Spotlight Exclusives

Demanding Dignity at Work: A Book Talk with Steven Greenhouse

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

Helping build economic opportunity for the American working class also means understanding the roots of the challenges they are facing. For labor reporter and former New York Times Journalist Steven Greenhouse the cause of many of the headwinds facing the middle class is a decline in worker power, and a reinvigorated labor movement should be part of any solution.

Greenhouse discussed his view, laid out in more length in his new book Beaten Down, Worked Up – The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, at the Aspen Institute this week. The book looks at past labor organizing and the lessons it has for today.

“Worker power in America has fallen to a dismal low, I submit to its lowest since WWII and probably since the Great Depression,” Greenhouse argued. And consequently, “Americans feel the system is deeply rigged” even if they can’t precisely perceive the causes.

Greenhouse noted that wages for workers are roughly equivalent to where they were in 1973 after adjusting for inflation. Further, he argued that worker pay has failed to keep pace with productivity growth while CEO pay has increased 940% since 1978 according to one study.

Greenhouse noted the disparity between workers who expressed approval of unions or interest in joining a union and the actual low rates of unionization in the U.S. “In no other industrial nation do corporations fight as hard to beat back labor unions,” he argues.

He argues for giving labor unions more opportunity to communicate with workers during unionization drives, finding ways to catalyze industrywide or sectoral bargaining to concentrate worker power, and reforming campaign finance laws to stop incentivizing politicians to prioritize business owners over the needs of labor. “Every American who cares about a fairer economy needs to focus far more on fixing our broken campaign finance system,” Greenhouse noted.

While acknowledging challenges, Greenhouse also sees recent signs for optimism including teacher strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia and a renewed focus on unionization among presidential candidates.

Spotlight will continue to track issues around workers’ right in the presidential campaign and other policy debates in the months ahead.

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