50,000 Workers Demand GM to Share Its Billions in Profits

As members of the United Auto Workers head into their third day of a nationwide strike, General Motors has cut off health insurance for the nearly 50,000 people on picket lines across the country demanding better working conditions and fair pay. The workers say GM continues to deny employees’ demands for better conditions and compensation despite leading the company to record profits following bankruptcy and a federal bailout. It’s the first company-wide strike against GM in 12 years. UAW had sought to have GM cover striking workers’ health insurance through the end of the month. In New York City, we speak with Steven Greenhouse, veteran labor reporter formerly with The New York Times. His latest book is titled “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.” His recent op-ed in The New York Times is headlined “The Autoworkers Strike Is Bigger Than G.M.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As members of the United Auto Workers head into their third day of a nationwide strike, General Motors has cut off health insurance for the nearly 50,000 people on picket lines across the country who are demanding better working conditions and fair pay. The news came Tuesday, just one day after UAW members kicked off the strike by walking out of more than 50 GM facilities. The workers say GM continues to deny employees’ demands for better conditions and compensation despite leading the company to record profits following bankruptcy and a federal bailout. GM responded by transferring the striking workers’ healthcare costs to the union. UAW had sought to have GM cover striking [workers’] health insurance through the end of the month. This is GM worker Steve Goralski in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

STEVE GORALSKI: We’ve got a company that had $35 billion in profits in the last few years. We’ve got temporaries that have been here over seven years and are still temporaries, and they’re asking for more temporaries. They’re moving our plants out of country; they’re taking them to Mexico and to China. And now they’re asking for concessions on our healthcare. I don’t know about you, but that’s the only reason I took this job. I used to have my own drywall company. I took it for the benefits.

AMY GOODMAN: Politico reported Tuesday that two top Trump administration officials were involved in ongoing labor negotiations and likely to side with the UAW. But GM and a White House spokesperson later denied the report. This is President Trump speaking about the striking workers Monday.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I have a great relationship with the autoworkers. I’ve got tremendous numbers of votes from the autoworkers. I don’t want General Motors to be building plants outside of this country, as you know. They built many plants in China and Mexico, and I don’t like that at all. My relationship has been very powerful with the autoworkers — not necessarily the top person or two, but the people that work doing automobiles. Nobody’s ever brought more companies into the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s the first companywide strike against GM in 12 years. In 2007, GM workers walked out for two days.

Well, for more, we’re joined here in New York City by Steven Greenhouse, veteran labor reporter formerly with The New York Times. His new book is just out. It’s called Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. He’s also the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, his recent op-ed in The New York Times headlined “The Autoworkers Strike Is Bigger Than G.M.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Steve.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, before we get into the history of the labor movement, which is really what your book is about, well, this is certainly one of the culminations of it, what we’re seeing today. Talk about what’s happening with UAW, what’s happening with the workers, why they went out on strike against GM, and what this means.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The UAW made big concessions back in 2008, 2009, 2010, when GM went bankrupt. And the union, understandably, wanted to help lift it out of bankruptcy to save jobs, so they agreed to wage freezes and a two-tier wage structure. And GM has since become quite profitable. And GM is not offering a very generous contract, just a 4% raise over four years, according to the Detroit Free Press. And it’s moved a lot of factories to Mexico and China.

And the workers are saying, you know, “What gives? We, the workers, we, the U.S. taxpayers, saved GM. So why is it closing important plants in the U.S., like the Lordstown plant, while keeping plants running in Mexico that make the same thing?” So, they just — I think it’s basically a sense of “We helped you. We went the extra mile for you, GM. And now we want you to be fair to us.” It’s really a strike over fairness and being treated with the respect they feel that they deserve.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you mentioned the concessions they made back in 2009, ’10, about this two-tier wage system, you actually explained last night in a forum that we were at that it’s actually three tiers.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What specifically does that mean, these tiers of wage systems?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, back in 2009 during the bankruptcy, GM told the United Auto Workers, “We’re definitely going to close these plants, and these other plants, we’ll agree to open, but only if we get a two-tier wage system.” So, the top tier paid $29 an hour. They set up a bottom tier that ran from like $17 up to about $25. And then they’ve — now there’s this third tier, you know, of temps. And the temps make $15 an hour, and some of the temps have been there three and five years.

So, with all this concern about the increased precariousness of the economy and increased instability in jobs, you know, one of the focuses of the union, of the strikers, is, we’ve to get rid of, you know, these temp — I mean, we have to change these temp workers to make them permanent. It’s unfair they’re making just $15 an hour. They work side by side with people who make twice as much. And there’s a feeling —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Side by side often doing the same job, right?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, doing — yes, doing the same job. And it’s part of the UAW’s saying, you know, “We’ve been good to you, GM. We want you to be fair and good to us.” Plus, the workers on the second tier want the gap closed with the top tier. They want to be moved up to $29, $31, very, very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Ted Krumm, head of the UAW’s bargaining committee, speaking at a news conference Sunday night.

TED KRUMM: I want to be clear about something. This strike is about us. It is about standing up for fair wages, for affordable quality healthcare, for our share of profits and for our job security. We are standing with our brothers and sisters who are temporary employees and in-progression employees, who do the same work we do for less pay. We are united. We are strong. We are ready. We don’t take this lightly.

But General Motors needs to understand that we stood up for GM when they needed us. These are profitable times. We work hard to make this company profitable. And we deserve a fair contract, because we’ve helped make this company what it is.

We are standing up for us. Make no mistake: The strike is about the members in Texas, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and throughout the great nation. We are fighting for the future of the middle class, and we want a fair and equitable contract. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Ted Krumm, head of the UAW’s bargaining committee, speaking at a news conference as they were going out on strike. If you could respond to what he says and also this latest move by GM not to pay the healthcare of workers? You retweeted today Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, tweeting about GM’s decision to pull healthcare for all benefits. She said, “A note to anyone who wants to use union members as a wedge to oppose #MedicareForAll: @UAW has one of the best plans in the country, but management can still use it to hold workers hostage. #M4A puts power back in our hands” — meaning “Medicare for All.”

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I wrote this book explaining that, you know, unions did an amazing job lifting workers, you know, last century, creating the middle class, creating the 40-hour week, making mines and factories much safer. But the past 20, 30 years, unions and worker power in the United States have gotten much, much weaker. I explain that it’s because corporations have really played super-hardball to weaken unions. Globalization has weakened unions. And we’ve seen the Republicans — you know, Scott Walker, most notably — trying extremely hard to weaken unions, especially public sector unions. So we’re at a point where worker power in the United States is, I argue, the weakest it’s been in many, many decades.

So, there’s a sense now that something is really broken. I mean, something is really broken. And, you know, corporate profits have been at record levels, and the stock market’s at record levels, but we keep hearing that wages have been stagnant for year after year. They’re going up a tiny bit now, but for the past few decades they’ve been really stagnant for most workers. And people say, “We have to fix this.”

And I think the reason we had the teacher strikes last year and the Marriott strike and the Stop & Shop strike and now the GM strike is they’re saying, “We’re not getting our fair share.” And as we just saw in the video clip, you know, GM had $8.1 billion in profits last year. Over the past three years, it’s had $35 billion in profits just from North America alone. And the workers are saying, “But you’re closing these plants, when we helped you keep them open? You’re offering us just a 4% raise over four years, just 1%?” that this is wrong. So, this, I believe, is part of this healthy burst of strikes where workers are trying to win back their fair share and flex their muscles.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Steven, in your book, you talk about, obviously, the corporate assault and the inability of unions to organize, based on how the labor laws are being implemented by government. But you also talk about the self-inflicted wounds of the labor movement. And you talk about corruption that existed for many years in many labor unions — we’re seeing that now with some of the investigations of the UAW; the sexism and racism of the union movement itself, that didn’t allow women workers and African Americans even to get into unions, or then to be able to get into leadership. But I’m wondering — you also touch on this whole question of the failure of the labor movement to deal with the changing nature of work and technology. One of the most fascinating things in your book, you talk about companies like TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk and how workers are being forced to organize in those — talk about — most people don’t even know what these things are.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: That’s a lot of ground to cover. So, you know, I make clear in the book that, on one hand, some unions very much discriminated against women, workers of color, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics. But I also make clear that, you know, going back over a century, women were an incredibly important part of the labor movement — you know, Mother Jones. I write about this amazing strike in New York in 1909, 20,000 female garment workers, most of them immigrants. You know, a lot of workers take for granted the 40-hour week. And I explain, these people, you know, fought, fought, went on strike for two months in the dead of winter, just to win a 52-hour workweek. And I make clear that — you know, I have a chapter on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, and other unions backed them very strongly as they fought for both labor rights and respect on the job and civil rights.

But, as you say, Juan, you know, there has been too much discrimination, too much corruption. The UAW, unfortunately, has had a corruption scandal that is tarring it right now, and that’s hurting its image as it launches this big strike. You know, I often — when I was covering labor for The New York Times for 19 years, people would often say to me, “Oh, unions are so corrupt.” And I’d say, “I don’t know if unions are any more corrupt, you know, pound for pound, person for person, than business is.” You know, look at Purdue Pharma and opiates. Look at the Trump administration and how corrupt that is. I don’t think unions are any more corrupt. And I think that the —

AMY GOODMAN: Look at the president.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: And, you know, in the 1950s and 1960s, the age of — you know, the bad days of the Teamsters and the longshoremen and On the Waterfront, there was horrendous corruption. And the unions are much, much cleaner now. You know, there’s much less corruption, but there’s still — you know, one bit of corruption is still too much.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we move on to —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I wanted to ask you about this TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk, if you could talk about them.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Oh, right, right, yeah. So, in the book, I explain, you know, 50 different ways that corporate America is trying to squeeze workers and weaken unions. It’s using more temps. It’s contracting out more. Now the latest is using apps to turn more and more workers into like “here today, gone tomorrow,” “here this minute, gone next minute” workers, so they don’t have to — they owe very little loyalty or responsibility to these workers. You know, it says — and this is the big fight now with Uber and Lyft. It says — the companies are saying, “You’re not employees; you’re just independent contractors.” And if they’re employees, then the workers can unionize. If they’re employees, the companies have to pay part of the Social Security and Medicare taxes. If they’re employees, then they’re covered by anti-discrimination laws, anti-sexual harassment laws. So the companies really want to put millions and millions of workers into this independent contractor box. And they love this idea of, like, using apps so we can get a worker to work for 15 minutes, and then dump him or her. It’s just a — it’s like ideal. You know, there’s no responsibility to the worker. They’re here, they’re gone. They’re not covered by minimum wage or overtime laws.

And one of the big challenges for the labor movement and for all worker advocates, as I explain in my book, is like figuring out a way to lift these workers so that they could improve their wages. You know, there are all these Uber and Lyft drivers who work 60, 70 hours a week. They’re busting their humps to try to support their families. They’re not getting health benefits from their jobs. And, you know, there’s this breakthrough in California. The state Legislature passed a bill that would declare Uber and Lyft drivers employees rather than independent contractors, so that would give them overtime and minimum wage coverage. It would have the companies contribute to their Social Security and Medicare. It would give them protections against race and sex discrimination. Now, the companies say, “This is going to cost us too much. This is going to hurt our business model. We’re going to have to hire fewer drivers. This is going to be worse for consumers. You might have to wait six minutes rather than four minutes for someone to pick you up.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mention there’s 500,000 people working for Uber right now?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: In the U.S., there’s more than 500,000. And worldwide, there are over a million. And this fight is playing out in England and France and Germany, too.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have Whole Foods cutting the medical benefits of 1,900 workers. And we said in headlines, you know, Jeff Bezos owns Whole Foods, because Amazon owns Whole Foods. He, Bezos, makes more money than the cost of the entire year of benefits for these nearly 2,000 employees in something like two to six hours, he makes.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Sometimes you wonder who does public relations for these people. Like, this is a real black eye for Bezos. You know, he’s so rich, and he’s really sticking it to these 2,000 workers, part-time workers, who — I’m sure, many of whom are having a hard time making ends meet.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then we’re going to come back. Steven Greenhouse, longtime journalist, author of the new book Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Rolling Mills Burning Down” by the folk musician John Cohen, who died on Monday at the age of 87. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times journalist. He is now author of the new book Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. Among other things, we’ve been talking about this UAW strike, first major UAW strike in 12 years at GM.

Interestingly, the Sunrise Movement, well known for pushing the Green New Deal, you know, sitting down at Nancy Pelosi’s office right before she was named House speaker again — Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, threw her support behind the strike, tweeting, “All workers deserve a right to fair wages, guaranteed healthcare, job security & basic dignity.” Talk about the Green New Deal and what this means for jobs today, and how companies like GM are adapting and how environmentalists are working with unions now.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Right. I think the Green New Deal is a great idea. I do think we face a real global warming crisis. I think we, as a nation, you know, our leadership is going in the very wrong direction. And when the Green New Deal was first announced, it was leaked out prematurely, before some details were worked out. A lot of union folks got angry and uneasy, because they worry that coal mines and coal-fired power plants and gas-fired power plants would be closing very quickly and throw many, many people out of work. And I think the plan was released before they had finished working through — and the phrase now is — “ensuring a just transition.” And union leaders are increasingly working with environmentalists to figure out what this just transition would be.

You know, Bernie Sanders’ labor platform, Elizabeth Warren’s — Bernie’s Green New Deal platform and Elizabeth Warren’s both have very good ideas, like, OK, we’re going to close some coal mines — you know, coal mines are going to close. Coal-[fired power] plants are going to close. And people are going to get laid off. So, you know, Bernie suggests paying them full wages for five years, providing them with training, providing them with full health benefits, providing — you know, making sure their pensions are still paid into. And ideas, proposals like that go very far to reassure unions.

And I was in Germany in the spring, and the Social Democratic Party there is really hurting, you know, whereas the Green Party is doing very well. And people say the Socialist Democrats don’t have enough ideas. And I think a lot of people on the left should really embrace the Green New Deal, because it can mean trillions of dollars in spending on infrastructure. Many of them could be great middle-class union jobs. A lot of them require huge skills. There’s this big push to build wind turbines, that Governor Cuomo and environmentalists here and labor people in New York have really led the way on, to create thousands of really good-paying jobs.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Steve, in your book, you have a chapter on a revolution that most people don’t pay much attention to: what’s been happening in Nevada in recent years and how Nevada has rapidly changed from a red state into a blue state, and largely as a result of the efforts of the Culinary Workers Union in Nevada. Could you talk about that, especially in the context of the past of the labor movement, that it was always anti-immigrant, for many, many decades, until only recently, and how that’s affected the growth of labor in Nevada?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Sure. So, I have a section in the book about the unfortunate decline of unions and worker power, and how that has led to wage stagnation, increased inequality and, you know, a horrible political system where the Koch brothers and billionaires and corporate donors dominate. And, you know, that’s depressing and needs to be fixed.

And then I have several chapters laying out various models about how to rebuild worker power. You know, the teacher strikes did a lot to show that workers could fight again. The Fight for $15 has, in many ways, been very successful.

Then I also devote a chapter to, you know, to my mind — to what is, to my mind, one of the best, most impressive, most forward-looking, most aggressive unions in the United States. That’s the Culinary Union in Las Vegas. They represent dishwashers and hotel housekeepers. And they’re 60, 70% immigrant workers. And while much of the labor movement has been shrinking in size, the Culinary Union has grown from 18,000 workers in the 1980s — it’s more than tripled — to 60,000 workers now. And it represents workers in the big hotel casinos. And nationwide, hotel housekeepers average $11 an hour. They often work just 25 hours a week, make less than $400 a week, make less than $20,000 a year. In Las Vegas, the hotel housekeepers earn, on average, $19.50 an hour. They’re guaranteed 40-hour weeks. They make almost $800 a week, $40,000 a year. I profile a hotel housekeeper, wonderful woman, Francis Garcia, an immigrant from Honduras. She, alone, is able — on her salary from the Culinary as a housekeeper, is able to raise three kids. She has a very nice apartment, you know, big-screen TV. Her kids are going to college. I mean, it shows that where there’s a strong, enlightened union that involves the people, that is willing to engage in strikes, to make sure the employers pay their fair share, that these jobs that are often low-wage elsewhere can be really good middle-class jobs with lots of respect.

Now, on politics — so, remember, in 2016, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all flipped from blue to red, those supposedly blue, all, states. Well, in Nevada, thanks largely to this amazing union, which really knows how to mobilize its members, Nevada has flipped from red to blue. And in the 2018 election, Nevada was the only state where an incumbent Republican senator lost his seat.

So, this is a union that, pardon my French, is really kicking ass. It’s really doing a very impressive job. And I devote a chapter to it because they’re doing so many things that other unions and other worker advocates should be doing. They’re involving their members. They’re mobilizing their members. They’re willing to confront the employer. They’re organizing. They do amazing organizing, organizing several thousand workers a year.

AMY GOODMAN: And in Nevada, Clinton beat Trump.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah. And the crazy thing is, Nevada is a right-to-work state. So, you know, often unions are very reluctant to organize in right-to-work states because that means workers can’t be required to pay union dues. So, the Culinary did such an amazing job helping its workers that over 95% of the people pay union dues, which is much higher than in most unions in right-to-work states.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve referenced the teacher strikes. And we cannot say enough about the significance of these in the last year. And then also the upcoming Chicago teachers’ strike. If you can refer to what’s happening here, this — Chicago appears to be heading for a strike, as the teachers’ union in the country’s third-largest district continues to negotiate after rejecting the district’s latest offer. Teachers have been pushing for better pay, smaller class sizes, among other demands. In addition to teachers, workers in SEIU Local 73 say thousands of special ed classroom assistants, bus aids, security officers, custodians could strike as early as October 17th, if the newly elected Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot continues in Rahm Emanuel’s pro-austerity path. The last Chicago teachers’ strike, seven years ago.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, the Chicago Teachers Union has also been one of the leading lights in labor. And the strike in 2012 against Rahm Emanuel and his austerity policies was really a signal event in modern labor history. And it kind of encouraged, years later, the strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, that I write about in the book. And, you know, I have an op-ed in today’s New York Times saying the teacher strikes and their success, in ways, emboldened the GM workers. They feel that labor has wind at their backs. They saw that the teachers’ strikes had huge public support, because the public is concerned about wage stagnation, income inequality. So I think the GM workers are tapping into that sentiment.

Now, in Chicago still, this very militant union, the Chicago Teachers Union, they’re unhappy with continued austerity policies. I mean, I wouldn’t love to be mayor of Chicago right now, because it does — it’s a city with a big budget squeeze, and they’re saying to the union, you know, “Sorry, we can’t spend as much as you like,” and the union is saying, “There are all these gazillionaires in Chicago. You could certainly tax them more to help improve their schools.” And it’s another unhappy tug-of-war. Let’s hope they reach a settlement without a strike.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering if you could comment, in the few moments we have, about the tensions that sometimes arise between labor’s direct interests for its members and the general societal issues. I’m talking about, for instance, SEIU for many years cozying up to Republicans and conservatives, who were governors or political leaders, as long as they supported card check for their members. And so you have this tension that sometimes arises between the need to service your members versus the general social goals of the labor movement.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, we’re in New York. So, the SEIU agreed not to oppose Republican Governor George Pataki so long as Pataki agreed to spend an extra billion to $2 billion for Medicaid and healthcare in New York. And that was good for the union members, but also very good for a lot of New Yorkers who need healthcare. Now, some people say that was a selfish deal. The SEIU says, “That was good for us, and that was good for New Yorkers at large.”

One of the really interesting developments now in labor is, I think a lot of unions realized, “Hey, we’re being perceived too often as narrow, self-interested, just fighting for ourselves.” And there’s really this fast-growing movement called Bargaining for the Common Good. And again, that was led by the Chicago Teachers Union. And then West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona teachers, then Los Angeles teachers, said, “We’re not fighting — yeah, we’ve had a wage freeze for two years or four years. And yes, we want a raise. But we’re not just fighting for that.” In West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, they saw that the Republican government was cutting taxes to the rich, cutting taxes on fracking, cutting taxes for corporations, while the education budgets were being starved, you know, and there were pay freezes for teachers and not enough money for textbooks, and class sizes were getting larger. And they said, you know, “We’re going on strike not just for us, but to help the community.”

And, you know, the strike this fall by the hotel workers at Marriott, they adopted a slogan that they knew — that they thought would resonate with the public, and it really did. They said, “One job should be enough.” I mean, it was crazy that all these workers were juggling two and three jobs, they were getting small raises, while rents in San Francisco and Boston were soaring.

So, unions are really — you know, unions see that they’re not as strong as they once were — and I explain this in detail — so they realize, “We have to reach out to community partners and environmental partners and immigrant groups. And, all together, we could achieve a lot more than we can alone.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with Steven Greenhouse, the longtime journalist who covered labor for The New York Times for decades. His new book is called Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.

Before we go to the record of the presidential candidates, what you’re looking at in the plans of these candidates, I just wanted to ask you about the title, Beaten Down, Worked Up, Steve.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, we were looking for different titles, and one was maybe The Struggle. We decided that wasn’t sexy enough. And so, I came up with this idea that, you know, American workers have been beaten down. Unions have often been beaten down. You know, they’re the Wobblies, the coal miners. You know, I write about female garment workers who go on strike early last century. They’re beaten up by the cops and by hired thugs. So, American workers have really been beaten down physically, and also their wages have been beaten down. Their benefits have gotten worse.

And at the same time, they get very worked up. You know, they’re the West Virginia teachers. They are proud, educated people. They felt really beaten down. They hadn’t had raises for years. And then they got very, very worked up. That began this huge wave of strikes. And it’s kind of the same thing —

AMY GOODMAN: Strikes across the country.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah, across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And then they made a deal with the governor, ironically, named Governor Justice?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes, the richest person in West Virginia, who triggered the strike by saying, “We’re just going to give you raises of 1% a year for five years,” while they were paying higher premiums every year for health insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get to the presidential candidates, but talk about the history of that wave of strikes. Give us the specifics of what happened in West Virginia, starting with the richest man —


AMY GOODMAN: — in West Virginia, Governor Justice.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, you know, I have a chapter on — in this book, on the Red for Ed teacher strikes. And I talk to Jay O’Neal and Emily Comer, English teacher, Spanish teacher, and how these two people, members of the DSA, really, with a focus —

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Socialists of America.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, Democratic — really triggered the strike. They were fed up about, you know, wages being fairly frozen. And they were even more fed up about, you know, the — there were so many tax cuts in West Virginia that there wasn’t enough money to fund the teachers’, the government employees’ health program, so every year the health premiums went up generally more than their raises.

And then the governor announced, “Well, I’m just going to give you a raise of 1% a year for five years,” which wouldn’t have even covered generally the healthcare premiums. And then the government health insurer announced that it was going to have this new app where if unless you walked like three, four miles a day, they were going to raise your — you know, raise your deductible by $500.

And, like, the teachers were just up in arms. And they founded this Facebook page. And it went from, you know, 10, 20, 100 workers to — once the governor gave the speech and these healthcare changes were announced, it went up to 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 people. And it’s amazing to see how a strike can really come out of a Facebook page.

But, you know, it wasn’t just all virtual. You know, they got the teacher leaders to have these meetings. And this was a strike — this was the first teacher strike, big teacher strike, since the Chicago strike. And they said, “One of the reasons it started in West Virginia was our state has this great legacy of union militancy, dating from the United Mine Workers.”

AMY GOODMAN: And so, it went from West Virginia to —

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: It went from West — so, in Oklahoma, a young teacher was watching TV and thought, you know, “Well, they could do it in West Virginia. You know, we should do it here in Oklahoma.” And he started a Facebook page, and it went from like zero to 300 miles an hour. Like, overnight, it got 20,000 people. You know —

AMY GOODMAN: Where school is just four days a week, so teachers could have second and third jobs?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: And in some — you know, I interviewed teachers with master’s degrees, who were making less than $40,000 a year, less than $50,000 a year, after 20 years on the job. They were — one guy was juggling three jobs, you know, a guy with a master’s degree.

Then, in Arizona, they saw what was happening in West Virginia, and they got on the phone with folks in West Virginia. One of the leaders, 23-year-old Noah Karvelis, he was making $32,000, $33,000 a year. You know, try to live on that. Another teacher I interviewed said that, you know, she hadn’t had a raise in 10 years. And so, like, these teachers are really feeling beaten down and worked up.

And the teacher strikes really sent a message throughout labor across America that unions can really fight, unions can really be inspiring, unions can really win. And in this book, I talk about the difficulties unions have, but I also explain that there are real opportunities and real hope for unions and labor.

AMY GOODMAN: On the UAW strike, in the first part of our interview, we talked about the significance of this first major nationwide strike in 12 years. But what about the history of the UAW? Explain the seminal moments in UAW history.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, in my book, I have chapters on two of the most important strikes in American history. You know, the Flint sit-down strike, which was against General Motors, 1936, ’37 — GM was then the nation’s largest company. It was ferociously anti-union. It had like 200 company spies. Whenever there was an effort to form a union local, its company spies would infiltrate. You know, it got the cops to beat up strikers and beat up protesters.

And the workers — you know, so this was after the National Labor Relations Act was passed under FDR. Workers were feeling a little more hope, a little more support. And they tried to figure out: How do we bring the most powerful company in the nation, maybe on Earth, to its knees to recognize a union? And they figured, “Let’s hold a sit-down in a key plant that made — you know, that stamped the bodies that GM needed to produce cars.” And for almost two months, they sat down, again, in the middle of winter, in Flint, Michigan. And they really shut down GM. And FDR and his great Labor Secretary Frances Perkins also placed real pressure on GM to recognize the union, that this strike was really hurting GM and hurting the whole nation’s economy.

AMY GOODMAN: I just was in Washington, D.C., and saw the Frances Perkins Department of Labor.


AMY GOODMAN: I wonder if President Trump will be changing the name of that building. But she was the first woman secretary of labor.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah. I have a chapter on Frances Perkins, who, to my mind, is maybe the most underrated person in American history. And Elizabeth Warren gave a big speech, you know, not far from here, in Washington Square, the other day, and a lot of it was about the great Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member, an amazing labor secretary. You know, thanks to her, we have Social Security and unemployment insurance and child labor laws and minimum wage and 40-hour workweek. And she did amazing —

AMY GOODMAN: And the one thing she didn’t get, that she continued to fight for, for her life —

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Universal health coverage, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — was Medicare for All.


AMY GOODMAN: So, you mentioned Elizabeth Warren, and thousands of people turned out for her major talk in Washington Square. She is vying with President Trump for sizes of crowds, like Bernie Sanders’ crowds of the past. Let’s talk about the presidential candidates and how you rate them when it comes to labor, Steven Greenhouse.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I moderated a presidential labor forum in Las Vegas, and I gave Elizabeth Warren and some of the other candidates copies of my book. So when she talked about Frances Perkins the other day at Washington Square, I wondered, “Did she crib from my chapter?” Maybe she did. That would be very flattering.

So, this campaign is very different from what Hillary Clinton was doing, you know, in 2016. And in my book, I discuss that I think one of the big reasons the Democrats lost in 2016 was that Hillary, while her written platform sounded very good on labor and workers, she didn’t really campaign much on it. And I think workers in the Midwest, you know, in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Pennsylvania, felt that. And she was perceived as like the candidate of the professional class, lawyers, Wall Street folks, Hollywood celebrities.

And Trump came in saying, “I’m the blue-collar guy. I’m going to shake things up. I realize the system is rigged against you.” I argue in my book that he’s rigged the system even more against workers and even more in favor of corporations and the wealthy.

So, the big — so, I think, you know, the candidates now — Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, you know, [Julián] Castro, Beto and Buttigieg — they all see that for the Democrats to win, it’s important to really speak to workers and speak to unions. And I think they also realize that one of the reasons the Democrats — a big reason the Democrats lost was that the unions in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan have shrunk greatly. As I explain in the book, you know, thanks to — as a result of Scott Walker’s war against labor unions in Wisconsin —

AMY GOODMAN: In Wisconsin.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: In Wisconsin — lost 43% of their members, 177,000 people. Trump’s winning margin —

AMY GOODMAN: And yet Walker then was voted out.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Walker was voted out. But Trump’s winning margin was 22,000. And the unions had lost 177,000 members. In Michigan, unions had lost 144,000; Trump won by 11,000. So, I think the candidates realize that for the good of the Democrats, it will help to rebuild unions. And they also see that the system is broken, that there’s huge income inequality, and they want to help workers. So, you know, Bernie has a great labor platform to make it easy to unionize. Elizabeth Warren has —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it means to have a great labor platform.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I mean, that — you know, so, he wants to make it easier to unionize, to have card check. So, as soon as a majority of workers at a workplace sign up, they could unionize, rather than go through a prolonged election where management can really bang workers over the head. He wants greater penalties against employers when they break the law to stop unions. He wants to drop our whole at-will employment system and replace it with a just cause system to create much —


STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, at will, you can be fired for any reason. If you show up to work and your boss doesn’t like the color of your shoelaces, you can get fired. You know, you can’t be fired for your age, for your sex, for your race. But, at will, you could be fired for anything. And if it’s a just cause system, you know, you can only be fired for just cause, you know, that you’re incompetent, you keep showing up late. And if you feel you were fired wrongly, then it can go to an arbitrator.

Elizabeth Warren has come out with a trade platform that some labor friends of mine say it’s far better than anything they’ve ever seen from a politician. And, you know, she says, “For far too long, America’s trade negotiators, Democratic and Republican, have really catered to corporate interests and really short-changed worker and environmental interests in trade negotiations.” And she has this very smart, elaborate policy saying we should — when we negotiate trade agreements, we should do it in a way that lifts standards and makes sure that, you know, standards for workers, for the environment and anti-corruption are lifted.

So, some surprises, like Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, have these amazing pro-labor platforms. And Buttigieg’s is like, I say, everyone should read. You wouldn’t expect that from Mayor Pete. But it’s really, really smart and well written, and really walks people through how workers in the U.S. are being shafted and what can be done about them. And, you know, Beto and Buttigieg have many of the same proposals that Bernie does about how to strengthen unions, you know, how to help gig workers, like Uber and Lyft drivers, to bring them more security, to increase their wages.

And, you know, Cory Booker has this good idea that whenever a company does a stock buyback, you know, we’re going to take a lot of the money that goes to stock buyback and instead distribute that in bonuses to the workers.

Kamala Harris has some — you know, has proposed raising wages, salaries for teachers by $13,500, on average. She and Pramila Jayapal have co-introduced the —

AMY GOODMAN: Pramila Jayapal, the congresswoman from Washington state.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, from Washington — a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, to have them covered by minimum wage and overtime laws, to set regulations on hours and improve conditions for them.

So, there’s a lot going on. And I didn’t mention some of the others, but, you know, they’re doing a lot of good things, too, for labor.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of Elizabeth Warren framing a lot of the issues as corruption as opposed to systemic?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: I mean, corruption, in my mind, is systemic. And you need to change the system. You know, so one of the big points I make in my book is that, you know, things are really tilted very badly against workers because of our campaign finance system is so broken, that in the 2016 election, corporations donated $3.4 billion, more than 16 times as much as the $213 [million] given by unions. Each year in Washington, corporate lobbyists — corporations spend almost $3 billion on lobbying, which is more than 60 times as much as unions do. So, it’s a broken system, but it’s also a corrupt system. It’s like people buy policy, I argue. You know, why, when corporate profits on the stock market were already at record levels, did Trump and the Republicans rush out to cut taxes for corporations? It’s like, you know, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what about the Obama years? Did worker power increase, or the opposite?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: It probably stayed around the same. There were great hopes that under Obama, that he would do a lot more to help workers. But every time, since FDR, that presidents have tried to enact laws to make it easy to unionize — you know, under LBJ, under Jimmy Carter, under Bill Clinton, and again under Barack Obama — Republican filibusters have blocked it. And it’s, you know, the fact that there are all these bright red, low-population states, you know, with two senators each, as much as California has, that makes it very hard, as you know better than I, Amy, to enact progressive legislation. Obama issued a lot of, you know, regulations, but regulations can only do so much. And then Trump has like moved very, very quickly to wipe out everything Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, under Obama, he instructed the Democratic Party not to get involved with the Wisconsin uprising. And, of course, the Wisconsin uprising was this — I mean, Wisconsin had never really seen anything like this, 150,000 people marching in and sleeping in on the Capitol, protesting the busting of unions by then-Governor Walker. But the Democratic Party, where was it?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, you know, I was in Wisconsin covering it. And, you know, at that point, Obama wasn’t that popular. His party had gotten whooped in the 2010 election. And he made the decision — maybe it was a wrong decision — that if I get involved in Wisconsin, it might make things worse for the unions and might make things worse for me. I think, in retrospect, seeing how Wisconsin played out very badly for the Democrats and unions, maybe it would have worked out better if he had gotten involved. And remember, you know, Obama did not like to fight. He was, you know, a brilliant guy, very honest guy, but he didn’t love to get into these big drag-down, knockout fights.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, finally, the assessment of labor under Trump and the power of labor? Well, we keep referring to it. Can you speak specifically about where it’s gone? What are the Trump policies that have so disempowered workers?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I’ve written several pieces saying that Donald Trump is even more anti-worker and anti-union than Ronald Reagan, which is saying a lot. And this is a guy — you know, Reagan didn’t run as “I’m the huge champion of blue-collar folks,” whereas Trump ran and said, you know, “I’m your best friend. I’m your champion.” He’s still — you know, yesterday, he was saying, “All these UAW members love me, and I’ve done great things for them.”

You know, so, I wrote this long article for The American Prospect laying out 30, 40 things he’s done that are anti-worker. He’s rolled back Obama’s — Obama extended overtime protection to millions more workers; Trump has scrapped that. Obama issued this very important rule to require Wall Street firms to act in workers’ best interest on their 401(k)s; you know, Trump has wiped out that rule. That could cost a lot of workers tens of thousands of dollars, you know, over the 30 or 40 years of investing before they retire.

AMY GOODMAN: And these are just changing Department of Labor rules.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Changing rules, yeah. So, he’s named as labor secretary Eugene Scalia, who was corporate America’s very top gun, top lawyer, in fighting any new worker protections.

AMY GOODMAN: The son of the Supreme Court justice.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The son of Antonin Scalia. And he’s reduced safety standards for oil and gas rig workers. And, you know, he’s, overturned an Obama rule — Obama was going to limit awarding federal contracts to companies that were repeat violators of minimum-wage laws, overtime laws, sexual harassment laws, racial discrimination laws. That went out the window. And just, you know, his Supreme Court nominees have been parts of some very, very anti-worker labor decisions. His NLRB is doing — you know, working superaggressively to try to make it harder to unionize. I mean, it’s across the board.

Yes, wages have gone up a little under Donald Trump, and therefore he says, “I’m a great pro-worker president.” Well, wages also went up under Barack Obama. Under Obama, unemployment fell from 10% peak to 4.7%, dropping 5.3 percentage points. Under the great Donald Trump, it’s fallen from 4.7% to 3.7%. So, he keeps saying, “I’ve done so much better than Obama.” No, it’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: What most surprised you? I mean, you’re a labor reporter for decades. What most surprised you in researching Beaten Down, Worked Up?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: In truth, well, two things: how great Frances Perkins was — I didn’t realize how amazing she was — and I wrote about the strike of the 20,000 female garment workers and how just courageous and heroic these women were. I mean, they just — you know, they were beaten up. They were sent to jail, you know, teenagers sent to prison just for picketing.

AMY GOODMAN: This would eventually lead to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the ILGWU?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah, and the 52-hour week and the recognition of unions.

And another thing that surprised me, the great Samuel Gompers. He could be very racist. And he was one of the main sponsors of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1881. He —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain who Samuel Gompers was.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Samuel Gompers, sorry, was the founder of — co-founder, first president of the American Federation of Labor, the main labor federation,

AMY GOODMAN: That would eventually go together with CIO.



STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There were a lot of Chinese workers coming and working on the railroad. And, you know, like today, a lot of American workers said, “Oh, there are too many immigrants. They’re dragging down standards.” And Gompers became very anti-immigrant, and he said some really racist, false, derogatory things about, you know, Chinese, Chinese workers. And sometimes he didn’t do enough to stop, you know, racial segregation in various unions. And that became a big fight.

Another, you know, thing I write about is how great of a labor leader A. Philip Randolph was, the African-American head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. I mean, there were some great — you know, Walter Reuther, Frances Perkins, you know, Clara Lemlich, head of the female garment workers’ strike. You know, there were some really great labor leaders, and we need more like them right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Steven Greenhouse, longtime journalist, covered labor for The New York Times for decades, has a new book out. It’s called Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.

Leave a comment