From The New Yorker | State of the Unions
The following article originally appeared on The New Yorker.
Do you have rights at work? Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought you did. In 1936, while trying to haul America’s economy out of the bog that the free market had driven it into, Roosevelt argued that workers needed to have a say, declaring it unjust that
a small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives. For too many of us throughout the land, life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
For Roosevelt, a system in which bosses could unilaterally decide “the hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor” amounted to “dictatorship.” He hoped that the New Deal would bring workers and managers together in a new form of workplace governance.
New Dealers drew on an idea known as industrial democracy, developed, in the late nineteenth century, by English socialist thinkers who saw workplace rights as analogous to civil rights such as due process and the freedoms of speech and assembly. Senator Robert Wagner, who wrote the National Labor Relations Act of 1935—also known as the Wagner Act—made the point explicitly: “Democracy in industry means fair participation by those who work in the decisions vitally affecting their lives and livelihood.” In their efforts to civilize the workplace, however, Roosevelt and his allies didn’t set up a new institution for workers to speak through. They relied on an existing one: the union.
Whenever the rate of unionization in America has risen in the past hundred years, the top one per cent’s portion of the national income has tended to shrink. After Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act and other pro-union legislation, a generation of workers shared deeply in the nation’s prosperity. Real wages doubled in the two decades following the Second World War, and, by 1959, Vice-President Richard Nixon was able to boast to Nikita Khrushchev that “the United States comes closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society.”
America’s unions and workers haven’t been faring quite as well lately. Where labor is concerned, recent decades strongly resemble the run-up to the Great Depression. Both periods were marked by extreme concentrations of personal wealth and corporate power. In both, the value created by workers decoupled from the pay they received: during the nineteen-twenties, productivity grew forty-three per cent while wages stagnated; between 1973 and 2016, productivity grew six times faster than compensation. And unions were in decline: between 1920 and 1930, the proportion of union members in the labor force dropped from 12.2 per cent to 7.5 per cent, and, between 1954 and 2018, it fell from thirty-five per cent to 10.5 per cent. In “Beaten Down, Worked Up” (Knopf), a compact, pointed new account of unions in America, Steven Greenhouse, a longtime labor reporter for the Times, writes that “the share of national income going to business profits has climbed to its highest level since World War II, while workers’ share of income (employee compensation, including benefits) has slid to its lowest level since the 1940s.”
“Beaten Down” updates Greenhouse’s book “The Big Squeeze” (2008), in which he portrayed a “broad decline in the status and treatment of American workers,” with such details as fingers chopped off in a yogurt-container factory, stockers locked inside a Sam’s Club overnight, and a Walmart cashier who “menstruated on herself,” as a colleague put it, after being denied bathroom breaks. (The colleague was disciplined for buying the woman sanitary napkins and a washcloth on company time.) “Beaten Down” adds new outrages to the list, including the shuttering of the Web sites Gothamist and DNAinfo by their owner after staff writers unionized, but Greenhouse’s emphasis this time is on remedy rather than indictment. A General Motors employee recalls the union legacy she inherited from her great-grandfather, who participated in a strike at the company in 1936 and 1937 that helped launch the golden age of American labor. “Nobody realizes that all that we have is because of what was done before,” she says. The book is a kind of primer for the woman’s peers, explaining how “the eight-hour workday, employer-backed health coverage, paid vacations, paid sick days, safe workplaces” arose—and what the prospects are for keeping them.
One of the earliest heroes in Greenhouse’s book is a Ukrainian immigrant named Clara Lemlich, a dressmaker and a union organizer, who, in 1909, hopped onstage during a rally at Cooper Union to call, in Yiddish, for a strike against New York’s garment industry. Carried out mostly by women, the strike became known as the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand. At the time, there was little to stop bosses from dialling clocks back to steal time, or from charging employees for the water they drank, but the women won holidays, raises, a shorter workweek, and, at many factories, the recognition of their union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Among the holdouts was the Triangle Waist Company, which had a factory near Washington Square. In 1911, a bin of cotton scraps there caught fire, and a hundred and forty-six workers died, most of them women and almost half of them teen-agers, trapped because an exit door had been locked to prevent pilfering and unauthorized breaks.
One witness to the disaster was Frances Perkins, the head of the New York Consumers League, whose job involved lobbying against fire hazards, child labor, and overlong hours. “People who had their clothes afire would jump,” she later recalled. Outrage about the fire inspired a reform movement, and Perkins pushed New York legislators to institute a new fire code. By the time Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, in 1928, Perkins was chairing a board that oversaw industrial safety in the state. After the stock market crashed, in 1929, she urged Roosevelt to set up a public-works program, unemployment insurance, and a workers’-compensation program—and he did. When he rose to the White House, a few years later, Roosevelt invited her to be Secretary of Labor; Perkins was the first woman ever named to a Cabinet position. Before accepting, she warned him that she expected the same programs for the whole nation, plus a federal minimum wage, a shorter workday, and pensions.
Does Perkins belong in a history of unions? Greenhouse devotes most of a chapter to her, but she wasn’t a union person. Indeed, union leaders objected to her getting the country’s top labor post, and she herself admitted, “I’d much rather get a law than organize a union.” But perhaps the story of America’s unions can’t be told in isolation from larger stories of politics and governance. The General Motors strike in the thirties probably wouldn’t have prevailed if Roosevelt hadn’t been President, and it might not have even happened without the Wagner Act, which secured the right to unionize and barred employers from firing, blacklisting, or spying on workers who organized. When G.M.’s chairman reneged on a promise to negotiate with the strikers, Perkins was there to call him “a scoundrel and a skunk.” G.M.’s leaders couldn’t figure out how to quash the strike—violence, they worried, might imperil sales—and, to save face, they asked Perkins if Roosevelt could make a personal request that they meet with the workers.
Victory more than quadrupled the auto union’s membership and led to similar wins at Chrysler and Ford, setting a precedent for union contracts that established pay and benefit levels not only in the auto industry but across the manufacturing sector. By the postwar years, it seemed possible that America might realize a dream that Louis Brandeis had described in 1915, a year before he joined the Supreme Court: an industrial economy in which life meant “living not existing.” In the best of all possible worlds, Brandeis believed, every workday would be short enough, calm enough, and safe enough to preserve workers’ “freshness of mind,” allowing them to continue educating themselves throughout adulthood, as citizenship required.
Emily Guendelsberger gives a sense of just how far we are from that dream in “On the Clock” (Little, Brown), a jaunty but dispiriting memoir of her work at three low-rung jobs: at a call center, a McDonald’s, and an Amazon warehouse. At the call center, she finds that her fellow-workers, caught between unpredictable customers and eavesdropping managers, suffer panic attacks so often that the local paramedic asks “Okay, who is it this time?” when he gets out of the ambulance. Chronic stress also predominates during Guendelsberger’s stint at McDonald’s. There are always too many customers waiting in line, and she constantly fears that their impatience may at any moment tip over into rage. Eventually, she realizes that the staffing shortfall has been carefully calibrated: “Understaffing is the new staffing.” The resulting stress, Guendelsberger warns, thwarts “logic, patience, paying attention, resisting temptation, long-term thinking, remembering things, empathy”—in short, all the faculties necessary for responsible citizenship.
At Amazon, a handheld scanner tells Guendelsberger what to do at every moment and tracks her even into the rest room. A training video warns of the work’s physical demands—“This is going to hurt”—and she’s disconcerted that painkillers are dispensed for free. But soon, she writes, “I pop Advil like candy all day.” Her shifts last eleven and a half hours, and she gets home too drained to even think of writing or reading. One day, slumped in front of “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” she finds herself “laughing almost involuntarily” at the realization that “Scrooge literally has a better time-off policy than Amazon.”
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