other unionized companies. Many non-union companies felt that they had to greatly increase their wages and benefits, both to help attract enough workers so that all these workers don’t flock into, go to work for unionized competitors. And a lot of these non-union companies said, we don’t wanna become unionized, so we better offer the same wages and benefits, perhaps better than what the unionized companies are offering. So, it’s widely, widely forgotten that unions have played an extremely important role in building the middle class in the United States, enabling families to buy cars, enabling families to buy their own home. Before unions grew strong in the 1950s and 1960s, very few American families could afford to buy a house, could afford to buy a car. And that really changed with unions. So, when people ask, “Why are unions important?” they were key. So, after World War II, GM and Ford and Chrysler and the chemical companies and steel companies, they were very, very, very rich, and their shareholders became super rich. And it was really the unions that basically used their strike muscle to say, look, this is unfair. Our members, our workers are not doing well, and we are gonna go on strike to pressure you to do a better job sharing your profits and sharing your prosperity. And they forced the companies to do that, and that really lifted many people essentially from the working class into the world’s largest middle class.
VALLAS: And as you tell that history, and I feel like that was kind of an extraordinary amount of history that you just summed up in just a few minutes, right? People could read a lot of your work and a lot of your, including a couple of your books, and get a lot more of that history. But I’ll name that if I’m remembering some of the economic literature correctly, it’s not just people who have been union members and their families who have been generally the beneficiaries of that tremendous boom in the middle class in the United States that we’ve seen and that you’re describing. People who are part of a union or maybe are not even part of a union all have actually benefited from the overall economic consequences, the positive economic consequences, of that period of time when unions were really in their heyday. We’re gonna talk a little bit more about what’s going on present day. But am I getting that right?
GREENHOUSE: Yes. And I skipped over a lot of history. I should mention in the 1910s and ‘20s and ‘30s, there were many, many, many heroic workers. People forget. There’s the Industrial Workers of the World who tried organizing loggers and shipping workers in Washington and Oregon. They were literally lynched, hung, shot, just like people in the South decades, you know, people in the South, because there’s such anti-, humungous anti-union hostility among the corporate class in the United States. And here I am in New York, and there were these huge strikes by garment workers who protested horrible conditions who, despite their protests to have better conditions, there was the horrible fire at the Triangle Factory in 1914 where 146 workers died. And so, unions, after tragic incidents like that, really helped make sure that American workplaces were, by and large, much, much, much safer. Are they safe as they should be? No, it’s still far too many workers die. But thanks to unions, there are many more protections for workers. There’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that really exists only because unions pushed for it.
VALLAS: And I’m actually remembering an episode I did years and years ago with some folks talking about that Triangle Factory fire and the organizing that came out of it in terms of New York workers. We’ll try to find that and put that in show notes, oldie but goodie of Off-Kilter’s archives. But Steve, let’s take us a little bit more to present day. So, you’ve been describing kind of the history behind the American labor movement in just a few minutes, as well as what unions have been able to achieve in terms of balancing the scales just a little bit more in favor of workers vis-à-vis massive, massive corporate and sort of shareholder extraction of wealth from workers’ bodies. Talk to me a little bit about what’s happened in recent years.
VALLAS: Folks are probably familiar. We’ve seen a pretty significant decline in union membership over the past several decades and over, frankly, the span of time that you were describing from when there used to be a couple of labor reporters at every paper in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as you were saying, up until present day when now we actually see union membership at record lows. I pulled some numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics just to put some numbers to this, so I don’t make you do that all from memory. But union membership right now, these numbers are 2022, the union membership rate in 2022 was 10.1 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that was down from 10.3 percent in 2021. But that’s the lowest on record. The first year that we actually have BLS data that we can compare it to was 1983 when we had union membership at 20 percent. But that that’s actually a decline really, that can be dated back to the 1950s and 1960s. Talk a little bit about that decline in union membership. What’s behind it? And you’ve been reporting on labor for actually many of these decades while that decline has been taking place.
GREENHOUSE: The numbers you gave are absolutely correct, and I’m glad you gave them, Rebecca. Just a little more history. Like, during the 1930s, the Great Depression, unions were weak and maybe six percent of workers, five percent of workers were in unions. Then there was this huge unionization wave at the end of the Great Depression and during World War II and the early 1950s. And by then we went from like one in 16 workers in unions to one in three workers. Even 35 percent of workers were in unions. Then that slipped to the 20 percent you said in the 1980s, and now, one in five in the 1980s, to one in ten now. And in the private sector, it’s just one in 16. So, why this huge decline?
I wrote several chapters in my book, Beaten Down, Worked Up, explaining what it took for unions to grow in the late 19th century, the first half of the 20th century, and what has caused them to decline since. And so, there are many reasons. One is in the 1980s, the United States start to feel much stronger global competition. After World War II, Europe, Japan was on its back economically. Many of their industries were destroyed. So, in the 1970s and ‘80s, those countries came back, and American industry, American companies felt much more competition. And they said, we’ve got to lower our costs. And they said, one way to lower our costs is to really go to war against unions to weaken unions. That’s one thing.
Second, Ronald Reagan famously, infamously broke the air traffic controllers union in 1981, when that union engaged in a legal strike to shut down the nation’s airports. Reagan fired 11,500 air traffic controllers. He shut down the union. And after that, many, many CEOs felt if President Reagan could go to war against unions, then we should go against, war against unions, too. And after that 1981 PATCO strike, American companies became much, much, much, much tougher towards unions. In my book, Beaten Down, Worked Up, I say America suffers from, as I call it, anti-worker exceptionalism. Companies in the United States fight much harder against unions than companies in any other industrial nation; it’s not even close. So, that, you know, and I’ve been writing a lot of articles about Starbucks and Amazon and Trader Joe’s. And American companies spend a boatload of money to fight against unions, millions and millions and millions of dollars. You don’t see that in France or Australia or Japan or Chile or other industrial countries. The United States, they just go to war against unions.
And I think, you know, I was a reporter in Europe, and I spent a lot of time interviewing CEOs as an economics correspondent. And they don’t hate unions. They don’t love unions, but they don’t have this visceral hatred of unions that so many American companies have. And in Europe, they see unions, maybe they don’t love them, but they see them as respected, valuable social partners that they’re gonna work with to increase productivity and increase profits and increase prosperity for all. And in the United States, it’s very different. Companies kind of see unions as like an illegitimate nuisance that they’re gonna try to stamp them out as if they’re cockroaches. I don’t know what they teach in business school in the United States, but I think they must teach that unions are some god-awful thing that we can’t tolerate. So, I know to my mind, the major reason—and I’ve written this many times—that the unionization rate in the U.S. has fallen so much is that American companies have declared war against unions. And at Starbucks now, we’re seeing this all-out war against the unionization effort, firing workers, closing unionized stores, reducing hours of stores that are unionized to get their workers to quit, and so on, so forth.
Other reasons why the unionization rate has fallen in the United States, so we went from, like, 18 million manufacturing workers to 12 million manufacturing workers. The number of manufacturing workers declined because of automation, because so many jobs moved overseas. And manufacturing was the core area of unions. And meanwhile, the service sector grew very, very quickly, whether restaurants or nail salons or investment banks. And it’s much harder to unionize in a nail salon or a McDonald’s or investment bank than it is to unionize an auto plant in Detroit or Flint. And people say Americans have become more individualistic, and we could debate that. And that might be a reason why fewer people wanted to unionize. So, that’s clearly switched because a recent poll that came out last week—and I’m jumping too far ahead, Rebecca, forgive me—said that 88 percent of Americans under age 30 support unions. And recent studies have shown that one in two Americans say they’d vote to join a union if they could. So, we have this weird situation where basically half the population, half of the nation’s 115 million workers would be in unions if they had their choice, meaning 75 million union members. But instead, just one in ten is in a union, and we just have 14.7 million. So, the percentage of workers in unions is like one fifth, one sixth of what it might be if there wasn’t so much intense anti-union opposition from companies.
I just did this big story for The Guardian newspaper about Starbucks’ very vehement opposition to unionization and spending millions and millions of dollars fighting a union. I quoted one of the nation’s leading experts on labor relations, and he said if it hadn’t been for Starbucks’ union-busting campaign, the union would’ve organized 3,000 Starbucks by now, not just 300. So, there are many reasons for the decline in unionization in the U.S. But I think by far the biggest is that American companies are so vigorously, vehemently opposed to unions and fight them so hard and really scare a lot of workers from, “I better not stick my neck out and support a union. My store might close, my factory might close, my call center might close. I might get fired.” So, I think a lot of people are, even though they want unions, deep down, they’re scared to push for them.
VALLAS: Yeah. I have to say, I’m also someone who grew up in a strong union household, and I’m also the child of a sociologist of work, as you know. So, maybe I’m a little bit biased, but I also don’t understand that hatred of unions and that sort of anti-union narrative, although I do wanna talk a little bit more about it. I wanna just name, though, and give you a chance to talk a little bit about a couple of other factors at play. And you’ve sort of referenced them just a little bit obliquely, but I think that they merit a little bit of deeper discussion. There is actually an 88-year-old law on the books called the National Labor Relations Act, and it has a lot to do with unionization campaigns. Theoretically, it exists to keep employers, keep large corporations from doing really overt, egregious union busting. But you’ve actually been writing a lot about how the Starbucks unionization effort, which now has 340, I think, successes and counting around the country—it started in Buffalo but has really spread nationwide—that effort has actually put on display, as you were just naming, some of the real shortcomings of that National Labor Relations Act. What are some of those shortcomings? What is behind that quote that you just brought in about the difference between if they’d unionized 340 shops versus 3,000 shops? Where are the holes in this law?
GREENHOUSE: So first, a little history, Rebecca. So, in the 1930s, a lot of workers were struggling to make ends meet. A lot of factories were laying off workers. A lot of factories are cutting wages, and workers really, really, really hated when wages are cut. So, there’s a lot of, literally a lot of turmoil in the streets among workers, huge strikes. And some capitalists are worrying about a socialist communist revolution. And Franklin Roosevelt thought, let’s give workers more power. Let’s allow them to bargain collectively to increase their pay. There’ll be less commotion on the streets, and we’ll channel things into more reasonable institutions. And Roosevelt also pushed for a National Labor Relations Act because they thought American workers are too poor. They don’t have enough money to spend. Until they have more money to spend, the Depression is gonna remain because we need more consumer purchasing power to end the Depression.
So, the National Labor Relations Act was passed, and it really was landmark legislation. It gave, it, for the first time, gave American workers a federally protected right to unionize, that if a majority of workers at a workplace, private sector workplace, vote to unionize, the company is required to recognize the union and to bargain with the union. And that sounds great, but people saw that in the decades after, that there were some major unforeseen weaknesses in the National Labor Relations Act. And part of the reason for the weakness is that to win passage of the National Labor Relations Act, Roosevelt and Senator Wagner of New York, the main sponsor, needed support from all these senators in the South who love corporations and didn’t like unions. And so, it was a law that had these landmark guarantees that you could unionize, but it had no teeth in it so that if companies fired people illegally for supporting a union or dragged their feet for two or three or five years and refused to ever bargain a contract, they really couldn’t be fined even one penny.
So, we have this [bleep] situation now with Starbucks that I’ve written about a lot. So, the union says Starbucks has fired over 200 pro-union workers in retaliation for their supporting a union. And judges have found that in now 28 cases, Starbucks has fired pro-union baristas illegally, and judges are looking at another 70 such cases. And even when Starbucks has been found to have fired people illegally to kind of discourage people from unionizing to send a signal that if you unionize, bad things can happen, if you stick your head out, you can get it chopped off for supporting a union, it can’t be fined even one penny for firing those 28 or 200 pro-union. So, that’s turning out to be a huge weakness in what was trumpeted as the Magna Carta for labor, the National Labor Relations Act. So, the two biggest weaknesses a lot of labor experts say, is that there can be no fines if you fire people for supporting a union, if you close a recently unionized, if you close a factory or a store or a call center, because they’re unionized.
And here we have this situation where in Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is based, it was the first town or city in the United States where every Starbucks was unionized. And lo and behold, Starbucks has closed all three Starbucks in Ithaca. And the workers say that was horrible, symbolic retaliation to show other towns bad things are gonna happen if you unionize. Starbucks says, no, no, no, we just did all that for innocent business reasons. That’s being litigated. So, one big problem with the National Labor Relations Act is you really can’t punish people for breaking the law. Second, companies can delay, delay, delay for years before ever reaching a first contract. People, workers vote for a union because they want a first contract that will raise wages, that will mean better safety conditions, maybe give them longer parental leave. But one third of the time after a union is voted in, the company never, ever, ever agrees to a contract in the first place. So, a company can break the law by not bargaining in good faith. And the National Labor Relations Board can issue a ruling saying you’re naughty, you’re not bargaining in good faith, you better go back to the table, negotiating table, and bargain in good faith. And the company just drags its feet again for a year or two years.
So, I just had, wrote this big story about Starbucks. The first Starbucks store unionized back in December. Now, that’s what, 21 months ago, December 2021. Not one of the 340 unionized Starbucks has a first contract. Union members tell me that despite months of negotiations, Starbucks has yet to make one single counter-proposal to the many proposals that the union has put forward. And basically, the National Labor Relations Board, which is trying very hard, tries to invoke the law to tell Starbucks to follow the law and behave. But all it can do is really rap Starbucks and say, you better be a good boy. You better negotiate. So, there’ve been efforts every few years to strengthen the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier to unionize.
Under President Biden, there was something called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the PRO Act, where it had very strong Democratic support. It would’ve, for the first time, provided for various penalties against companies that, for instance, fire workers in retaliation for supporting a union. It would require that if there’s no contract reached after a place is unionized, no contract reached within six months after a place is unionized, then it would go to arbitration where a neutral arbitrator would say, “These will be the provisions of a contract.” Otherwise, without arbitration, it could drag out, as I said, two years, three years, five years, and perhaps never reach a contract.
So, what happened with the PRO Act, as much as Joe Biden supported it, as many Democrats supported it, Joe Manchin really never got on board. Kyrsten Sinema never got on board. But really, it fell victim to Republican filibuster. To pass pro-labor legislation, you need 60 votes in the Senate. And under President Lyndon Johnson, President Carter, President Obama, President Biden, there’ve been repeated efforts to strengthen labor laws to make it easier to unionize, and each time the GOP has blocked it through a filibuster.
VALLAS: Well, and, of course, we also wouldn’t be complete in talking about some of the barriers that exist and the sort of attacks on labor right now if we didn’t also talk about a particularly important Supreme Court case that came down in 2018, something called Janus versus AFSCME. The Supreme Court dealt a huge blow to unions, which of course 2018, not the beginning of the story in terms of the decline in union membership you were speaking to. But really a, I don’t wanna, is it maybe fair to call it the icing on the cake in terms of trends we were already seeing? Talk a little bit about Janus and how that fits in with this overall picture.
GREENHOUSE: I submit that the nation’s [unclear] is generally very pro-corporate and anti-labor. And the decision I often talked about involved, at a, I think it was at a factory, some union organizers put leaflets on the windshields of companies, in the company parking lot, in the employee parking lot. And the Supreme Court ruled that that’s a violation of property rights. We can’t even let union organizers— A company has total right to prohibit union organizers from setting foot in a company parking lot. Forget about union rights. Forget about beginning to give unions a 10th of a voice that the company has. The company can propagandize workers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So, I think that really, maybe better than any decision, showed how anti-union, pro-corporate the Supreme Court is.
Now, fast forward to Janus. So, there had been a Supreme Court decision like 20 years earlier, I think around 2000, 1995, called the Abood Decision, where some teachers in the City of Detroit said, “I don’t wanna be required to pay any union dues. That violates my free speech rights. You can’t make me pay for something that I don’t believe in.” And by a unanimous decision, nine to zero, the Supreme Court said, “We have to balance that. And it’s important that you teachers who might resist a union, don’t forget, the unions are doing a lot for you. It’s bargaining for you. If you get fired, it will hold grievance hearings to prevent you from getting fired. It gets better pensions for you. So, even though you might have, there might be some First Amendment issues, all in all, we’re gonna say you should be, as a matter of basic fairness, everyone who benefits from the union should pay union dues.”
Fast forward to the Janus decision, where a worker in California made the same argument that, “Oh, I shouldn’t be required to pay union dues. That violates my First Amendment rights. I disagree with the union.” And lo and behold, the new conservative majority in the Supreme Court by five/four overturned this unanimous decision from just two decades earlier and said any work, any government worker, any government employee, whether they’re federal, state, or local, has the right to totally opt out of paying any union dues. And that has greatly weakened unions because unions now have to really beat the bushes very often to get workers to pay their union dues.
VALLAS: So, with all of that as a lot of the both the ancient and also recent history that takes us to present day as we mark this particular Labor Day and in this week, I’m gonna ask you a question that I think a lot of folks ask you these days. And you started to get into some elements of this, but I feel like it’s worth asking and in a way that allows you to bring in some of the good news, right, that’s been interspersed in this conversation too. What is the future of the American labor movement? You mentioned Starbucks. You mentioned just a little bit ago Amazon as well. I mean, there have been some really pretty amazing recent victories and trends within the American labor movement that offer you, and I think me and a lot of others, hope about the future of the labor movement. But what is it that’s giving you hope now? What do you see as the trend that might be augers of the rebirth of the American labor movement, as you’ve described that Starbucks trend as well?
GREENHOUSE: So, my friend Harold Meyerson, who is an editor at The American Prospect, just wrote a column this Labor Day saying this Labor Day is different from many other Labor Days. This is a Labor Day where we can really be optimistic. This is—and I’ve written this, too—that this is the most exciting time for labor in probably 50 years, which is really saying a lot. I’ve written so many stories about the decline of labor. Will labor finally, finally, finally, finally be able to reverse its decline? And really, over the last year or two, we’ve seen more energy and promise from labor, especially among young workers, than at any time, I actually say since the 1930s or ‘40s, you know, maybe going back more than 50 years. So, why do I say that? We’ve seen, you know, Starbucks is this immensely anti-union company, yet despite these extraordinary efforts by Starbucks to bulldoze over the union, the workers have voted to unionize the 340 places. And I agree with that professor, John Logan, who told me had it not been for Starbucks’ vehemently anti-union efforts, the firings, the closings, to giving better wages, new wages and benefits to its non-union workers, but to its unionized workers— You know, it gives its non-union workers the right to credit card tips, which was originally proposed by the union workers, which gives those non-union workers $5 more an hour, and the unionized workers aren’t getting that. So, that creates disincentives for people to vote for a union. So, but still, we have 340 Starbucks unionized. That’s a lot.
We have this historic Amazon victory on Staten Island where nearly 6,000 workers voted to unionize. Trader Joe’s has been unionized for the first time. REI stores are being unionized for the first time. Barnes & Nobles are being unionized. Even Apple. Who ever thought Apple would be unionized? Some Apple stores are unionized. And then people are gonna say, “But what about universities?” So, tens of thousands of graduate students, and now undergraduates, are voting to unionize. At MIT, graduate students voted something like 1,600 to 900 to unionize. At Duke University two weeks ago, the vote was, I think, 1,000 graduate student workers voted to unionize, and only 131 voted against unionizing. At REI, the first one to unionize here in Manhattan, the vote was 88 for the union, 14 against the union. So, there’s a lot of excitement about unions, especially among young workers. And as we’ve discussed, Rebecca, had it not been for this intense anti-union effort by Amazon, by Starbucks, by Trader Joe’s we’d see, I would guess, three to four, five times the unionization success as we have over the past few years. So, a lot of workers are really jazzed, and they want a union. And there’s this kind of almost see-saw or tug of war, like, will this immovable force, this pro-union sentiment among workers, especially young workers, be stopped by this immovable wall of this anti-union truculence by corporate America? And that’s a big, big question.
But, you know, and it’s not just that there’s this wave of unionization. We’re seeing all these strikes now where a lot of workers say, “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Where they’re frustrated that their wages are so low. They’re frustrated how badly they were treated during the pandemic and how their lives were put at risk, and they weren’t thanked for it. And they see that their wages are struggling to keep up with inflation while corporate profits have often reached record levels, while the stock market has reached record levels, while CEO salaries have gone from 15 million a year to 20 million a year to 25 million a year. And they say, “This stinks. This is monumentally unfair. We gotta do something about it.” So, we’ve seen a lot of strikes. We might see a big strike against General Motors or Ford or Stellantis Chrysler over the next few weeks. It looked as if we were gonna have this huge strike at UPS by the Teamsters, by 340,000 Teamsters. This would’ve been one of the biggest strikes in U.S. history. And UPS was so scared of a strike that it gave this hugely good contract to the Teamsters: average wages of $7.50 an hour. That’s really good. And it promised to put air conditioning in new trucks, and it improved pensions and got rid of two-tier contracts so that it wasn’t gonna be one tier of workers that had it worse than other workers. And I think the Teamsters can rightly say and proudly say, “Look at this wonderful contract with UPS.” I mean, you work, you know, “workers of the world, workers of the United States, look at what we won as a union. You can have that, too, if you unionize.” And I think perhaps the contract the Teamsters won at UPS will be a better argument than anything else in years to demonstrate the advantages of a union.
And there’ve been other things, too. The teacher strikes in 2018 where, again, teachers felt they were like doormats. In West Virginia, in Oklahoma and Arizona, when Republicans were in power, there were huge tax cuts for the rich, huge tax cuts for fossil fuel companies or fracking companies. There was so much given, the tax cuts was so great that it kind of forced these states to either freeze or cut their school budgets. And the teachers said, “Wait a second! You’re giving away all this money to the rich and the fossil fuel companies, and you’re telling us our raises are gonna be minimal and we’re gonna be teaching fewer students in a class and our wages and our pay is so low that teachers are leaving Arizona to teach in California, leaving Oklahoma to teach in Texas, leaving West Virginia to teach in Ohio and Maryland?” And there were these strikes, and these teachers who are beloved by the communities stood up, went on strike. And parents and students very much supported these strikers. And I think those teacher strikes in 2018, which were kind of inspired by the Chicago teachers strike five, six years earlier, those, in ways, inspired the wave of unionization we’re seeing now. It’s kind of passing the baton. One union sees how well another union did, and they go, “They went on strike, and we wanna go on strike. If they unionize, we wanna unionize.” So, there’s a lot of encouraging stuff going on now.
Plus, there’s this guy named Joe Biden in the White House who really is pro-union. I think he’s the most pro-union president in American history. Some people say, “Well, Franklin Roosevelt did more for unions than Biden.” And that’s true. Franklin Roosevelt had like two-thirds majority in the House and Senate, so it was easy for him to pass pro-union legislation. But deep down, he was not enamored with unions. He liked them, but I think Biden is a real union enthusiast. And he has spoken out in favor of unionizing at Amazon, and he’s shown support for Starbucks workers. And with the Inflation Reduction Act, he really wants to help produce good union jobs. So, I think these are many. And plus, with the low unemployment rate, it really encourages workers. Workers are not as scared to stick their necks out to support a union. So, there’s a lot of good things going on for unions and for workers right now.
VALLAS: Well, and a piece I’ll put in a plug for that you wrote recently was really shining a light on a lot of the worker-to-worker organizing, something that you’ve called “agency in action,” right? Where you’ve got workers going up and talking to other workers and doing really the shoe leather kind of organizing. That’s what we saw at the Amazon victory. We’ve seen that in other places as well, which also you’ve pointed out actually does its part to shift the narrative around what unions are, right? People start to realize actually, unions are us. We are the union as opposed to it’s some big powerhouse third party. So, Steve, talk a little bit about—
GREENHOUSE: Let me just interrupt.
VALLAS: Yeah, please.
GREENHOUSE: So, corporations, business groups say, “Oh, unions, they’re just the union bosses who just wanna take workers’ money.” And so, we’ve seen, as you say, this agency in action where workers do bottom-up unionizing. At Amazon it was a totally independent union in Staten Island. They formed their own union. They said, “We are you and you are us.” And Trader Joe’s, the first few union stations of Trader Joe’s in the United States, beginning with Hadley, Massachusetts, it was an independent union. And they’re saying, “We’re not being bossed by any union bosses. We are the union. The union is us. We know what concerns you because we work right alongside you.” So, that’s been a very important development for unions. It kind of shows that they could be more democratic; they could be more bottom up.
VALLAS: Yeah, and I wanna bring that point into kind of where we segue the rest of this conversation, because this hour’s flying by. I wish we had two hours to talk ‘cause there’s so much we wanna cover. But Steve, I wanna talk a little bit about sort of your career as a labor reporter and some of what you’ve learned along the way. And to make that shift—and this, I think, is very connected to what we were just talking about, right?—a lot of what you’ve been is a storyteller, right? Telling the stories of the labor movement and giving a mic, effectively, to the people whose voices otherwise might not be amplified. What, in your opinion, is the role of media when it comes to labor and to addressing inequality more broadly? How have you approached that throughout your career?
GREENHOUSE: See, I think media has an extremely important role in telling what’s happening across the economy, across the country, whether in education or voting rights or in the economy, in the workplace. And as I said earlier, for a while I was the lone full-time labor reporter at a daily newspaper in the United States, and I felt I had huge responsibility. I thought there’s certain issues that I needed—you know, this will sound presumptuous—there were certain issues I thought needed to be brought to the nation’s attention. So, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a report one year that showed a huge surge in fatalities among Hispanic workers. Much higher, they died at a much higher percentage than other workers. And I wrote a story about that because I thought people should realize that.
People criticize the corporate media, but the New York Times, bless its heart, sent me around the country to Immokalee, Florida, to Oceanside, California, to central Washington State to write about horrible housing conditions for farmworkers. And I interviewed Haitian farmworkers in Florida and Mexican farmworkers in California who were sleeping in basically the cardboard boxes that furniture came in. Those were the huts that they were sleeping in. In Washington State, I saw these workers from Guatemala who were sleeping on the riverbank out in the open, worrying about snakes. And I felt there were stories to be told. There was massive exploitation of immigrant workers, massive violations of minimum wage laws, systematically not paying them overtime.
Walmart was looked at as this great, you know, like 15, 20 years ago, Amazon wasn’t getting all the attention. Uber wasn’t getting all the attention. Apple wasn’t getting it. Walmart was like the General Motors, the big company of its day. And people would say, “What a great business model. Look at how Walmart has gone from zero to humongous-ness in 20, 30 years.” But Walmart really squeezes workers very badly. And I did this big story that got a lot of attention saying that Walmart, which was so worried that its workers might screw off for 10 minutes or 15 minutes, literally locked them in the stores at night. If you worked in a Walmart for the midnight to 8 a.m. shift or the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, you were not allowed to go outside for a smoke. If you went out the fire door when there wasn’t a fire, you would get fired. I interviewed a worker who had his ankle badly broken at two in the morning. He wasn’t allowed to go out to the hospital. I interviewed another worker who said his wife called on his cell phone saying, “Someone’s breaking into the house. We’re being robbed.” He couldn’t do anything about it. Another worker said that her husband is having a heart attack. She was allowed.
So, I wrote the story about how this humongous, famous, powerful corporation was mistreating its workers. And I’m happy to say that sometimes you write a story that causes even gargantuan companies to change their ways. And there is a role, a big role for the press. I worked for the big, bad New York Times, you know, a symbol of capitalist media, and people would always put down journalists who work for corporate media. You know, I tried my very best to tell the story of American workers. And sometimes there was some pushing against my editors, and a lot of times my editors were extremely supportive. So, I think sometimes people too facilely criticize the corporate media. A lot of the corporate media does a good job, and a lot, sometimes it really slips up.
VALLAS: And sometimes it itself is also the subject of really terrible working conditions, right?
GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah.
VALLAS: [inaudible] I mean, so, which takes me to kind of one of my other questions, which is I’m curious if you have any advice for today’s labor reporters, especially when the media industry itself is increasingly an unstable workplace, and as I mentioned, the perpetrator of poor working conditions sometimes. As I ask that question, I’ve got a colleague of yours, Sarah Jaffe’s, words ringing in my head. She was on this show earlier this year, again, and I asked her why she became a labor reporter, same as I asked you. And she said, well, my own working conditions as a reporter were pretty crappy, and that got me interested. So, curious if you have any advice for today’s folks who wanna be those storytellers in the labor beat.
GREENHOUSE: So, I guess I give three pieces of advice, Rebecca. One is, look at the, you know, don’t forget to look at the people who are on the bottom who have it the worst, whether it’s the bike delivery drivers here in New York City or a lot of Uber drivers who supposedly they make $20 an hour, but after subtracting costs, they might just make $8, 9 an hour. I mean, I think we as reporters, as labor reporters, need to comfort the afflicted, as it’s said. And it’s vital to look at how the meekest among, you know, if I say lowest among us, that comes out the meekest among us, how hard it is, whether farmworkers or delivery workers. That’s one thing.
Second, as reporters, I think it’s important to look at the big trends, the big underlying trends. And sometimes it’s hard to see. One over the past ten years was the huge rise of precarious work, you know, gig jobs at Uber, gig jobs at Lyft where people juggle three, four, five gig jobs to try to make ends meet. I mean, that’s a horrible way to live! And I’m gonna sound like a subject— I think Uber and Lyft have been so dishonest when they say that the people who work for them are not employees and insist that they’re independent contractors working for them. I just think that’s so dishonest, and they’re so trying to mangle the true meaning of definitions to suit their own purposes, to maximize their profits. So, I think it’s very important to look at basic trends, like how does the new heroic company of the day, whether Walmart or Amazon, how do they treat their workers? And let’s really dig deep and look at that.
And the third thing, and this is kind of cliched, is like, you have to know how to tell the story. You need to tell narratives. And because if you just use statistics, if you just talk about vague trends or legislative policy, it’s just not as interesting. You have to really write it in a way about human beings and flesh-and-blood human beings because that’s what people want to read. That’s how you make people care.
VALLAS: I love all of that advice. And Steve, we only have a few minutes left, so I’m gonna do a little lightning round if that’s okay with you for just a couple of last, few last questions that I wanna make sure we’ve got time for, but which we’ve been trying to ask throughout the episodes this season. So, we better make sure to hold you to account as well. We can’t give you a pass on these questions. So, one of these for the lightning round is, what is your personal mission statement, and how did you come to find it?
GREENHOUSE: So, I don’t have a definite— I remember my mother who was a social worker always used to say, “Respect everyone. Be nice to everyone.” And it’s like when I write about farm workers who are bent over and making $4 an hour, it’s just be respectful, treat people with dignity, be fair to people, try to make sure everyone has a decent life. And I felt that whether when I was an economics reporter or a labor reporter, it’s just— And be truthful. There’s so much lying and disinformation, misinformation nowadays, it drives me [bleep]. And we have to fight not just for justice in the economy or justice in the political world to fight all this [bleep] amount, all this ridiculous amount of misinformation, disinformation.
VALLAS: Yeah, I love that. Question number two. You mentioned Woody Guthrie before, but I’m curious where this is gonna take us. What is your walk-up song? What is your hype song?
GREENHOUSE: Oh, I mean, I love Joan Baez’s Gracias a la Vida. That gave us so much. I mean, it’s just, it’s such a beautiful song. It’s such a meaning song. It’s like a celebration of life. And I love Joan Baez, and I love what she has meant for the movement. And I just watched the movie about 4 Little Girls by Spike Lee and her singing a song she wrote, Birmingham Sunday. I mean, just, she’s wonderful. I remember when—
VALLAS: I love that.
GREENHOUSE: I remember it when I was about 14 years old, when I was in summer camps.
VALLAS: Oh, what a cool memory! Oh, and I love that answer. Our fabulous producer, Kings Floyd, is making a playlist of all the answers to that question from this season. So, I think you’ve helped to spice up our list a little bit.
And then lightning round question number three, because I’ve committed to bringing self-care conversations into every episode that we do. We did a whole season on self-care as political warfare earlier this year, but it’s something we all have to talk about. You’ve been doing this work. You’ve been writing in the trenches for decades at this point. How do you take care of yourself, Steve, so that you can continue to show up for the work? Any self-care tips?
GREENHOUSE: So, great question. So, in my 31 years at the New York Times, I was a notorious workaholic, and I’d write 200, 300 stories a year. And I didn’t exercise enough, and I put on a lot of weight. Now that I’m retired, [chuckles] I still work very, very hard writing, but I try to walk my five miles a day. My wife makes fun of, “Oh, 10,000 steps! You don’t need to do 10,000. You only need 4,000.” I like doing my 10,000. I try to get enough sleep. I’m a notoriously bad sleeper because I worry about everything going on. But you try to eat well, you try to exercise, you try to relax, try to see friends, try to have lunch with friends. I read a lot. Reading is a wonderful way to escape. I’m reading Anna Karenina now, which is the most amazing book. Amazing, amazing. Total work of genius.
VALLAS: Love all of that. And the last question that we’re gonna throw your way just so you can plug whatever’s coming is, do you have anything exciting coming up in your work? What’s on deck, and do you have any particular stories that you’re working on right now that are coming?
GREENHOUSE: So, I’m working a story right now about the growing debate within the United States about whether to launch a nationwide boycott on Starbucks. I mean, I think there’s such dismay with Starbucks’ lawbreaking behavior and its dragging its feet in negotiating a contract. I think people are willing to strategize and are wanting to strategize. And that’s on whether there should be a boycott I think is an interesting subject. Look, another thing is with artificial intelligence, with digital monitoring, with computers examining how fast you type and whether you’re, you know, with all these people working at home, whether people go to the bathroom for two minutes or five minutes, and your computer is watching you, and maybe you’ll get in trouble if you’re away from your computer for more than two minutes. I’m looking at how workers and unions are trying to fight back against kind of Big Brother watching you all the time so that if you do the wrong thing for half a second, you can get in trouble as a worker. And in Europe, some unions have some great ideas on that, and I’m trying to look at what we might borrow from what’s happening in Europe.
VALLAS: All of which is also just particularly interesting in terms of a crossing of the streams, because these are issues my dad has been looking at as well as a sociologist of work who’s been very, very focused on Amazon recently. So, I have to say thank you for this conversation on multiple levels. It’s been fun for me. It’s been a lot of fun to get to sit down with you and to get to know you. But also, I have to say, I have a dad who’s really hard to impress. I’m pushing 40, and I’m still at the point in my life where I’m wondering if I’m ever gonna get my dad’s approval. I think the only day he’s really been proud of me was probably when I actually joined a union for the first time when I was a legal aid lawyer, and I became a member of the United Auto Workers. But maybe this day might be another day he’s proud, too, ‘cause he’s been such a fan of your work for so many years, Steve. So, it’s been a lot of fun getting to talk with you.
GREENHOUSE: And great talking with you. Thanks very much. Thanks for the staff who helped put this together. Really appreciate it. And Happy Labor Day, and onwards and upwards.
VALLAS: And Happy Labor Day to you as well. I know there’s at least two nine-year-olds who are very excited to hear the history of Labor Day and I know a lot of other folks as well. Steve Greenhouse is a longtime labor journalist, spent 31 years at the New York Times, 18 or 19 of those covering the labor beat. He’s also the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, and Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor. These days he’s a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and you can find a lot more about his work in our show notes. Steve, Happy Labor Day to you, and I look forward to reading all of your future coverage. [theme music returns]
GREENHOUSE: Thank you, thank you. My pleasure.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.