The New York Times' Steven Greenhouse has spent nearly two decades as a reporter covering labor in America. This week, he announced he's taking a buyout. He talked to us about the labor beat, unions, and the future of the American worker.
Gawker: With your departure, the number of big papers with full time labor reporters is down to one. How do you see the future of labor reporting? Do you see encouraging stuff elsewhere, or do you think a lot of stories are just going to disappear?
Steven Greenhouse: The NYT has a long and distinguished history of covering issues involving workers and labor unions, and I am confident that the Times will continue to give serious attention to these issues, whether it is stagnating wages or the protests of the Fight for 15 fast-food movement. An example, though not on the labor, the NYT's investigative reporter, David Barstow, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his coverage of egregious workplace safety violations
Nationwide, the number of full-time reporters who covered labor fell sharply over the past 7 to 10 years as newspapers downsized. But labor coverage – by full-time and part-time reporters – has rebounded recently, at least somewhat, in response to the battles over collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio, the right-to-work fight in Michigan in response to the rise of the fast-food workers' movement as well as growing concerns about income inequality and declining living standards for the nation's middle class.
Gawker: What are the biggest changes in labor that you've seen over the course of your years on the beat?
Greenhouse: In the 19 years since I began covering labor (in late 1995), the balance of power between corporations and labor has shifted strongly in favor of corporations as the percentage of worker in unions has continued to drop. Labor has also been weakened by increased globalization – a force that has pressured many American corporations to press harder to cut costs. In the view of many economists, organized labor's declining leverage has contributed to income inequality, stagnating wages and worse pension and health coverage for millions of workers.
Gawker: Economic inequality has been increasing steadily for more than three decades. Are you optimistic about the economic future of the average American worker?
Greenhouse: I am optimistic and pessimistic. On one hand, the economy is continuing to grow fairly strongly and unemployment has been falling and that should at some point increase workers' leverage — with or without labor unions — in demanding and achieving higher wages and better working conditions. On the other hand, there remains plenty of slack in the economy and in the labor force. Unfortunately the folks in Washington don't seem to be doing much to improve the situation. Also on the pessimistic side, corporations seem to be investing less in training American workers, and globalization continues to place downward pressure on wages in the U.S.
Globalization is great for sophisticated companies – it enables them to move operations anywhere in the world in search of lower production and labor costs (and higher profits). That's great for corporate shareholders, but not good for American workers, and in that way, globalization is a force fueling increased income inequality within the U.S. (even as it has raised living standards in China and many other countries.)
Gawker: Do you think organized labor/ unions in America are going to experience a resurgence? Or do you think their slow contraction and demise will continue unabated?
Greenhouse: I first began covering labor in late 1995 just as the A.F.L.-C.I.O. elected a new president, John J. Sweeney, who promised to do his all to bring a resurgence of labor. But despite Sweeney's best efforts – to spur more organizing, to rally immigrant workers, to ally labor with faith groups – Sweeney and his allies failed to bring about any lasting, substantial resurgence.
Among workers nationwide, there is growing upset about stagnant wages and worsening conditions, but unions are not doing much organizing. And when unions try organizing workers, most companies mount aggressive, sophisticated campaigns, often bringing in expensive experts, to combat and defeat unionization. So I don't see much near-term growth for unions – unless organized labor somehow achieves some breakthroughs in overcoming employer resistance or in inspiring workers to flock to labor's banner notwithstanding the pressures they face from their companies to shun unions.
Nowadays a lot of the action we're seeing to help workers is in non-union worker advocacy groups. These innovative groups are making waves in numerous states. Here I think of Domestic Workers United, Make the Road in New York, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, and the Workers Defense Project in Texas. These groups are not as powerful as traditional labor unions, but they have made some substantial gains.
Gawker: A lot of labor focus lately has been on raising the wages of retail workers, fast food workers, and chain store workers. Do you think people in these industries will every truly win a living wage?
Greenhouse: With its one-day strikes in more than 150 cities, the fast-food movement is making a lot of noise and shaking things up. Whether it can bring enough pressure to bear to win a $15 wage remains a big question. In the retail sector, OUR Walmart, the union-backed group of workers, just held its biggest protests ever on Black Friday. Walmart as well as fast-food giants like McDonalds and Burger King are immensely powerful companies, and it looks as if it will take significantly more leverage and pressure from labor to persuade them to raise wages in a significant way.
Gawker: What would you tell a young person just entering the work force in 2014? Any words of wisdom you can offer workers, having observed the beat for this long?
Greenhouse: As the experts say – and I know it has become a cliché – but to earn a decent living, it is far more important than ever before to get a college degree. The premium of what college graduates earn over what high school grads earn is higher than ever before.
Once upon a time, when I was a reporter at the (Hackensack) Record in New Jersey, we all grumbled about the low pay. If memory serves, I was making about $180 a week when I started there in 1976. The frustration was so great that several reporters, including me, launched a unionization effort that quickly won a lot of support. Reporters organized a union meeting/dinner that was to be held at Tabachnick's Deli in Teaneck. I recall that 40 or 50 or reporters, copy editors and photographers had signed up to attend.
Three hours before that dinner meeting was to take place, a notice magically appeared on the newsroom bulletin board. Presto, the publisher announced that the whole newsroom was getting a 25% raise. (Yes, that took the wind out of the unionization drive.) Most any labor experts will say that when workers band together they can achieve far more than by themselves – whether it is to complain about long hours or a bullying boss. It is harder to unionize now than in the late 1970s because employers fight unionization far more fiercely and because many workers today don't know or care as much about unions as workers did decades ago.
[Image by Jim Cooke/ Photo via Getty]