Steven Greenhouse, a former reporter for The New York Times, an advocate for worker’s rights and author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, gave a public lecture in Ives Hall Monday to discuss the future of labor in the United States. Students, professors, and faculty filled up all the seats in the lecture room, some even sitting on the stairs or forced to stand.
Greenhouse started his three-decade-long journalism career at The New York Times in 1983, covering labor and the workplace for 19 years. In this role, he traveled across the country, interviewing and covering injustices experienced by employees in different sectors of the labor force. Even after his retirement, Greenhouse still contributes the The New York Times as an op-ed contributor, such as his most recent piece on the General Motors strike.
In his talk, Greenhouse highlighted several key movements which have taken place recently, namely #RedforEd and the Fight for 15, as well as efforts made by the Culinary Workers Union, which have inspired change and subsequent strikes which exemplify the frustration of workers with current wages.
Fast food workers began the Fight for 15 in 2012 by walking off the job in NYC, demanding for a living minimum wage, rather than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
The #RedforEd movement was inspired by West Virginia educators who pushed for a better budget to help their students, teachers and communities.
Greenhouse argued that there has been a rise in strikes by laborers across various industries, spurred on by frustrations with the current system.
“There’s something brewing in the air where a lot of workers have grown impatient and are tired of being held back,” said Greenhouse.
Greenhouse pointed to the inequality and disparities between workers and corporations, as legal policies and decisions made by the federal government, such as the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case, that weaken the power of unions.
The Trump administration has also “taken away new protections to extend overtime pay to millions of workers” as well as protections set by the Obama administration to “act in the best interest of workers” with regards to their 401K, which Greenhouse said made it easier for people to be cheated by Wall Street firms.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, CEO pay has risen 940 percent since 1978, while pay for the average worker has increased 12%. This disparity in wages also demonstrates the disparity in income and wages in the world of labor of the United States.
“We suffer from anti-worker exceptionalism––and people don’t believe me when I say this––we are the only industrial nation of the 36 industrial nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development that doesn’t have laws guaranteeing all workers get paid parental leave and paid maternity leave even though we’re [one of] the world’s richest nations.”
In addition to these lack of rights, Greenhouse discussed instances of workers being fired after taking several days of sick leave to take care of their children.
“I have written several stories about workers who missed work for a day or two who take off work because their 8-year-old or 10-year-old got sick and they get fired for that and that, I submit, is crazy in the world’s richest nation,” said Greenhouse.
Greenhouse also mentioned how corporations have had a disproportionate hand in shaping labor policy.
“American corporations spend just under 3 billion dollars on lobbying in Washington which is 60 times as much as what unions spend,” Greenhouse said. According to Greenhouse, that is part of the reason why Congress has pushed for a $1.5 trillion tax cut for corporations as well as been inactive when it comes to raising the minimum wage.
The growing discontent helped propel Donald Trump to the White House, according to Greenhouse.
“I think one of the reasons Donald Trump won in 2016 was many people felt the system was rigged and [he] came along and said he was … going to fix it,” said Greenhouse.
He argued that even though Trump ran as a champion for workers, “he has rigged the system even more.”
His comments haven’t gone unnoticed, earning him criticism from President Trump.
“I don’t know about you, but it makes me so angry when the President of the United States calls me an enemy of the people,” said Greenhouse. “I write stories about workers who die in coal mines or construction … or workers who are cheated on minimum wage.”
Greenhouse pointed out how very similar rhetoric was utilized by Hitler and Stalin against marginalized people.
“Hitler used the phrase ‘enemy of the people’, Stalin used the phrase ‘enemy of the people’. I think it’s beyond awful for a demagogic president,” he said.
Despite such hurdles, approval ratings for unions has been reached the highest level in 50 years, at 64%, according to a Gallup poll.
“I feel there’s more excitement among younger workers,” said Greenhouse. With the rise in support for unions and shifting political views by the younger generation of workers, Greenhouse remains hopeful for the future of labor.