Review: Longtime Labor Reporter Describes the Decline of Worker Power

Early in his new book, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse makes a striking observation. He writes, “There’s a hugely important but often overlooked phenomenon that goes far to explain why so many bad things are happening to American workers, and that is the decades-long decline in worker power, both in the workplace and in politics and policy.” The purpose of this book seems to be to make sure this phenomenon is no longer overlooked.

Yes, this phenomenon is hugely important. But it hasn’t been overlooked by the union officers, staff, and activists who have been fighting this decline and its effects for decades. Nor has it been overlooked by the Koch Brothers and allied right-wing policy groups who have done all they could to promote and capitalize on the decline in worker power.

In 1978 Auto Workers President Doug Fraser denounced the “one-sided class war” being waged by business “against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.” And in 1979, Labor Notes was born, with the goal of “putting the movement back in the labor movement.”

There is little that Doug Fraser and the people who launched Labor Notes saw eye to eye on, but they did see that something was changing: that workers were facing increasingly aggressive attacks by management at the beginning of what we now know to be a “decades-long decline in worker power.”

The story of the last few decades is not that union officers and activists overlooked what was going on; it’s that they didn’t know what to do about it.

CLASS WAR OR ORGANIZED RETREAT?

One critical fault line in the labor movement was between those who sought to defend and expand worker power by making the class war two-sided and those who tried to preserve some (reduced) measure of worker power through organized retreat.

The 1985-1986 strike by members of Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9 against the Hormel Co. in Austin, Minnesota, illustrates this divide well.

Greenhouse describes this battle only as an “extraordinarily divisive six-month strike.” It certainly was. But it was also a test of two different strategies for defending worker power.

The national UFCW had a plan to maintain its place in the Midwest meatpacking industry by accepting concessions and stabilizing contracts at a lower level of wages and benefits. Leaders called this an “organized retreat.” The members of Local P-9 rejected that approach and struck to preserve their contract and their union.

The strike became a beacon for many in the labor movement who were ready to fight against management’s demands that workers give back wages and benefits in order to improve the bottom line and competitiveness of the employers.

However, the strikers were isolated, both geographically and within their own union. The National Guard was called out to “maintain the peace” in Austin. The UFCW stuck to its “organized retreat” and opposed spreading the strike. Ultimately, it placed the local in receivership and ended the strike. Yes, an extraordinarily divisive strike—one that made the divisions within the labor movement as clear as those between capital and labor.

Need other examples? Take a look at how the Teamsters leadership undermined a militant reform local leadership in Pasco, Washington in the early 2000s. And then there’s the Service Employees International’s attack on their Local 250 in Northern California, and subsequent conflict with the National Union of Healthcare Workers since the late 2000s.

PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

The subtitle of the book is “the past, present, and future of American labor,” and Greenhouse organizes it around these broad categories. The book opens with several chapters that describe unions’ heroic past—the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the organizing of garment workers; the 1930s wave of unionization that accompanied passage of the National Labor Relations Act, including a particular focus on the auto industry and the role of sit-down strikes; and the unionization of the public sector, highlighting the 1968 strike by sanitation workers in Memphis.

Unfortunately, the past wasn’t just heroic and inspiring. Greenhouse describes how unions lost power, taking the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in 1981 as his starting point. In a single, concise chapter, Greenhouse provides a look behind the scenes of the strike—at its causes, strategic errors made by the union, the failure of other unions to take up PATCO’s cause in a meaningful way, and the consequences of this failure of solidarity.

In the next few chapters, he describes the increasingly aggressive anti-union moves by corporations and government that came in the wake of PATCO.

In one chapter, he describes union-busting in the meatpacking industry, deregulation in trucking, and the massive restructuring of the steel industry. In another he discusses the failure to unionize the South and the rise of the “union-avoidance” industry. He recognizes Uber and Amazon as expressions of that corporate ethos.

And he highlights the attack on public sector unions led by the Koch brothers and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and exemplified by the Janus v. AFSCME decision in 2018.

He also discusses problems internal to unions themselves. He points to the conservatizing effects of collective bargaining; the racism and sexism that has kept the leadership of unions disproportionately white and male and that has contributed to too many white male union members supporting the policies of Reagan and Trump; corruption at the top of some unions; and AFL-CIO support for the Vietnam War and other conservative foreign policy positions.

He then pivots to look at the elements of what he believes constitute a revived labor movement. These include the Fight for $15; the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; the union-management partnership at Kaiser Permanente; and the wave of teacher strikes in 2018—a very disparate list encompassing both militancy and labor-management cooperation.

Any book like this is going to be limited in what it can cover. Choices have to be made about what goes in and what is left out. Yet some of what Greenhouse leaves out is quite telling. And his choices belie his claim to have uncovered things that are “often overlooked.”

On balance, Greenhouse does not give enough recognition to those who recognized the threat to worker power starting in the 1970s, nor to their efforts to do something about it.

WHAT’S MISSING?

LABOR NOTES RESOURCES

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Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) is not mentioned. Neither is former Teamster President Ron Carey, nor the strike that Carey led in 1997 for full-time work at UPS. In fact, although Greenhouse mentions several strikes over the last 40 years that failed, until the teachers’ strikes of 2018 he doesn’t mention those that won. That would include strikes at UPS, Pittston, and Verizon.

The absence that seems most glaring is the New Voice slate that won control of the AFL-CIO in 1995 (President John Sweeney is mentioned, but not his slate nor the events that led up to this highly unusual challenge within the AFL-CIO). New Voice was a response by senior union officers and staff to the loss of union power and the failure of the preceding AFL-CIO leadership under Lane Kirkland and Thomas Donahue to develop a strategy and programs to counter it.

Among other things, New Voice called on AFL-CIO member unions to spend 30 percent of their dues on aggressive campaigns to unionize new members. They reached out to potential allies among social advocacy groups. They recognized the need for a more diverse leadership.

New Voice is not just another counter-example to Greenhouse’s claim that the decline in worker power had gone unnoticed; it’s the best example of forces in the labor movement carrying out many of the ideas Greenhouse presents as the way forward for workers and unions in his final chapter, “How Workers Can Regain Their Power.” As such, it’s a shame that he ignores that experience. An assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, its success and failures would help us understand why worker power continued to decline for a quarter century after the AFL-CIO seemed to rouse itself to do something.

Also absent are the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements and unions’ connections to them. These movements have helped insert into unions politics that go beyond bargaining the next contract. Several unions responded quickly to the rise of Occupy Wall Street and its demands. In New York City, unions provided the money and organizational support that made possible the Occupy rally of some 15,000 at Foley Square on October 5, 2011. They also mobilized stewards to defend the encampment at Zuccotti Park when word came out that Mayor Bloomberg was going to evict the occupiers. New York unions were also active against the police policy of “stop and frisk” and mobilized to demand justice for Eric Garner.

Greenhouse mentions the 2018 Gallup poll that found that 51 percent of millennials have a positive view of socialism, but he doesn’t consider how Occupy and its denunciation of “the 1%” contributed to this sentiment.

And what about Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run for president? Many in the activist wing of the labor movement credit this race and the proposals made for Medicare for All and free college education—as well as the proposed taxes on the wealthy that would be needed to pay for them—with advancing clear, class-based progressive political goals and inspiring many in a new generation to become politically active. How did this not receive any mention in a book considering how to reverse the decline of worker power?

Greenhouse’s book, with a chapter extolling the labor-management partnership agreement at Kaiser-Permanente, came out as the biggest unions there were preparing for a possible strike (they settled without one). Although he tells us that in 1997, the California Nurses Association opposed the partnership agreement, he could have done more to examine the partnership as it unfolded. Since he doesn’t bring us up to date, we’re in no position to assess whether the possible strike was just a rough spot in an otherwise healthy relationship, if there are fundamental problems with the model, or what to make of the split in the union coalition.

In another example of what he leaves out being as important as what he includes, Greenhouse lauds Volkswagen for its “fascinating model of worker representation at its assembly plant in Chattanooga,” while saying nothing about VW’s resistance to actual collective bargaining at that plant.

In addition to the echoes of New Voice mentioned above, in the final chapter Greenhouse recommends mandatory arbitration for first contracts, stiffer (and faster) penalties for labor law violations, sectoral bargaining, and worker representation on corporate boards. These ideas will all be familiar to union activists and are part of the current discussion about how to reverse the decline in union power.

But what about more radical and far-reaching proposals such as federal job guarantees or public takeover of closed plants or a shorter workweek? These would definitely shift the balance of power toward workers, yet Greenhouse seems to think they won’t be factors in labor’s future.

UNIONS’ ‘DEMOCRACY DEFICIT’

In the final chapter, in one of his few references to internal union democracy, Greenhouse writes, “Far too many unions have a democracy deficit; it’s easy for union leaders to remain in power because they control their union’s newspaper, emails, website, and bureaucracy.”

This is an important point. Yet Greenhouse does not mention how some in the labor movement, such as Labor Notes, the Association for Union Democracy, and TDU, have made the expansion of democracy a priority, arguing that democratic unions will be better able to step up to the challenges unions face.

Greenhouse does refer to a “decades-long” effort to clean up the Teamsters, the Laborers, and the East Coast longshore union, but he doesn’t acknowledge the key role of rank-and-file activists and low-level officers in these unions. He gives all the credit to the U.S. government.

The fact that fights for union democracy have been necessary parts of some of the most important strikes of the last 25 years is an actual “hugely important but often overlooked phenomenon.” The UPS strike would not have happened if TDU had not successfully organized for direct election of the top officers in the Teamsters. Without the change at the top of the Teamsters, New Voice wouldn’t have won in the AFL-CIO, either. The teachers strike in Chicago in 2012 built on a successful electoral challenge by rank-and-file activists and their determination to organize a more democratic union. The 2005 transit strike in New York City and this spring’s strike by teachers in Los Angeles were consequences of rank and filers fighting for, and winning, greater democracy and militancy.

HAS SOMETHING CHANGED?

As Greenhouse points out, after PATCO the number of large strikes each year plummeted. But large and important strikes still happened. Some ended in defeats, others in draws, and a few were clear victories. But none of them triggered a wider worker fight-back. That may be changing.

Over the last two years, teachers, grocery store workers, and auto workers have all carried out big strikes. Workers who make diesel locomotives have struck. These strikes have mobilized large numbers of people and taken place across a broad swath of the U.S. And they have not been only about the wages and benefits of the strikers. Hundreds of thousands of strikers have fought for things that will benefit the communities they live in and the workers who will work their jobs in the future.

Has something changed since the isolated strikes of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s? It’s too soon to be sure, but since the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, it certainly feels like something is different. Unfortunately, you would never be able to judge this from Greenhouse’s book. He simply doesn’t provide a context for looking at both labor’s decline and the efforts to create a future.

Beaten Down, Worked Up is worth a read. Several of the chapters, such as those on the early garment workers, the UAW sit down strikes, and PATCO, are gems. Overall, though, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It should be read along with other books—such as Sarah Jaffe’s Necessary Trouble, Kim Moody’s On New Terrain and U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition, and Eric Blanc’s Red State Revolt—that cover some of the same ground but reach for a deeper understanding of what is happening, why, and what can be done about it.

Steve Downs is a retired subway train operator and former officer of Transport Workers Union Local 100.