Greenhouse ’73, P’08 Lectures on the Past and Future of American Labor

Cynthia RockwellDecember 2, 20197min
alu_greenhouse_2019_023; by Simon Duan ’23
Greenhouse lectures in the COL library
Steven Greenhouse ’73, P’08 discussed his book, Beaten Down, Worked Up, in the College of Letters Library. (Photo by Simon Duan ’23)

Steven Greenhouse ’73, P’08, author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, spoke in the College of Letters Library  on October 29 to a group that included Professor of History Ron Schatz’s class on American Labor History on Oct. 29, in the College Of Letters Library. His topic was “White Collar, Blue Collar and Gig Workers: What is the Future of American Labor?” The lecture was sponsored by the History Department and the College of Letters.

Greenhouse is a former New York Times labor reporter, and a review by Zephyr Teachout of Greenhouse’s book appeared in the paper on Oct. 3. Teachout called Greenhouse’s book an “engrossing, character-driven, panoramic new book on the past and present of worker organizing.” Teachout wrote: “There’s an enormous upheaval in the American workplace right now, and those who tell you they know how the next decade will pan out—for good or ill—don’t know their history. That’s one of the main lessons of Beaten Down, Worked Up … ”

Speaking to those gathered in the COL library, Greenhouse provided some of that history, drawing parallels between a piecework laborer in New York City’s garment district in the late 1800s to 20-something freelance workers putting in long hours hunched over their computers at home in today’s gig economy. He notes that some Uber drivers used to make more money per hour until upper management halved their pay rate, making it nearly impossible to support one’s family, even working 60 hours a week. He observed that Kickstarter, supposedly a labor-friendly organization, fired three out of eight people who were on a unionization committee. He further noted that Amazon now employs often inexperienced independent contractors as delivery drivers who have been involved in a number of serious auto accidents.

the assembled students listen intently as Greenhouse lectures at the podium.
Greenhouse drew parallels between present working conditions for those in the gig industry and those in pre-unionized previous eras doing piecework. (Photo by Simon Duan ’23)

“The trends of today’s workplace are in many ways the trends of the past,” he told the group. “What do I mean by that? Many employers, certainly not all, but many, are struggling to figure out ways to cut costs, reduce benefits, and reduce any loyalty, responsibility, to the people who work for them.”

His solution: “I argue in my book that our campaign finance system has to be fixed.” He said campaign finance reform was needed because corporations and the very wealthy have undue influence over our politics and policymaking. “Whenever there’s a push to enact paid sick days or paid parental leave, corporate America says, we can’t do that, that’s going to hurt us. And then all these folks in Congress say, ‘Okay, we can’t do that.’” A citizen’s movement that results in campaign finance reform could reduce the huge influence that corporate America exerts on politicians, he says. Greenhouse said our political system would benefit from more citizen involvement and a stronger voice from organized labor.

Greenhouse ended his talk with a quotation from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:  “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. … The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”

Afterward, Greenhouse answered questions from the audience and did a book signing. Schatz observed that his students were concerned about what steps they could take to have a smooth entry into the labor market while avoiding the pitfalls of the gig economy. “I offered them a few tips,” said Schatz, “including this one: ‘Finish your degree.’” Additionally, Schatz spoke about numerous unions that give apprenticeship trainings to those who would enter the blue-collar workforce and also about the AFL-CIO teaching how to become a union organizer at different corporations, a concept that sparked some interest. Schatz is next considering the possibility of bringing in a speaker on that topic for his class.

Steven Greenhouse signs copies of his book.
Steven Greenhouse ’73, P’08 signed copies of his book for those who attended the lecture, “White Collar, Blue Collar and Gig Workers: What is the Future of American Labor?” (Photo by Simon Duan ’23)