what i'm reading: beaten down, worked up: the past, present, and future of american labor

Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor
by Steven Greenhouse is exactly what the subtitle says: a history and analysis of the rise, decline, and re-emergence of the labour movement in the United States. Although the context is American, the lessons in the stories easily apply to Canada, and perhaps globally, to labour movements everywhere. 

Greenhouse covered labour issues for The New York Times for more than 30 years. It's obvious that the research for Beaten Down, Worked Up was vast and meticulous, but the book is never bogged down by too much detail. The writing is clear and accessible. Greenhouse is unapologetically pro-labour, but not a cheerleader for unions. 

I found the book easy to read and compelling, and I recommend it highly both to readers of nonfiction with an interest in history and to labour activists. It should be required reading for all workers who are union skeptics!

I really appreciated how this book was organized. Greenhouse walks readers through a story arc, and that story brings a profound understanding of what is at stake, and the potential for change. He demonstrates that when workers win, all of society benefits -- and when workers lose, society begins to crumble.

Part One: State of the Union

The first part of the book describes what happens when workers lose their collective voice, or when that voice is greatly diminished. 

The section ends with what must be American labour's best-kept secret: Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas, Nevada. This is the best illustration of what a strong, progressive, well-organized, and member-driven union can do for its members and for the companies they work for, that I've ever encountered.

Local 226 has transformed the lives of hotel room attendants, food servers, porters, bellmen, cooks, bartenders, laundry workers, and kitchen workers who work on the Las Vegas Strip. The members of Local 226 have transformed these jobs from poverty-level cesspools of exploitation, to well-paid employment with great benefits and a clear path to advancement. Union leadership comes from the rank-and-file, the majority of which are women, Latinx, and other people of colour,

I read the descriptions of Local 226 member benefits with my jaw dropping. Health insurance, including dental, is only the beginning. Members have the opportunity to take free courses to qualify for higher-paying jobs. This means, as Greenhouse writes, "A $35,000-a-year restaurant busser can train for a $60,000-a-year job as a waiter and then study to become a $90,000-a-year sommelier". The union has a homebuyers program for those who reach a certain income threshold can get $20,000 towards a downpayment -- which does not have to be repaid until the member sells the home. 

Greenhouse outlines how Local 226 became the model union, how it maintains its high standards, and how they use their political clout. It expanded my vision of what a union can be.

Part Two: Labor Raises Its Voice

Next, Greenhouse tells stories from labour history:

These stories are thrilling -- and inspirational. 

I already knew a fair bit about Clara Lemlich, but reading her story can never get old. A tiny woman, entirely self-educated, barely out of her teens when she started organizing, Lemlich began a movement that became a powerful, transformative force for an entire industry of workers. She is one of my greatest heroes.

Despite the many books written about the Flint sit-down strikes, I didn't know many of the details, and this story was no less thrilling. Many of us view the factory work that used to be common in the US and Canada as decent jobs -- well-paid, with fair treatment, benefits, paid vacations, even pensions. It was not always thus. These jobs became decent work because of unions -- because workers had the courage to unite and use their collective power.

If anyone doubts that unions have contributed to the greater good -- indeed, that they built a middle-class and made it flourish -- they should read about Walter Reuther (who also came from the rank-and-file) and the birth and life of the United Auto Workers.

Part Three: Hard Times for Labor

Part Three of Beaten Down, Worked Up charts the decline of organized labour in the United States, beginning, of course, with the disastrous job action by the Professional Association of Air Traffic Controllers -- the PATCO strike. 

I knew this as the birth of Reaganism and the beginning of the unraveling of the power of organized labour -- and with it, the public good -- in the US. However, I didn't know the details behind the strike -- the many missteps by workers and organizers, who were understandably incredibly angry, but who were untrained in bargaining and let their anger guide them, and the blatant duplicity of then-POTUS Ronald Reagan. It's a heartbreaking story, especially since we know the ending in advance.

In this section, Greenhouse looks at the many reasons labour's voice declined so precipitously: global trends; a new brand of capitalism that focuses relentlessly and solely on shareholder profit; top-down, business unionism and union corruption and discrimination; and the assault on the public sector by politicians like former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and right-wing mega-funders like the Koch Brothers. 

This part of the book was heartbreaking and frustrating but very informative. The only part I couldn't get into was the corresponding decline in unions' ability to influence politics. However, readers who do the important work of harnessing workers' political power may find this section instructive.

Part Four: Labor, Today and Tomorrow

The final section of Beaten Down, Worked Up looks at the re-emergence and resurgence of workers' collective voice happening right now -- and these stories are every bit as thrilling as those of Clara Lemlich and Walter Reuther.

In this section, Greenhouse profiles: 

  • Efforts to bring sanity and equity to the gig economy (which is even worse than I thought);
  • The Fight for 15 (which has had many significant wins); 
  • The Immokalee farm workers, "from Worst to Best";
  • The entire City of Los Angeles and how it became a labour-friendly town;
  • The ongoing #RedforEd public-school movement that began in 2018; and -- wait for it -- 
  • A stunning example of how labour and management can work together for the good of workers, the company, and their customers. I had to stop my eyes from rolling back in my head, but it does seem to be happening at Kaiser Permanente.

These stories are rich with lessons that all labour activists can learn from, and brainstorm about how various tactics and strategies might be adapted for their own context -- in both union and nonunion workplaces.

I used to get emails about the Immokalee farm workers, asking me to write companies such as Burger King, who bought tomatoes from these growers -- but I didn't know much of the story behind the movement. (Plus I finally learned how to pronounce it! Immokalee rhymes with broccoli.) 

Immokalee is the leading supplier of "winter tomatoes", all the tomatoes used by consumers and restaurants in the US during the winter months. Workers there lived in conditions barely above slavery, and, in some cases, actually were slaves. With an assist from two labour activists who took on the work as their own, the workers organized, transforming Immokalee to the best conditions of farmworkers in the country -- and a decent place to work.

Farmworkers in Florida are not legally allowed to organize, so this fight needed creative strategies, direct action, and -- like all labour fights -- persistence and tenacity. And they won, without the benefit of a union.

Workers in the City of Los Angeles have -- among many successes -- innovated the Community Benefits Agreement, in which developers agree to design new projects so they enrich not only themselves but the surrounding community, with local hiring, living wage provisions, and community investment. These are not empty promises -- they are legally binding agreements with built-in accountability and significant penalties for non-compliance.

Lessons and Workers' Voices

Many lessons are embedded in these stories, but the two most powerful ideas are also the simplest. 

One, different contexts call for different strategies. Depending on the industry, the workers, the employer, the workplace, the larger community, and the economic situation, different strategies will be needed in order to succeed. While there are certainly some basic principles that apply, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy or solution. In Immokalee, for example, classic farmworker organizing was unsuccessful. They didn't give up: they changed tactics.

And two, when workers win, we all win. Every one of these initiatives -- private sector or public, inside work or outside work, professional or manual labour -- reduces poverty, strengthens the economy, benefits families, and brings positive impacts to every part of the community. Labour activists are not fighting for a slightly larger piece of the pie. They are fighting for affordable housing, living wage laws for all workers (union and nonunion), better education, better healthcare.  

The most compelling stories in Beaten Down, Worked Up are about workers who stepped up and became workplace leaders. Some, like Clara Lemlich, had no role models, and learned only by intelligence, intuition, and raw courage. Others raised their voices to look for help, or were approached by organizers and leapt at the opportunity. Every single one of them -- hotel room cleaners, tomato pickers, grade-school teachers, airport luggage handlers, sanitation workers -- discovered their potential, and went on to lead hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands.

It's fitting, then, to close with some words about and from some newly-minted labour leaders. 

Shortly before closing time one Sunday, Terrence Wise was mopping the floor at his Burger King in Kansas City, when three fast-food workers entered the store and approached him. A worker wearing a Domino's shirt asked, "Do you think you deserve better pay?"

"Yes, of course," Wise recalls telling them.

"Do you think you deserve health benefits?" the workers asked.

"Yes," Wise responded, telling them he hadn't seen a dentist in 18 years.

"Do you think you deserve a vacation?"

"Yes," Wise said, noting he hadn't seen his mother in eight years.

That was the first time Wise heard of the Fight for $15, and within a week he was attending an FF15 meeting with a dozen other fast-food workers inside St. Mark's Lutheran Church. Little did Wise know that his joining the movement would take him to some surprising places.

Two months later, on July 29, 2013, the Fight for $15 staged its first strike in Kansas City, and Wise didn't show up for his jobs at Burger King and Pizza Hunt. He instead protested alongside 60 other workers outside a McDonald's downtown. That day he worried he might get fired, yet he felt empowered, liberated even. Before the Fight for $15 came along, he said, it never crossed his mind that fast-food workers could walk out "because they don't treat us right."

Wise so impressed the other Kansas City workers with how well he spoke that they designated him their spokesman for the media interviews. His early interest in the ministry had helped make him an eloquent speaker; when Wise gets going, he often speaks in the cadences of Martin Luther King Jr. Soon the Fight for $15 even had him doing interviews on national media. 

He told NPR's All Things Considered about being homeless despite holding two jobs. "We lost our home, and we were sleeping our minivan, me and my fiancee and my three little girls," he said, "We're in America, the richest nation on Earth, and here we have two working parents getting ready for work in the front seat of their minivan, while their three daughters are getting ready for school in the back."

On the radio show Democracy Now! Wise addressed the myth that fast-food workers are overwhelmingly teenagers trying to get extra spending money. "Where I work, in both my shops, there aren't high schoolers. There are people with families," he said. "We're raising families. We're doing hard work, and we deserve to get a living wage."

Every few months, the Fight for $15 held anther strike in Kansas City, with the biggest rally swelling to 2,000 people -- not just fast-food workers, but other low-wage workers and supporters from the faith, labor, African American, Latino, and LGBT communities. Wise and his fiancee, Myoshia, let their daughters miss school to join the protests. "It's been teaching the kids a lot," Myoshia said. "Stand up and fight -- it's stuff they don't teach in school."

Kansas City's fast-food workers elected Wise to be their representative on the Fight for $15's National Organizing Committee, which holds conference calls every two weeks, connecting fast-food leaders from sixty cities. He served as emcee at a Fight for $15 convention in Chicago that brought together 1,000 workers. He was even invited to speak to an NAACP convention in Las Vegas.

America's fast-food workers are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, and the Fight for $15 has tied its struggle to the civil rights movement and Dr. King's struggle for economic justice. It has even joined forces with the revived Poor People's Campaign, rekindled by the Reverend William Barber. "We've seen how the civil rights movement won civil rights," Wise said. "Those things weren't given to us. People faced hoses and beatings. Some people even died. We have to bring the same pressure for today's times and make these companies listen to us. We have to do whatever it takes to win."

Wise is proud that the Fight for $15 is multiracial. "We saw how some unions would exclude women and Hispanics and Blacks," he said. "We knew that wasn't the way. We knew we have to bring all workers together, whether you're black, white, Hispanic, Asian. We had to break all those barriers."

His brightest moment came when the White House organized its Summit on Worker Voice in October 2015. Not only was Wise invited to attend, but he was asked to introduce President Obama. With the president standing at his side, Wise told the White House audience that he was a second-generation fast-food worker and that "despite my working nearly two decades in this industry, I make just $8 an hour." The crowd burst into applause when his mother, JoAnn, was introduced -- the Fight for $15 had brought her to the conference, the first time Wise had seen her in a decade.

"I had a chance to tell Mr. Obama how there are times I struggle and I can barely feed my three daughters," Wise said. "It hurt me to tell him that."

In Wise's view, three ingredients have been critical to the Fight for $15's success. 

First, it encourages workers to tell the world their own, often powerful stories. 

Second, fast-food workers have organized other fast-food workers. "That's the single most important thing," Wise said. "We're the ones that make these companies filthy rich, and we're the ones that are supposed to have this conversation, talking to each other, getting people involved."

The last ingredient has been the movement's extraordinary success at mobilizing workers, getting them to strike and into the streets. That has gotten the attention of McDonald's, state legislatures, and millions of Americans.

"The one thing that works is boots on the ground," Wise said. "Marching and organizing will never grow old.

Here's another inspiring profile of a Fight For $15 leader.

The first time Adrian Alvarez heard of the Fight For $15 was at her mother's house. She often stopped there for food because she didn't earn enough to properly feed herself and her young son, Manny. Her mother told her, Quick, look at the TV, they're showing fast-food workers in New York.

"I thought it was crazy," Alvarez said. "I just kind of laughed." As for the campaign's demand for $15, her initial reaction was "We're not going to get $15. I thought it was too much. Maybe we can get 10 or 12. Honestly, I just thought it would die out," Alvarez said about the movement's progress. "I'd just join on for a little bit, and we'll see what happens. I had no idea the movement would become so big, so important."

Alvarez, the American-born daughter of immigrants from Mexico, grew up in Cicero, a popular and good enough student. Her mother worked in a nearby chicken-processing plant, and her father was a truck driver. After high school, she attended East-West University in Chicago to study forensics, but she dropped out after a year because she couldn't afford a second year of tuition. Alvarez and her son share a bedroom in a basement apartment, which is occupied as well by another single mother with a young son, because Alvarez, making $1,100 a month, on average, couldn't afford the apartment on her own.

Alvarez circulated a petition, asking their McDonald's franchisee to follow the laws, to treat them with respect, and to give workers full-time hours. They were all surprised when they received raises, from from $8.50 an hour to $9.15, and then to $9.75. Alvarez's involvement in FF15 grew along with the movement. At one event, the FF15 brought in a fast-food worker from Denmark.

"She said she makes in three days what we make in two weeks," Alvarez said. "We're doing the same kind of work. It just crushed me." [And of course, the Danish worker's health care is taken care of, too.]

Soon after Alvarez threw herself into the Fight for $15, her McDonald's greatly cut back her hours. The Fight for $15's lawyers filed a complaint with the NLRB, and the labor board's Chicago office warned her franchise owner that it was illegal to retaliate against Alvarez for engaging in pro-worker activities. Her hours were restored.

All the clamor pressured Chicago's business-friendly mayor, Rahm Emanuel, into embracing a $13 minimum wage, in part to help him survive a reelection challenge from the left. That step pressured Alvarez's McDonald's to lift her pay towards $13, even though she works in neighboring Cicero. "The paychecks are bigger now. I can do more with Manny. I can now afford to take him to movies or the Museum of Science and Industry."

Alvarez has become one of the Fight for $15's leading spokeswomen against sexual harassment on the job; 25 McDonald's workers have filed complaints with the EEOC about managers demanding sex and groping their breasts and buttocks. "The public doesn't know what we go through, behind the counters, in the bathrooms, in the janitors' closets," Alvarez said. "We're sick and tired of having to deal with this."

Alvarez was flattered when Fight for $15 strategists invited her to go to Argentina to be the movement's emissary at a day of fast-food strikes there -- part of an effort to make the movement global. Alvarez was a natural choice: she's bilingual, and warm and winning with people. She is also a poised (though she says nervous) speaker who thinks and speaks well on her feet. Of her visit to Buenos Aires, Alvarez said, "They were appalled when I told them that we didn't have any sick days. One worker said, 'But you're from the United States. How can that be?' I was ashamed. The fast-food workers have a union there. They get paid sick days. They get paid vacation. One of the unions has a little camp where they can go on vacation. I don't know what a vacation is. People have been at my McDonald's 10 or 15 years and have never taken a vacation.

"A lot of people get scared of protesting," Alvarez added. "I'm not scared. If you have this big union behind you, why would you be scared? I was more afraid of coming home and not being able to feed my child."

I'll close with words from Roxana Tynan, an organizer with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the pioneering Los Angeles workers group that is reshaping the entire labour landscape in that city -- and is being replicated in many other US cities. 

These are words every labour activist should already know. But truth never gets old.

[Tynan's] message for worker advocates and their progressive allies is that one can only build power from the bottom. "Our real message is that power gets built in place and gets built through long-standing coalitions and through leadership development," she said. "And it gets built through the day-to-day work of organizing folks through permanent institutions. There is no shortcut to that. Fancy-ass ideas like universal basic income are meaningless if there is no power to win anything."

Tynan has little patience for critics who dismiss LAANE as a bunch of out-of-control leftist seeking to tear down capitalism. "We have business support," she said. "Developers work with us. Not only do we not have horns, but we have a fundamentally pro-growth agenda. We just want to ensure that all boats are rising." . . .

"When all is said and done," says Tynan, "we have a pretty conservative vision: that people should earn enough money so they can take care of themselves and their families, live somewhere decent, and send their kids to schools that they like. This whole idea that raising wages is a left idea is kind of nutty. You can't make an economy work if people don't have money to spend."

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